January 19, 2009

No Room for Atheists at Obama's Inauguration

Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese ...Image via WikipediaI do not think that Obama's transition team was prepared for the outrage sparked by their selection of Rick Warren, the bigoted Christian, to deliver the invocation at Obama's swearing-in ceremony. It now appears that they have decided to do some damage control by adding openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson to the list of speakers. Will this appease members of the LGBT community who were upset over by the fact that Obama chose an anti-gay bigot to symbolically open his administration? I doubt it, but I suppose it may still be viewed as a positive gesture. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, we atheists are once again ignored. However, after seeing Bishop Robinson interviewed on The Rachel Maddow Show last week (video here), I wonder if we are looking at something worse than simply being ignored.

At the outset, I want to make a few things clear. First, I think that Obama's decision to add Robinson was a step in the right direction. The LGBT community was upset, and rightly so, over Warren. By adding Robinson, Obama is communicating that he has heard their outrage and is willing to at least make a token gesture. Is it as good as removing Warren? No, but it is at least something. Second, Bishop Robinson came across as a reasonably nice guy during his interview on Maddow. I suspect that many of us would agree with him on a number of important social issues, and aside from giving no thought to what the inauguration says to American atheists, he did not seem like a particularly bad guy. Third, I am not going to use this post to rant about the inappropriateness of having any sort of magical invocations at ceremonies like this. I agree with Newdow and his co-plaintiffs that this is inappropriate and illegal in a nation where separation of church and state are valued, but I will leave that for other posts.

In watching Bishop Robinson's interview on The Rachel Maddow Show, it was clear that he had given no thought whatsoever to how American atheists are feeling about Obama's inauguration. He prefaced many of his statements with "As a religious person...," making me suspect that he must have some awareness that non-religious persons exist. However, he made reference to how inclusive Obama's inauguration was and how all points of view were represented.

The subtext was clear - this administration, and indeed this nation, are inclusive of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Beyond that, not so much. If Robinson is Obama's gesture to the LGBT community, we atheists are again neglected.

Robinson claimed that Obama is "including all voices in this inauguration." Really? I do not see any non-religious voices. Instead, I see Christian voices. Are these the only voices that matter to Obama? I hope not, but I am not sure what else we are to conclude.

Robinson said that "gay and lesbian people should feel very welcomed by this administration." I suspect many in the GLBT community would disagree, but at least he has made a gesture. Could we say the same for atheists?

When Robinson made reference to "big tent" politics, I hoped that he would be truly inclusive. He came close but chose to begin his response with, "As a religious person, no one had a bigger tent than Jesus..." As much as I like the idea of the political "big tent," I think there has to be room under the tent for everyone, including atheists.