Religious Leaders Don't Think Obama’s Mention of ‘Non-Believers’ Signals a New Secularism

By Pete Winn | January 21, 2009 | 9:41 PM EST

President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and Malia and Sasha Obama during swearing-in ceremony (AP Photo)

( - Conservative religious leaders say they don’t believe that President Obama intended to signal a new role for secularists and atheists in the post-election world Tuesday, when he mentioned “non-believers” in his inaugural speech. 
“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers,” Obama pointedly said during an oration in bitter winds on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.   
But the new president may have been playing to the crowd, according to Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Land said he does not think that the first-of-its-kind reference was some kind of code word designed to reassure atheists and leftists like Michael Newdow of a putative commitment to secularism.“It struck me as accurate,” Land told “We are a nation of Christians and Jews, and Muslims and Hindus, and Baha’i and agnostics and atheists – although proportionally the vast majority of Americans claim some kind of affiliation with a Christian faith.”
Newdow filed suit, along with more than 30 other “non-believers,” to stop Obama from affirming “So Help me God” in taking the oath of office – a phrase he did utter – and prayers from the Rev. