Can Atheists be Pluralists?

President Obama's speech in Tucson lead to an interesting post by James Croft, a graduate student who is involved with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard.  Croft was ambivalent about the religious elements of the speech--
"I feel a similar ambivalence regarding the religious elements of Obama's beautiful speech. I am drawn-in by the poetry of his scriptural references, and I am powerfully moved by the image of a celestial Christina jumping in heavenly puddles. I can see that Obama's faith provides him with both courage and hope - essential qualities in a leader facing dark times - and I am challenged by the thought that much atheist writing provides neither. Yet I recognize, too, that I cannot join the ranks of Americans bending knee to pray while remaining true to my beliefs, to myself. I must express my shock and sadness in another way. I'm standing outside the church, my face pressed against the stained-glass windows, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold."
I like the fact that Croft feels, at worst, left out, and not incensed.  There was nothing to be incensed by.  The speech had the right elements to console those most in need of consolation. Period.

But now, what about standing outside "with face pressed against the stained-glass windows, longing for solidarity with those inside, but unable to cross the threshold"?  My reaction is--what's the problem?  Just go in.

I mean that quite literally.  Just go in.  Perhaps that's an impossibility for Croft  because he's a Christian atheist, not a Jewish atheist--and yes  (surprise, surprise) there really is a difference.  For Christians and former Christians, religion is all about belief.  There are creeds and confessions and things you've got to believe so you can have eternal life, and I suppose if you're not on board, you must feel like a terrible impostor.  For Jews, it's not like that.  Yes, strictly speaking there is stuff Jews believe. In fact, I have a book called What Jews Believe.  But Jews don't necessarily believe that stuff.  And they're not less Jewish for being non-believers.

In Jewish congregations it's very easy to find atheists, and agnostics, even among the high and mighty and influential.  I have known people who even converted to Judaism without believing in God--being in fact flat out atheists.  And they still participate, and still find it meaningful.  Kids can go through bar and bat mitzvahs (happily!) without believing. Their parents can stand up in front of the congregation, doing their part in the bar/bat mitzvah service, and say "I don't believe" -- I've seen it with my own eyes.  Even rabbis can be non-believers. It is OK--really OK--to be a non-believer and be part of a religious congregation.

But Christian atheists seem to not "get" this as an option.  Yes, there are aspects of Judaism that are distinctive.  But the essence of the thing is not. I don't see why you can't find the experience of being part of a church enriching, without believing in the basic tenets of the faith.  You might just like the sense of a refuge from everyday life, the aesthetics of the sanctuary, the feeling of harmony you get from singing and even from standing up and sitting down together (Jonathan Haidt talks about that in The Happiness Hypothesis), the focus on life, death, meaning, and values. If you pick the right church, there will be nothing ethically problematic about the messages, nothing hostile to science.  Nobody has to like this sort of thing, of course, but it's not foreclosed as an option for non-believers.

Croft sees it as foreclosed perhaps because he's troubled by a certain notion of pluralism.  As he explains, the pluralist writer Diana Eck thinks pluralism means putting God-the-sun at the center of the universe, and seeing other religions as planets orbiting around him/her/it.  Members of different religions all seek God, "through different trajectories and paths."  Croft says "there's no room for atheists in this solar system."  I suppose, to him, crossing the threshold would mean joining a God-centered solar system, revolving around a non-existent sun. It wouldn't make any sense.

But no--that's not how you have to think about entering a church or synagogue.  A believer might want to think about members of different religions, and even non-believers, as revolving around God, but obviously a skeptic won't buy into that image.   In fact, the image isn't even compulsory for believers.  Pluralism can be nothing but the notion that different religions (and non-religions) are wise in different ways.  They all have their insights.  This is something you can believe without taking any of the supernaturalism seriously.

Actually, that ought to be obvious.  There is wisdom and beauty in the Iliad and the Odyssey, even if there's no Zeus and Athena, and there never was a Trojan War, and some of the moral messages of the books are atrocious (like how Achilles and Agamemnon--heroes!--fight over who gets to rape (yes, rape) Briseis.  There is wisdom and beauty in the bible, and the Talmud, and the writings of later sages, and the same goes for religious traditions I'm not a part of.

Can religious folk accept a pluralism along those lines, instead of presuming that their God is the center of everyone's religious experience? They actually can. In fact, the rabbi at a friend's synagogue gave a sermon last night about what we can learn from members of other faiths, including from atheists.  There was no presumptuous stuff about how everyone else is really (without knowing it) revolving around our God. My son went, listened to this message, and I'm confident he got something positive out of it, even though he's adamantly a non-believer.

