Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. administers the oath of office a second time with Barack Obama in the White House on Jan. 21. (White House photo by Pete Souza)
No one thought that electing Barack Obama president meant that our country had entirely kicked its intolerance habit. But at least now we have proof that bigotry is alive and well.
When President Obama claimed in Turkey on April 6 that we Americans "do not consider ourselves a Christian nation," a right-wing brouhaha ensued. Sean Hannity claimed to be "offended." Newt Gingrich contended that Obama was being "fundamentally misleading." And Karl Rove — that paragon of Christian virtue — insisted that Obama's statement effectively denied that "we have historically had, you know, a robust presence of faith in our public square."
Set aside the fact that Obama has repeatedly extolled the value of faith in politics — such as when he told a Sojourners conference in 2006 that "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square." More disturbing is the strain of historical revisionism and religious intolerance that right-wing leaders have embraced.
After all, the tradition of religious pluralism is hardwired into our national DNA. The U.S. Constitution makes no reference to God, let alone to Christ. The Treaty of Tripoli, which was ratified unanimously by the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams in 1797, asserted that "the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." And though the Declaration of Independence contains a vague allusion to a "Creator," the author of that document — Thomas Jefferson — would not be considered a Christian by many modern-day evangelicals since he denied the divinity of Jesus and published his own version of the Bible that included no miracle stories.
Political figures who now cling to the myth of the U.S. as an inherently Christian nation apparently aren't proud of our history as it actually took place. Instead, they feel the need to reinvent it. Their storyline boasts of Christian men using Christian precepts to create a Christian country — all while displaying great beneficence by not completely silencing the voices of non-Christians. This story disregards the pluralistic values that have always stood at the center of American identity and seeks to replace them with a static hierarchy of religious beliefs.
Such an agenda leaves little room for a vibrant marketplace of religious ideas in which no view receives the imprimatur of the government and all views enjoy the equal opportunity to win hearts and minds. Rather, the anti-pluralism crowd would chisel the religious predilections of the majority into stone — making them impervious to the liquid flow of history. To be sure, even Hannity and Gingrich would concede that non-Christians should be free to practice their faiths more or less as they please. But implicit in the conservative critique of Obama's comments is the notion that in America, some beliefs, to paraphrase George Orwell, are more equal than others.
What the apologists for intolerance fail to understand is that when Obama goes abroad and says we're not a Christian nation, he's being more than politically correct. He's communicating the very best of America's traditions to the world. He's highlighting our strengths at a moment in which we desperately need to show other nations — particularly those with predominantly Muslim populations — that we're not just an imperial power, but also a moral one. This mission is deeply honorable and important.
I can't say I entirely blame right-wingers for trying to undermine this effort, even if they do like to pretend (when Republicans are in the White House, at least) that supporting the commander-in-chief's posturing abroad is of paramount concern. As conservatives try to repair the tattered remains of their political credibility, they're groping for whatever issue they can in the hopes of gaining some traction. That's understandable, inasmuch as anything in politics is. But I would like to think that truth, religious tolerance and a national sense of common purpose might outweigh the desire to win a news cycle.
And wouldn't that be the more Christian approach, anyway?
Jesse Lava is a writer and Christian social justice activist based in Chicago.