SINCLAIR LEWIS famously penned “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” This enduring phrase is misleading for at least one reason: When anything comes to America it comes so prepared. It begs the question, what of an Atheist President? Could atheism, paradoxically, come so prepared?
Before one gets into debating the President’s religion, the responsible citizen reminds themselves that the Founding Fathers explicitly prohibited religious tests as a qualification for public office. Here it is, from Article VI paragraph 3:
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
That said, what the hay? Let’s debate the President’s religion anyways. President Obama is a devout Christian, and while his more provincial (and less educated) critics claim he is a Muslim, he has almost entirely escaped the accusation of being an atheist. This is surprising for two reasons: his explicitly atheistic biography and the obvious opportunism behind his membership at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ.
According to a quote which appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Maxine Box, Barack Obama’s mother’s best friend from high school, said of Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, that she had not only “touted herself as an atheist” but had demonstrated intellectual wherewithal: “it was something she’d read about and could argue”. His father, although born a Muslim, became an atheist by the time of Obama’s birth and remained one for the rest of his life. Pause and consider the long-established correlation between a parent’s spiritual beliefs and that of their children. Also consider that although faith is always accompanied by at least some doubt (the revelation that doubt haunted even Mother Theresa has done much to legitimize the looming question mark), Obama’s written account of his own skepticism is particularly honest-sounding. He even confessed in The Audacity of Hope that his road to conversion was marked by his conclusion that you could still doubt the facts of the Bible and be a Christian. Many on the conservative right would beg to differ.
His skepticism is such that doubt can even be cast on the sincerity of his conversion experience, which occurred shortly after his arrival in Chicago after graduating college. The timing of this is suspicious for two reasons. First, Obama’s refusal of well-paying corporate jobs in favor of the humble sustenance of a community organizer evidences the motive of political ambition. Second, by his own account, his early twenty’s were consumed with the search for racial, not spiritual, identity. In fact, if we are to assume that the frequency of a particular theme stressed by Obama in Audacity is reflective of that theme’s relative importance, then his conversion had less to do with ecclesiastical faith than with power and identity. If this is so, then it is yet another testament to the man’s raw intelligence; the connections made at Trinity United led to his work as a civil rights lawyer and eventually as a State Senator and beyond.
Again, in The Audacity of Hope, Obama accurately described a phenomenon that had largely not yet occurred (and thus more like predicted): the tendency of people to project on to him precisely that which they want to see. For a politician, this gift is truly the golden egg, and judging from the amount of money raised by Atheists for Obama (nearly $400,000) and endorsements by prominent atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, the non-religious community has proved that, despite Obama’s public religiosity, it is no exception.
Upon reflection, what is so remarkable about Obama’s political success is that the chief attack is not that he is an atheist, but that he is a Muslim—a completely baseless accusation and one that seems beside the point given that Americans, when polled, say they are even less likely to vote for an atheist for President than a Muslim. Thus, Obama has enchanted even the freethinkers: despite his preachy-speak, despite mailers with his face shown prominently next to crosses, despite nearly all evidence to the contrary, atheists still see what they want to see: a fellow doubter doing what he’s got to do to win. Someday, we may even learn that atheism indeed came to America, wrapped in the flag, and carrying a cross.