So: no need for standing out in the cold.  I believe there are (formerly) Christian atheists who see things the same way--perhaps gravitating toward the Unitarian church. There's really no need to stand out in the cold, if you're attracted to the this-worldly elements of religious experience.


Faust said...

Isn't it just possible that there are just deep cultural differences between Judaism and Christianity here? Or at least within certain cultural subgroups of those two primary cultural form?

Is the kind of acceptance you describe really available across ALL Jewish synagogues? Is it just as true of Orthodox Judaism as of the Reform Judaism? (I mean I have no idea here but I imagine there would be some difference).

But even assuming it is a feature that cuts across all Jewish communities, then certainly it is NOT something that cuts across all Christian communities. The range of attitudes among Christians towards non-believers are vast: some are very accepting, others are ready to start crusades.

And it is certainly the case that in this wide spread of Christian beliefs that there is a strong tendency towards evangelism and proselytizing. Sooner or later one is going to be engaged in The Question: do you or do you not believe that Christ is only begotten son of God or not? Again, not in all churches, but more often than not...

It may well be that the author here doesn't want to go inside because he's just plain tired of having that conversation.

Jean Kazez said...

I imagine there are some differences, but across the spectrum, there is plenty of atheism and agnosticism among Jews. Rebecca Goldstein talks about it as a phenomenon even among the orthodox in her novel "36 Arguments" (and also, as I recall, in an interview in TPM).

I think it would be a fine thing for Christians to evolve in the same direction and to become less "creedal"--as Unitarians (who aren't really Christians) are. But yes, if going inside means being asked "The Question," that would certainly be off-putting.

Faust said...

You know, thinking about this a bit more, some of it has to do with what you have to do to be "Jewish." One of my best friends is Jewish, but he is decidedly secular. His brother on the other hand, pretty much converted to Orthodox Judaism and moved to Israel. So they are both "Jewish" but this means very different things to both of them. Is it even possible for a similar dynamic to obtain for Christians?

I, for example, was raised Catholic (lightweight German Catholicism). But I rejected that when I was 13. But here's the thing. When I rejected my beliefs I stopped being Catholic. That was IT. Unlike my friend who was a secular Jew, I did not become a "secular Catholic."

There are few corresponding mechanisms in Christianity that permit cultural identification once one has rejected a particular creed of Christianity, and that's particularly so if one is an avowed atheist. Unitarianism is indeed an exception, but they are basically secularists in my experience.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Just a question about a comment you made at the beginning: "There was nothing to be incensed by [in Obama's speech]." What about at the beginning when he claimed that Americans all kneeled in prayer? That seems like a blatant misrepresentation of the American population, and could naturally be interpreted as suggesting that atheists (or those who don't pray) are not American.

I haven't watched the whole speech, but that seems grounds for legitimate concern.

Aeolus said...

I've never thought of the possibility of a "Christian atheist". "Jewish atheist" makes sense because Judaism implies a cultural community/tradition in a way that Christianity does not. Perhaps that's because Christianity is foundational to Western civilization: it's part of the heritage of all of us, regardless of personal religious views. It's like the air we breathe: it's all around and in us and most of the time we barely notice our own relation to it. As a result, communities within Western society that are specifically labelled Christian (Christian sects and churches) are almost inevitably specifically focused on religious belief.

Perhaps (?) a parallel is the all-pervasive political, linguistic, and cultural British heritage of the United States and Canada. An American of Ukrainian background might enjoy attending functions at the Ukrainian cultural centre, but an American whose ancestors were British would likely find it nonsensical to celebrate the Queen's birthday, unless that person is an American who is in favour of restoring the monarchy to the U.S.

By contrast, most Canadians, whatever their feelings about the monarchy, enjoy Victoria Day functions. And Victoria Day is the statutory holiday when we celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria! (Not even the Brits do that.) Celebrating Queen Victoria's birthday is part of being Canadian -- unless you live in Quebec, in which case, also for cultural reasons, you are likely to celebrate Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, even if you're an atheist.

Jean Kazez said...

