In his 2009 Inaugural speech today, President Barack Obama discussed the religious landscape of the United States. “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers.” When I heard this word, my heart leaped in my chest. For the first time in my recollection, an elected official welcomed me to the table of religious Americans.
A twinge in my mind wished he had chosen a more positive word — one that did not focus on the negative of our belief. But, the joy of being included at all quickly swept away any sense of disappointment or argument. For once, my President recognized me as a person. My President honored my journey and did not recoil in fear from fellow seekers on the path of truth and meaning. My President opened a space in the national dialogue for me to enter, not as a combatant or even an enemy, but as a colleague and as a friend.
In some ways, nonbelievers are one of the largest closeted minorities in this country. Public declaration of atheism is, in many venues, a killing blow. A 2006 study showed that atheists are the least trusted group of people in this nation. And, while my argumentative spirit always enjoys a good challenge, the prevailing attitude against my fellow atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers hurts on a deep personal level.
Last year, during my clinical pastoral education unit, I was dismissed by a hospital staff member after leading a worship service in the chapel. He asked me what I believed about Jesus. I did not even finish my first sentence before he held his hand up, told me he would pray for me, and walked away. I was not surprised — I have had the experience before no matter how respectfully I respond to the question. But, this one hurt.
I made it down to the car to return to chaplain’s office at the main hospital site. Then, I broke down in tears. That hand thrust in my face could not have hurt more had it wielded a knife. Once again, I had been rejected, refused entry into the discourse, and reviled as someone unworthy of breath to hold a conversation.
But, today, my President opened his arms to me and welcomed me into the conversation. I may have my doubts about Barack Obama’s ability to lead us through the myriad of challenges we face as a nation. At least now, however, I feel that my contributions to the effort will be warmly accepted and appreciated.