In one of the videos that made the rounds in the aftermath of the Oklahoma tornado, Wolf Blitzer, standing amid the wreckage, interviews a woman holding her toddler son and asks her, “I guess you got to thank the Lord, right?”
After a pause, Wolf pursued: “Do you thank the Lord? For that split-second decision?”
“I’m actually an atheist,” the survivor replied. Cue awkward laughter from both Wolf and the woman.
“You are? Oh, all right.”
“I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord,” the survivor concluded.
This is what happens, people joked, when you try to win easy points in the middle of the country.
It’s beyond the awkwardness of a swatted-down high five. It’s the theological equivalent of hitting on the one woman at the bar who turns out to be asexual. It’s a knife when you were betting on its being one of ten thousand spoons. It’s reaching into the drawer for scissors and pulling out the left-handed pair.
The odds seemed so against it. An October 2012 survey found that one in five Americans is religiously unaffiliated, but barely 2 percent of Americans identify as atheists. Even of the religiously unaffiliated, about two-thirds have some form of belief. So to reach into a crowd of randomly selected survivors and draw the one who isn’t thanking the Lord — it’s a startling enough moment to make Glenn Beck murmur dubiously on FOX that the whole interview must surely have been some sort of set-up.
It was startling, but it was enough to make you think, for a moment.
Just for a second we got to see how awkward it would be to be unable to sneeze without strangers yelling “Bless you!” It’s one nation Under God. It’s “God Bless America.” It’s Pray For The Victims Of…. You can’t be standing near wreckage without people insisting that you thank some supreme being. It’s such a strongly embedded assumption with reason — almost 80 percent of America is nothing to shake a stick at. But you only notice how often we presume the one time it doesn’t work.
Once you notice it, you can’t un-see it. It’s not just those fish on people’s bumper stickers. It’s everywhere. TGIF. You can’t even be passive-aggressive and Southern without letting “Oh, bless your heart” work its way into the picture. “God Made a Farmer.” 711? Oh, thank Heaven. It’s so embedded.
She was good-natured about it, at least. Given the saturation of the assumption in our national culture, you would have to be, or by Day 9 it would be unbearable.