I've actually heard people call themselves Christian Atheists--I don't really think it's such a crazy idea. But whatever the oddity of the phrase, the experience could make perfectly good sense--especially for someone like James Croft who says it's cold outside. I think he could have an experience in a church very much like what I have in a synagogue, if he (and others in churches) were just willing to relaaaaaax. There's lots of nice stuff in a church and it doesn't have to be reserved for people with specific other-worldly beliefs.

Jason--I think your reading is way too literal. He surely wasn't saying that (literally) all Americans are on bended knee, so that if you're not on bended knee, you're not an American. I found it easy to "get" the message that we are all together, that we all feel humbled (that's what bended knee is all about)--we don't know what to say, we can't explain this, we don't know how to help. It's that kind of emotion he was trying to evoke. The religious image wasn't designed to exclude but to comfort--I think that was obvious, so I wasn't incensed.

amos said...


Many years ago I spent a month living with Hassidic Jews from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. No, I wasn't converted. I merely needed a place to stay, and they were generous enough to let me sleep in the basement of their syngagogue-cultural center in exchange for some chores and participating in their daily rite.

I made it clear to them from day one that I was not a believer, and they made absolutely no attempt to proselytze me about religion, although they did argue in favor of a middle-class life style, I being a bit of a hippie drop-out at the time.

The only Jewish issue that mattered to them was my participation in their daily rite, even though I could not understand the Hebrew prayers and in any case, was half-asleep at the hour that they woke up every morning to pray.

In that sense, the Jews, even the most Orthodox, are very different than the Christians.

The Jews do not proselytze and do accept another as fellow Jew, even though he or she may not share their doctrinal beliefs or dogma.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I don't think I'm being too literal. The quote is "I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today." Perhaps that was not designed to exclude, as you say. But it does exclude, and it seems very inappropriate and irresponsible. Obama was giving a sermon--he led it off with a reference to scripture and closed it with a prayer. That stuff may have been what the victims' families wanted, but then he should've just kept it between him and them.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, Much of communication involves grasping what a person intends to convey, not what sentences literally mean. I don't think you're getting the intended message right.

The message and the religious medium weren't just what the families wanted, but what almost everyone wanted. This was probably the most widely praised moment in Obama's entire presidency. I don't think a president needs to talk in a "common denominator" language just to avoid causing offense to a few people, rather than in an uplifting language that helps far more people. The offense was very minor (if any--most atheist I've talked to didn't feel offended at all). The need for uplift was enormous.

This is not the same thing as requiring religion talk in schools, or some such. You were perfectly free to turn off the TV (and apparently did).

Jason Streitfeld said...

I strongly disagree. Of course, literal meaning is not the most important thing to consider when interpreting a communication. But when we evaluate the appropriateness of a communication, we don't just look at the intended message. We look at the language, and whether or not that was the most appropriate or responsible way to convey the intended message.

By the way, I live in Poland. I watched it on YouTube (and I didn't feel compelled to turn it off, but I think that's beside the point).

Jean Kazez said...

You said you didn't watch the whole speech....that's where I got the idea you turned it off. I think you have to assume a rather narrow idea of what the message was to support the idea that it wasn't "appropriate" and "responsible."

Jason Streitfeld said...

I had to pause it to attend to other things, during which time I posted my initial comment. I then went back to it, though I didn't watch the whole thing. I didn't have time, but later decided to skim the transcript. Anyway, I was offended and disturbed by Obama's language, and suggesting that I could have just turned off the tv misses the point. It's not that I object to being exposed to that sort of language. I object to the President utilizing that sort of language when fulfilling Presidential duties.

Furthermore, my problem isn't with Obama's message so much as with the language he used to convey it. Though we could debate the full content of his message. In addition to all of the points you made about what Obama intended to say, we might also suppose that he intended to suggest that religious images and ideas are appropriate in a Presidential speech, and that the language of "kneeling in prayer" accurately represents the sentiments of the secular community. I think Obama probably intended to suggest that the scripture is a suitable spiritual guide for America. Perhaps Obama intended a lot of other things, as well. I wasn't speculating about that so much. My problem is with the language. The language was inappropriate, even if his intended message was not.

I don't think I'm requiring a narrow view of Obama's message. I'm just requiring that we pay attention to what he said, and not just what he might have meant.

Jean Kazez said...

