What Secular Tyranny?

In his column in The Crimson last week, Derek Bekebrede wrote that the Obama administration “has decreed that religion and religious values are no longer welcome in civil society.” Leading a vehemently anti-secular chorus of Republican presidential candidates, Rick Perry promised in a much-parodied television spot to “end Obama’s war on religion” which has supposedly made it impossible for “kids to openly celebrate Christmas and pray in school.” Even the ostensibly sane current Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney, is convinced that the current administration is leading “an assault on the conviction and the religious beliefs of members of our society.” Given the rudimentary outline of the story—a president of purportedly non-Christian origin, a wave of outrage from leading intellectuals like Newt Gingrich—it would be possible for a visitor from Mars to conclude that President Obama is at war with religion.

Except, of course, that he is not. Despite how well most liberal secularists remember the outsize role of religion in policy from 2001 to 2009, they proudly elected a president in 2008 who promised to maintain it, allowing some minor adjustments. Inspired by his predecessor’s example, Obama kept open the White House’s office for faith-based initiatives, “giv[ing] religious figures a bigger role in influencing White House decisions” and consecrating a new level of intimacy between church and the highest levels of state. Presaging a national political career that would justify social policy ideas with themes from the New Testament, Obama proclaimed in his 2004 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states.”

Except, of course, when we do not. In courting America’s religious majority, the Obama administration has demonstrated little support for secular Americans. Despite their disproportionate representation in the arts, sciences, and all manner of scholarship, it is nearly impossible for an openly nonreligious person to run successfully for public office. As recently as June 2011, 49 percent of adults polled by Gallup avowed that they would not under any circumstances support an atheist for president. And while liberal readers might be sure that this is strictly a problem of the right, may it be noted that of all 244 Democratic members of Congress, only one—Pete Stark (CA-13)—is openly atheist.

Some supporters of President Obama argue that a religiously inspired presidency should be acceptable to secular Americans, provided that it inclines more toward the humanistic New Testament than the stringent Old Testament. All reasonable people believe in universal healthcare and humanitarian military intervention, right? So what if it means the President is not sure about how marriage equality sits with his religious conscience?

As a secular American, I beg to differ. Not all of us are liberal Democrats; there are plenty of libertarians, quirky independents, and open-minded conservatives among our diverse and growing ranks. And although I certainly find him more palatable than most of his Republican rivals, I do not any more appreciate having to accept Obama’s liberal policies on the basis of a worldview beyond rational substantiation. Unlike today’s religious conservatives, I know that I am not being persecuted—but I feel deeply concerned when President Obama invokes faith to unite Episcopalians on the left and Baptists on the right, to the exclusion of me and millions of other secular Americans.

If a place where presidential policy and rhetoric are inspired by the teachings of an “awesome God” can be called a secular tyranny, then we should be doubly afraid of the theocratic alternative proposed by the right-wing primary crowd. In what is hailed as the party of small government, nothing is more in vogue than legislating Leviticus and Deuteronomy—biblical books whose dictates bear a striking similarity to the Islamic shari’a law that their proponents decry.

Big-ticket Republicans face excommunication if they fail to toe the line on abortion, same-sex marriage, or sham issues like school prayer—a standard that has vanquished such potential standard-bearers as Rudy Giuliani and Jon Huntsman. In terms of foreign policy, the current election cycle has seen messianically inspired Republican candidates beat the drums of war against Iran in a misguided effort to sway Jewish votes on the basis of a single issue. If I have read the founding fathers properly, this is not what they had in mind.

In short, the idea of an Obama administration-led “secular tyranny” fails to hold water, especially when held up to the very real prospect of a Republican regime of effective religious establishment. But truthfully, neither option is ideal. For all of its advantages, the liberal theology professed by Obama and his ilk continues to privilege religious voices in political discourse over those of an unrepresented secular minority. When secular blue-state voters like me are nudged by a community-organizing Chicago liberal to remember that we worship an awesome God, we puzzle over how anyone could think of the Obama administration as a secular tyranny.

Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House.