Until recently, I was under the assumption that our country upheld and adhered to the separation of church and state. Apparently, thanks to 12 years of full-day schooling, I hadn't been watching enough presidential inaugurations to realize that, in practice, our church and state have officially congealed.
When I sat down on Jan. 20th to watch the inauguration--admittedly as a procrastination technique--I expected to see a couple choirs sing, two presidential oaths, lots of Representatives, a perma-smiling new first family and maybe a musical or poetic solo or two, all in front of a sad looking Bill Clinton. While this is a pretty accurate summary of our country's inauguration last month, I was completely unprepared for the level of religious zeal that permeated the occasion.
As usual, oaths were taken on a Bible. Rev. Franklin Graham (son of Rev. Billy Graham) was repeatedly called up, as was a well-known black reverend, both of whom led Christian-oriented prayers to God and Jesus that involved the audience closing their eyes and bowing their heads in prayer. The first time, I ignored it. The second prayer I dismissed as charming. But when Rev. Graham's prayer of invocation finally ended in: "We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen," I was thoroughly disgusted. The inauguration service (yes, service) was a blatant mockery of our supposed separation of church and state. To follow all this up, President Bush, the head of our secular country, made a speech that prayed to and thanked God.
I am not fervently against the occasional overlapping of church and state--in a country where Christianity continues to be the most popular organized religion and 93-97 percent of Americans believe in God, religion will periodically intersect with the government. For example, it is understandable for a presidential candidate to make frequent appearances at religious functions. It is also understandable for Bush to start off many of his first days in office in nearby predominantly black churches, as this is the most efficient way for him to reach a particular sector of the population whose support he needs.
Nonetheless, I cannot support Bush's partaking in religious activity and endorsing religious reverends to lead prayers towards God and Jesus during a federal inauguration ceremony. The inclusion of religion in American ceremonial changes-of-power sends a powerful message to those who don't adhere to that religion. For non-Protestants, such reminders of Bush's personal faith serve only to ostracize.
"By employing Reverend Graham so much in the inaugural ceremony, more so than in past years," says Susan Brunka '03, a Roman Catholic, "President Bush necessarily excluded a large part of the population that does not adhere to that religion. I thought it was an even more polarizing move than his presidential race had been up to that point."
For myself and the other 3-7 percent of Americans who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics--even more removed from Christianity--the use of reverends in a federal service enforces the message that not believing in God is, in some sense, virtually unpatriotic. The use of religion in the American government is well ingrained in American life, dating back to John Locke's account of natural rights as God-given. But now, three hundred years later, how is one supposed to approach money that says "In God We Trust" if he or she doesn't believe God exists? How seriously can that same person be expected to take judicial and presidential oaths that rely on a Bible, or a president that openly prays to God for leadership? It is for these reasons that atheists tend to remain very closed-mouthed about their personal beliefs, because in a God-based government, voicing these beliefs seems un-American.
I am a very accepting atheist and I find the cloud of religion surrounding the American government to be discomforting at best, usually bordering on the offensive. And yet our country's statesmen continue to allow the practice of religion in state settings, presumably in an attempt to increase their favorability. We all know that these representatives don't practice the religious morals preached behind closed doors, the recent sexual tangents of Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson being the latest examples. Yet, Christian religion continues to permeate the American government. Yes, religion is alive and well in America, but it has no place in federal ceremony.
--ARIANNE R. COHEN