Three years ago, in 2006, Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher's "Prayer Breakfast" was an orgy of sectarian bigotry, a greasy "fuck you" to everyone who didn't share the speakers' narrow conservative Southern Baptism, an object lesson in why combining religion and government is history's worst idea.
This year, on the same day that invitations to Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear's "Prayer Breakfast" landed in state employees' email inboxes, The Economist brings us the latest lesson from President Obama, this one on how to do a "Prayer Breakfast" right, if you must do one at all.
I think the final proof that Barack Obama plans once and for all to elevate respect for Americans who don't practice a religion came at this morning's National Prayer Breakfast:There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we’re going next – and some subscribe to no faith at all...
We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to "love thy neighbor as thyself." The Torah commands, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow." In Islam, there is a hadith that reads "None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule - the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.
A notable repetition—not just once, rote, but twice, to let you know he means it.
As for that second passage, did Mr Obama just endorse a name for the group struggling to name itself? Some don't like "atheist" or "nonbeliever" because they are definitionally negative. The coinage of "Brights" has failed to catch on for the obvious reasons. But "humanist" has a nice, positive feeling, and a history.
Mr Obama went on to announce a White House of Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships. A Bushian thing to do? No, he continued:The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another - or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state.
Interesting. I'm not sure if Mr Obama isn't trying a little too hard to please everyone here, but the fact that he is trying to please everyone—and remember that a major presidential candidate said not long ago that "freedom requires religion"—is striking.
Now that he is not doing backflips for Rick Warren, citing his favourite Bible verse in a "faith debate" or dodging conspiracies that he is a Muslim, Mr Obama is also free to say things likeI was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I've ever known. She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done.
A few years ago, Daniel Dennett, an atheist philosopher, wrotePoliticians don't think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn't be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don't hesitate to disparage the "godless" among us. From the White House down, bright-bashing is seen as a low-risk vote-getter.
Not this White House.
Cross-posted at They Gave Us A Republic ....