Obama has made very clear on other occasions that he knows there are atheists in America (he wrote about his mother being one in his memoir, he mentioned non-believers in his inauguration speech) and that he accepts and respects that. On this occasion, I think consoling took precedence. That is part of the president's job, as we understand it in this country. Obama was invited to the event to console. He consoled in a way that matched his own beliefs and met the needs of the bereaved and most of the public. In the process, he didn't violate the constitution or any laws or the trust of the majority who elected him. So there are just no grounds for complaint that I can see. You can find the religious talk distasteful and alarming (I do understand that), but I don't think you can say he was wrong to use it.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Yes, alarming, but also inappropriate. Not necessarily unconstitutional, though a case could be made that Obama is pushing the first amendment a bit here. By the way, I was not aware that the US President's job description included consoling the populace. Not that he shouldn't be allowed to do it, but I'm suspicious of your claim that it's part of his job. Also, I never suggested that he was unaware of the presence of atheists, and I'm aware that his mother was one. I've also suspected he was one, too, at least until he join that church in Chicago. But that is all beside the point.

Jean Kazez said...

Of course it's not literally in Obama's "job description" to console, but that's definitely something people want from a president. They wanted if from Bush after 9/11, they wanted it from Obama in Tucson. His approval ratings are so high right now because people got what they wanted.

You keep saying "inappropriate" but you still haven't produced an argument. I think his previous statements about/to atheists are relevant, because they provide the context within which atheists ought to have interpreted the speech.

amos said...

Obama's reelection campaign has begun. His speech has to be seen in that context. He's a politician, not a philosopher.

(I hope that he wins).

Jean Kazez said...

Now I have two views of the speech to reject--(1) it shouldn't have contained religious elements, in deference to atheists (2% of the US!), and (2) it contained religious elements because Obama was trying to be elected.

The first view has no constitutional support, and frankly seems tasteless. No, atheists weren't the victims here! The second view is absurdly cynical.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I thought my argument was evident. The President of The United States should not identify "all Americans" as kneeling in prayer, should not quote scripture, and should not engage in prayer when acting in a professional capacity. That is what a strong separation of church and state entails, in my mind. That is what I want from my President, and Obama let me down. (I wouldn't say George W. Bush let me down, because I didn't expect more from him.) The fact that lots of people approve is really beside the point. I know the majority of Americans approve, and I think that is plausibly why Obama did it. He did it for ratings, because he's up for reelection in not so long. That doesn't make me feel any better about it.

Of course you can disagree. I know the majority of Americans disagree with me. We just have different ideas about what is appropriate for our President.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Not in deference to atheists, but out of respect for secularism.

As for the other view being cynical, I grant that, and I'm not set on it. It's just a possibility I wouldn't reject out of hand. I don't think it's absurd or unreasonable.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, I'm serious about secularism too. If this were a question of a principal giving a religious speech in a public school, I'd be with you 100%. I think the rules are different, though, at a public event that's not compulsory for anyone.

Would you really have wanted Obama to console the parents of the dead girl less (and the other survivors), in order to maintain a sharper line between "church and state"? I think that's what this comes down to.

amos said...

Seeing Obama's speech in the context of a reelection campaign isn't cynical: it's realistic.

Obama needs to win votes, not from atheists or progressives (and most atheists are probably progressive), but from the center, who are church-goers or at least not anti-religious. In order to win re-election,
Obama needs to convince people that he is 100% normal, that is, God-fearing.

Remember that Obama once cited Nietzsche and Sartre as his two favorite philosophers, both of them atheists. He may well be a closet atheist for all we know.

Really, in a moment in which proto-fascist candidates (Palin, etc.) appear, it does not seem cynical, only prudent, for the one possible progressive winner, Obama, to pay lip-service to God.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Yes, I would. First of all, I don't think you need religious language to console people, even if those people are religious. I don't see why secular language can't do the same job as religious language when it comes to express grief and heartfelt sympathy. Furthermore, if the President wanted to console the families in a religious way, he could have done that in private. I don't know why it should make a difference that the memorial service wasn't compulsory for the American population. Televised Presidential addresses are not compulsory viewing. Do you think the same rules for the memorial service apply to Presidential addresses?

By the way, the percentage of atheists in America is higher than 2 percent. Pew has it at 5 percent, but if you look at polls where "no religion" is an option, the percentage is well into the teens. A significant portion of America does not follow any religion, even if most of those do not self-identify as atheist.

amos, can't it be both cynical and realistic?

amos said...


That really depends on how you're using the word "cynical". I sometimes get confused about "cynical" because I speak Spanish and the meaning of "cynical" in Spanish is fairly close to that of the word in English, but with more negative connotations.

