President Obama’s reflections on religion and irreligion in public life, spoken this morning at a PRAYER BREAKFAST (!), is more than refreshing. To an audience who might be expected to be addressed differently, Obama spoke the truth. He made it clear that humanists and unbelievers, as well as those who belong to non-Christian religions, also sing America:
There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we’re going next – and some subscribe to no faith at all . . . We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Torah commands, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.
This cannot have gone over especially well with some—perhaps many—of those in attendance. And yes, you read that right, Obama quoted a Muslim hadith (perhaps a first for an American president).
But Obama didn’t stop there, reminding his audience that his grandparents were only nominally religious, and that his own parents were unbelievers, but that his mother nevertheless taught him love, empathy, and the Golden Rule. Obama, in other words, entered this room and set a tone completely different from previous administrations. And yes, Obama even used the word atheist to describe his father:
I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known. She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done.
This is one reason why I voted for this man. His honesty and directness is exceptional for a politician, especially on this issue, and it suggests that the subject means something to Obama. Indeed, the way that Obama talks about religion—without the usual lies, hypocricy, prevarications, or inanities—feels as if someone has opened the windows on a long closed—and dark and smoky—room, and let in air and sunlight.
The Economist has some thoughts on Obama’s prayer breakfast religious air-clearing here.