The Secular Coalition for America moved into spanking new K Street offices this week and the swagger – and implicit political heft – that such an address confers on the lone Washington lobby representing America's proudly godless couldn't come at a better time.
Back on Election Day, Barack Obama was a favorite of the religiously unaffiliated, winning an overwhelming 75 percent
of a bloc that is growing fast – from nine percent of the electorate in 2000 to 12 percent in 2008 – and one that figures to be crucial to Obama's chances in 2012, especially as his once-stratospheric approval numbers settle down toward mere mortal levels.
But since November, Obama has also shown himself to be the most biblically (and theologically) literate president in decades, and one who makes no effort to hide his light under a bushel. In fact, the current president invokes Jesus more regularly than his predecessor, George W. Bush – and of course he has to, given persistent rumors that Obama is a Muslim, or simply an unbeliever in Christian clothing.
Secularists could live with the God talk, if it were just talk. "While we'd rather not see so much religious rhetoric, it is the norm" for presidents, said Jesse Galef, spokesman for the Secular Coalition for America
. "That's not a battle we're looking to fight, going after him for invoking Jesus' name more than George Bush did."
More troubling for the coalition and its fellow unbelievers, however, are some of Obama's policy initiatives – such as his apparent tolerance for religious discrimination in hiring for faith-based programs, and his split-the-baby compromise on embryonic stem cell research – and several recent personnel moves.
Just Thursday, for example, the Senate Armed Services Committee began hearings on the nomination of Rep. John McHugh, a Republican from upstate New York, as Army secretary – a nomination meant to showcase Obama's bipartisan bona fides but which instead riled secularists upset at McHugh's congressional track record on church-state issues. In particular was McHugh's 2005 vote against an amendment aimed at curbing "coercive and abusive religious proselytizing" by Evangelical Christians of the sort that had been revealed by an investigation at the Air Force Academy.
The American Prospect columnist and religion critic, wrote that McHugh's record "shows a disrespect for church-state separation generally, as well as a disregard for the ongoing infringement of service members' constitutional rights from aggressive proselytization in the armed forces." And Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, told Posner that if confirmed, McHugh's nomination "almost ensures a continuation of the stranglehold of dominionist Evangelical Christians on our military. His voting record speaks with a litany of special privileges for the Christian agenda." (McHugh has said the article does "not merit a response.")
Sonia Sotomayor was not seen as quite the champion of church-state separation that secularists would like, but her nomination was followed by Obama's twin-bill nominations in July of Dr. Regina Benjamin, a practicing Roman Catholic who was awarded a papal medal, as surgeon general, and Francis S. Collins, an outspoken Evangelical and leading gene scientist, as director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins was an atheist but converted in his 20s, and in 2006 he wrote a best-selling book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief."
That was a red flag to secularists (Collins' support for stem cell research and evolution also drew opposition from some conservative Christians – strange bedfellows, indeed), who voiced concern about the nation's most prominent scientist also being a believing Christian. (In fact, a recent Pew survey
shows that about half of scientists report a religious affiliation and just over half say they believe in God or a "higher power." That's not like the numbers of the wider public, but not inconsiderable either.)
The most public critique came from Sam Harris, a prominent voice in the neo-atheist vanguard of best-selling authors and polemicists, whose July 26 op-ed
in The New York Times
said that "few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion."
"Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?" Harris asked. The atheist blogger at Examiner.com
, Paul Fidalgo, called Collins' nomination "one more public embrace of irrationality" by Obama.
How much this represents an incipient revolt among the unbelievers is hard to say.
"I have heard a dissatisfaction," said the Secular Coalition's Galef. "People are getting disillusioned waiting for more sweeping change."
Secularists say they're not asking for heaven here on earth, and they realize that much has improved. "This is a better administration than the one we had. It's not perfect; politics is never perfect." But Obama specifically mentioned non-believers in his Inaugural Address
, which was widely noted, and in his proclamation for the National Day of Prayer in May – an annual irritation to atheists – he at least referred obliquely to those with no belief, even if they wished he hadn't mentioned prayer at all.
And Obama's poll numbers remain much stronger with the unaffiliated than with regular churchgoers. But nonbelievers won't keep the faith forever. "We're glad he [Obama] is taking steps forward. But he could still do more to make us happier," Galef concluded. "Lip service is better than no service. But at a certain point we'll stop being happy with just the lip service."