When Barack Obama delivered his first inaugural address seven years ago this month, the newly-elected president went further than any others in explicitly naming religious diversity as an essential American ideal. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims,” he said, “Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”
Like so much of the rhetoric that helped win him the election, it was at once an acknowledgement of a history more diverse than is often remembered, and a hopeful evocation of a less divisive future.
As he delivers his final State of the Union address Tuesday night, however, Obama leads a nation more divided along religious lines than at any other time in recent history. The White House has said the speech will call on the country “to come together as one American family.” Yet many responses to his words suggest that coming together – at least as he envisions it– is not a value shared by all, particularly where religious matters are concerned.
It might be asked if this is an unintended consequence of Obama’s pluralist presidency. By attempting to gather all kinds of believers and non-believers in the same big tent, he has revealed an enduring and inconvenient truth: Despite our attachment to the idea of religious freedom, a majority of Americans continue to hold some degree of mistrust of those with beliefs different from their own.
Within the past year, protesters carrying crosses on the steps of state Capitols in Texas and Oklahoma have shouted “Go home!” at Muslims born in this country. In Idaho, state senators refused to listen to a non-Christian prayer because it invoked “false gods.” In just the last six weeks, there have been reports of harassment, vandalism, and violence committed against synagogues, mosques, Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras and the people of faith who attend each.
That all of this has occurred on the watch of a president who has embraced a more inclusive approach to religion than any of his predecessors may be just a coincidence, but more likely it is an indication that the nation as a whole does not agree with Obama’s broadminded understanding of faith.
While continuing the long-standing traditions of lighting the national Christmas tree and hunting for Easter eggs on the South Lawn each spring, the president has repeatedly attempted to make good on the ecumenical promise of his inaugural. Not only has he presided over Ramadan iftar dinners, as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did before him, he hosted the first White House Passover seder in 2009. Later that year at a celebration of Diwali (a day held sacred, he noted, by “Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists”), he became the first president to light the ceremonial diya oil lamp, which according to one prayer, “removes the darkness of ignorance” with its flame.
Unfortunately, two terms of a president who has made the recognition of religious pluralism a priority seems to have had an opposite effect in much of the country. Which is curious, according to the data.
According to a recent Pew study, more Americans than ever before are affiliated with spiritual traditions different from those with which they were raised. Yet expressing an interest in or understanding of multiple religious perspectives is to many a cause for suspicion—perhaps most notably in the case of the president himself.
Though Obama has written movingly and at length about his Christian faith, polls show that nearly a third of Americans simply do not believe him. A possible explanation for this can be found not only in the tireless efforts of those who think claiming he is a Muslim is a smear, but also in the open curiosity for other faiths Obama has long displayed. Reactions to him have embodied our conflicted attitude toward pluralism, and seem to have become more contentious as the end of his administration is in sight.
As he described his earliest spiritual education in his 1995 memoir “Dreams from My Father,” when he moved to Indonesia as a boy, he attended both a Muslim school and a Catholic school. Neither one inspired devotion, but he was taught a first commandment applicable to either learning environment: “Be respectful,” his mother told him, as if consideration for others’ faiths mattered more than his own individual belief, or lack thereof – good manners to some, a clear sign of not taking religion seriously to others.
Back in the United States at age 10, the future president’s exposure to religious diversity became more layered still. His mother, he has said, was “the last of the great secular humanists.” Yet as he wrote in “The Audacity of Hope”: “This isn’t to say that she provided me with no religious instruction. In her mind, a working knowledge of the world’s great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites.”
It is almost poignant to consider that during Obama’s astonishing rise on the national stage less than a decade ago, such eclectic experiences and his resulting capacity to see both sides of multiple religious divides were considered by some to be assets that might bring the country together.
Eight years ago last month, Andrew Sullivan suggested in a cover story for The Atlantic, that the then-senator was “someone whose ‘complex fate,’ to use Ralph Ellison’s term, is to be both believer and doubter, in a world where such complexity is as beleaguered as it is necessary.”
“By virtue of generation and accident,” Sullivan wrote, Obama “bridges this deepening divide. He was brought up in a nonreligious home and converted to Christianity as an adult… His faith—at once real and measured, hot and cool—lives at the center of the American religious experience.”
As we have lately been reminded, such an assessment avoids the darker side of “American religious experience”—the side that has always insisted that spiritual differences might be the nation’s undoing.
In the waning days of the Obama era, we have seen the latest manifestation of a paradox at the heart of our national self-understanding. Throughout history, Americans have touted the importance of religion while frequently expressing fear of so-called foreign influences, rarely pausing to consider that any religion, even the most homegrown of denominations, is a foreign influence itself.
Any church, mosque, synagogue, or temple is part of a community that transcends borders, asking loyalty to ideas without regard to one’s citizenship or place of origin, while simultaneously, the nation demands a competing loyalty no matter what else one believes.
Every moment of religiously influenced nativism in the United States has begun with the assumption that one form of loyalty must trump the other. From the belief that Catholics were, as Protestant alarmists said, “a threat to our free institutions” in the middle of 19th Century, to warnings that the West Coast would be, in the words of one preacher, “swamped, inundated, despiritualized, and un-Americanized” by Hindus and Sikhs a few decades later, holding sympathy for multiple religious perspectives has been lauded in general terms as a value, but treated practically as a threat.
For many Americans, this tension has been made flesh in the nation’s pluralist-in-chief.
If his speech tonight hopes to bring the country “together as one American family,” the president would do well to avoid simple platitudes of religious diversity and acknowledge – as he has often done with race – that the differences that define our rancorous present have a long and fraught history.
Pluralism need not mean merely an ever-expanding calendar of White House holidays, but should instead begin by acknowledging the complexity of living in a nation where we are all are free to believe, or not believe, as we please.
While the president has made peace with religious differences in his own life, much of the country remains unwilling to do the same. As he begins the final chapter of the story he has been telling about the meaning America these past seven years, listing the many faiths that call the United States home is not enough.
He might say more about the challenges and benefits of coming together with those whose beliefs we don’t share.
Peter Manseau is the author most recently of “One Nation Under Gods: A New American History.”