As did Franklin Roosevelt and most presidents since, Barack Obama took his seat alongside Michelle and the Biden’s in the first row of the National Cathedral for the Inaugural Prayer Service. Participating this year in what is now an interfaith event were religious leaders from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities. Kansas City’s Adam Hamilton, pastor of one of the nation’s largest religious congregations, delivered the sermon. Absent in the Cathedral was anyone representing the 20% of Americans who live without religion. As noted in previous posts, this group stands second only to Christians in the "religious landscape" and is larger than all other faiths combined.
Of course, those of who have left religion behind would have found no place in a religious service. Even were that not so, who would represent them? The people that researchers call "nones" and I call transcenders have in large measure left the organization called religion as much, and sometimes more so, as its belief system. There may be some attempts to organize and lead them, but for the most part transcenders consciously opt for living without an organized community. In some respects they reflect a wider disillusionment with institutions, both social and political.
But taking this independent and leaderless stance presents a conundrum for individuals living in what remains a highly organized society. Leaders give voice to people and communities of likes or the likeminded, especially when they are large are hard to ignore. The women's, civil rights and LGBT movements testify to that. Twenty percent is a huge number; about three times the population of our ten largest cities combined, six times larger than our tenth largest state, North Carolina, where I live. Even so, transcenders' interests and points of view go unrepresented. While that may be by design, it does leave them at somewhat of a disadvantage.
One of the most notable and heartening aspects of this year's inaugural (see earlier posts) was that President Obama accorded long overdue recognition to the gay community, perhaps most powerfully in coupling their struggle with that of women and African Americans. In what is the run up to an expected Supreme Court decision on marriage equality that mention was of special significance. What the president did not do this time around, however, was to give the nod he accorded four years earlier to "nonbelievers". "We are a nation", he said then, "of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers". At long last openly gay citizens are taking their place in the Halls of Congress and Christine Quinn may well be elected Mayor of New York in November. But being an avowed atheist or even an admitted unaffiliated transcender remains problematic in this "religious country".
Considering that 20% of us have left religion behind, it stands to reason that a substantial number of people in public life have done so as well. Among them are certainly women and men who are forced, if only to keep up appearances, attend religious worship services in their home districts, cities or states. It's a sham of political expediency. Whether they are being hypocritical or simply bowing to a pro-forma reality and out of respect for constituents makes little difference. I accept that they are victims of the system much in the same way as elected officials find it necessary to hold back on some of their inner most personal beliefs. I don't blame them, but do bemoan a state of affairs where the beliefs of transcenders are not accorded the same value and respect as those of the religious. Why do we demand that our presidents are churchgoers and that they openly profess their god-belief? Does it really matter or have anything to do with qualifications for the job or competence? I don't think so. To suggest that the religious are more moral and trustworthy than transcenders, for example, is factually incorrect. Convicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff boasted of his religiosity and President Bush told an audience that Enron's soon to be discredited Ken Lay was a man "whose guidebook for entrepreneurship to help others is the Bible”. Moreover, any such notion of inferiority or deficiency is demeaning to those who may live without religion but are guided by an equally powerful and defining moral compass as those who live with it.
There is no question but that the majority of Americans identify with a religion and Pew researchers say even a large number of "nones" claim to believe in God or some higher power. We all cherish the notion of equality and rights embodied in the "endowed by our Creator" phrase written into our founding documents. The incorporation and assumption of God into public speech is so ubiquitous that we have come to accept it without question. The President and other public officials invoke God's blessing on us; the legal tender we use to pay for goods and services offers the credential, "In God we trust".
This is not likely to change any time soon, nor am I suggesting it should. Invocations of God are meaningful to many Americans who ground their lives in religion. What I am suggesting is that as the numbers of those who have left religion behind grows — and consequentially religion declines — people in high places and we as citizens should give more thought to how we incorporate religious-speak into the fabric of a secular society.
Barney Frank could not have been elected to Congress had he "come out" while first running for the House in 1980. Tammy Baldwin who was elected to the Senate in 2012 did not have to hide who she was. Transcenders who want to win elections and serve in high office still must keep their orientation and beliefs to themselves. In large measure they have to remain in the closet. With a changing landscape and in the twenty-first century, there is clearly something wrong with that picture. Barack Obama went to the Cathedral to pray, some future chief executive may want skip or alter that event. Hopefully even Americans who don't share her beliefs will be respectful and generous enough to accept that change.
My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is now available in print and as an eBook. Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.