My dictionary defines "cynic" as
"one who expects, believes the worst about people, their motives or the outcome of events".

That's not a good description of Obama as I see him nor does it describe my political motives.

Obama has a tough job, and I would prefer a president or leader who is very careful about what he says rather than one who says what is on his mind or who reveals his most intimate opinions.

Being frank is a luxury that you and I have, but Obama doesn't.

Jason Streitfeld said...

amos, when it comes to politics, I'm guilty as charged, and Obama is no exception. And I think he should be frank, though not without tact.

amos said...

From reading his book, Dreams from My Father, I get the impression that Obama is not only very intelligent, but also quite radical.

He's not a traditionalist nor is he a conventional person.

Thus, if he were frank, he would say all kinds of thinks which would not go down well with
Mr. and Mrs. Normal. Remember his comment during the campaign about people in small towns compensating for how hard their lives are with their guns and religion? (Obviously, not an exact quote). Remember how he could not bring himself to swallow all that horrible food (french fries, etc.) that candidates are supposed to eat with glee?

So Obama has to watch out doubly about saying something which will freak the voters out, since, as I see it, his natural tendency, if left alone, is to say non-conventional things.

Clinton, unlike Obama, is quite a conventional person.

amos said...


Our differing impressions of Obama probably prove that Obama was right when he said that he is a mirror in which people see themselves reflected.

Quite an astute man, Mr. Obama!

Jean Kazez said...

"Our differing impressions of Obama probably prove that Obama was right when he said that he is a mirror in which people see themselves reflected."

Nah. I think my impression is based on the facts about the speech, his demeanor, how he wrote it, what he did before and after, etc. etc. etc. There's just no evidence at all that the religious elements were just there to impress the electorate. I can't imagine anyone watching the speech (did you watch?) and getting that impression.

It's another question entirely how he came to religion 20 years ago, and whether there was initially a political element to that. But that's not the issue here.

But let's not have a sprawling discussion of that. The post really wasn't about Obama's speech, much less about how religious he really is.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Sorry to keep the track off the main line of your post, but I have to be clear about one more point.

Jean, your argument seems to be that the majority of US citizens expect the President to console them in times of national distress, that doing so is part of the President's responsibilities, and that secular language cannot do the job equally well. Therefore, the US President should, in times of national distress, use religious language to console the populace.

It follows that a President who was unable to convincingly use religious language would not be as qualified as one who could, all else being equal.

I don't think I need to explain why I reject that conclusion, and why I cannot accept your argument.

amos said...


There is a huge space between Nixon's Checkers Speech (a masterpiece of pure cynicism, so cynical that it's hilarously funny, recommended watching in YouTube) and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, the Ethic of Conviction in its finest moment.

Unfortunately, we don't have the language to describe that space and we tend to see a politicians' discourse as either cynical or as expressing complete (and full-time) conviction.

I sense that there are several Obamas, and that Obama presents different facets of himself to the public, depending on the circumstances. That is not cynicism.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, I wasn't calling Obama cynical, I was calling you cynical for supposing he added religious talk to his speech for political reasons. Why say that, unless you have specific evidence about the speech, how he delivered it, how he wrote it, what he did before and after, etc?

Jason, I didn't say Obama "should" have used religious language. I was merely rejecting the claim that he shouldn't have.

I think people who can't "do" God/afterlife talk do have a harder time talking in comforting terms after a death--especially after the death of a child. So yes, a president who didn't talk that way would have less ability to comfort in this kind of a situation. I don't see that as a reason for presidents who can talk that way not to. That would be like saying presidents who are great poets or skilled in physics shouldn't use those abilities, because the non-poets and non-physicists are put at a disadvantage.

Gotta run...

amos said...

Actually, you called me "cynical" for attributing what might be considered to be "cynical" motives to Obama, calculating how his speech might affect his reelection possibilities.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Jean, it sounds like you might be willing to agree that Obama's job does not entail consoling the populace, because if it did, then whoever could do that better would presumably be better qualified to be President (all else being equal.) I think that, if Obama is going to step outside of his official duties like this, he should still retain the language and demeanor of President, and that means not employing religious language, and not identifying the nation as a religious nation.

But this raises another question: Was Obama speaking to the US as its President? If he were acting as President, we would be able to say whether or not he should have used religious language, right? I think that any official act of the President can be judged as appropriate or inappropriate, and I think I've put forward a reasonable criteria of making such judgments. So, if you want to deny the very possibility of making such a judgment about Obama's language, it would seem that you just don't want to regard this speech as a Presidential act. Am I right about that? If so, then our disagreement is simply this: I see the speech as an official act of the US President, and I judge it accordingly.

