Presidential References to Non-Believers

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I pointed out over a month ago that Bush's views on religion have often been misrepresented, usually out of ignorant assumptions about what he must hold given the ongoing narrative they've been using in opposition to him. The responses to a reference in President Obama's inaugural address [registration or BugMeNot required] to non-believers in apposition to members of various religions seems to me to be another instance of this same phenomenon, but this time it's heightened by messanic expectations about Obama. Here is the line in Obama's speech:

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.

This may well be the first reference from a U.S. President in an inaugural address that treats non-believers this way, but it's certainly not the first time a U.S. President has made such a comment. See the comments here for some typical examples of those who assume without much examination of any evidence that Obama must be the first who has. There are even some pretty bold claims that assume George W. Bush would never have done such a thing.

The first commenter calls it "a great step forward" and "a move -- albeit a small one -- in the right direction". Another says, "I think this may be the first time for Obama, let alone any other U.S. president." Another ends his comment, "To me, Obama's mention of us was both startling -- and wonderful." As the thread continues, we see a move to recognizing that this kind of comment is actually not new for Obama. Only two days into the discussion does someone point out that Bush did indeed make a comment like this (although it's called "a very surprising quote"), which is promptly followed by several other instances:

they can choose any religion they want. Or they can choose no religion. You see, you're just as big a patriot -- as good a patriot as the next fellow if you choose not to worship. It's your choice to make
We stand for freedom. We stand for people to worship freely. One of the great things about America is, you're equally American if you're a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, an agnostic or an atheist
In our country, we recognize our fellow citizens are free to profess any faith they choose, or no faith at all. You're equally American if you're a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim. You're equally American if you choose not to have faith

I would find the back-pedaling that follows pretty humorous as commenters try to cover their embarrassment by excusing their ignorance with references to how surprising it is for Bush to say such a thing, except that it's only surprising if you're as ignorant about Bush's views on religion and civic life as these commenters seem to be. He's always been like this, despite the attempts of those who don't pay any attention the actual Bush. It's much more convenient to think of him according to a stereotype, because it's much harder to portray him as a fundamentalist and a theonomist if you have to do something like fit the actual man, who isn't all that close to either, to their preconceptions of him.

The comment that I think should be most embarrassing, though, is the second-to-last: "And as some have mentioned elsewhere in this vein, it's probable that the former president was merely anticipating the the current president." This is supposed to diminish the realization that Bush seems to have been the first to do this. So when it's finally clear that Obama can't be shown to be the first to include atheists and agnostics and that it's the hated George W. Bush who seems to have that honor, the only option left is that Bush can have said such things only in anticipation of Obama.

I'm pretty sure this is the first time Obama Messianism has come out in a way that makes Bush into Obama's John the Baptist. It's quite a strange notion, but I'm not sure how else to read that comment. Surely Bush in 2006 wasn't trying to anticipate the Obama presidency, and equally surely it's not that he only foreshadowed in a subtle way what Obama has now more explicitly done. If anything, Bush's words were more explicit, even to the point of using the word 'atheist'.

This is not the first instance I've seen of so-called change from Bush to Obama that has turned out to be pure invention, and I'm sure it won't be the last. There's going to be enough genuine change that there should be no need for this kind of thing, but there seem to be too many reality-challenged assumptions about Bush and his presidency that somehow have the ring of truthiness to those critical of him, and I think that's a sad reflection of the kind of ignorance about political matters that you can find even among supposedly well-informed intellectuals who follow politics and comment about it online.

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