Jean Kazez said...

I think Obama was speaking in his capacity as president...

Yes, when he engages in religious talk at an event like this, that makes it harder for non-religious candidates to compete. But I don't think that makes it wrong for him to do it. Obama is also at an advantage in other ways. He's into sports, like most Americans. He eats meat, like most Americans. If he laces his speeches with sports talk and bonds with Americans over barbecue, that makes life harder for sports-hating vegan candidates. I'm not going to therefore say Obama's got to stay away from sports talk and barbecues!

I would object to religious content in any context where the first amendment was violated, and I would also object to a policy address laced with religious talk. We can't have a president tell us to choose policy X because God wants it...etc. etc.

But in this case, as much as I understand why the speech is grating for some people, I don't think I can see any basis for complaining about it. Sometimes things are just grating (I hate the barbecues and the sports talk), but nobody's actually done anything wrong.

Jason Streitfeld said...

If we had a constitutional separation of sports and state, or carnivorism and state, then I would agree that the President should not, when acting as President, promote sports or meat-eating.

Jean Kazez said...

I was responding to your argument, which was that atheist political candidates are weakened when religion-talk starts to be seen as a qualification for office. Taking that point on its own, my meat/sports argument seems perfectly relevant.

Now you're adding "separation of church and state" as some sort of back up, but I don't see how it backs up your point. The first amendment just does not stop candidates from engaging in religion talk, any more than it stops them from talking about sports and meat.

Jason Streitfeld said...

It's not just talking about religion. Obama was promoting it.

The relevant portion of the first amendment bans congress from enacting laws which respect an establishment of religion. Technically, it doesn't say the President cannot promote religion. However, a stronger reading of the first amendment is possible and, indeed, I think the courts generally take a stronger stand here. It's not just about congressional acts. The first amendment extends to all branches and levels of government. It follows that Obama should not use his office to promote religion.

And I do think that, by allowing the President to promote religion in this way, we are allowing religion to enter politics. One way this can happen--though obviously not the only way--is by making it more difficult for non-religious politicians to enter office. This is not comparable to making it difficult for vegetarian politicians, because we have no clear separation of carnivorism and state. Our constitution clearly does not prohibit the use of government offices to promote meat-eating, or the use of government offices to inhibit vegetarianism. It does not prohibt the use of government offices to limit the opportunities of non-carnivorous politicians. However, I think it does prohibit the use of government offices to limit political opportunities based on religious discrimination. Of course, some parts of the populace are going to vote for religious candidates, and there is nothing wrong with politicians campaigning with religious messages. They're campaigning, they're not in office. But once they're in office, and acting in an official capacity, I think the promotion of religions should stop. Vegetarianism is optional.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think Obama was promoting religion--I think that's a tendentious way of describing what he was doing. He was expressing his own beliefs in a way that he thought would be helpful to mourners. As I said way up, it would be a different matter if a school principle gave a speech like this--that really would be "establishment" of a state religion. But nobody had to go to this memorial service, nobody had to listen. In an optional event of this kind, I think "free exercise" is the more relevant part of the first amendment.

Jason Streitfeld said...

It seems obvious to me that Obama was promoting religion. I don't know what he could have done that would be more obviously a case of promoting religion, other than explicitly saying, "you all should go to church." Suggesting that prayer was appropriate, appealing to the Bible, and explicitly closing with a prayer: those are all explicitly pro-religion, and they show a very heavy leaning towards monotheistic religions.

I agree it would have been worse if it was an obligatory event, but I don't think the voluntary nature of the proceedings makes it permissible.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think it's remotely true that he was telling non-believers that they should find God or go to church. That's what "promoting" would mean, and I don't see that in the speech, even reading between the lines. We have a long standing tradition of religious tolerance in this country, so we understand that when Jews get up and discuss rabinical wisdom, they're really not telling their audience they should become Jews. Likewise, a Christian speaker isn't telling the Jews to become Christians. Nor is a religious speaker telling the atheists to become religious. I think everyone really understands this--it's shared background knowledge.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I don't think "promoting religion" necessarily means telling non-religious people to be religious. Promoting Christianity does not mean telling Jews and atheists to convert. It just means supporting and furthering Christianity. Obama was supporting and furthering religion.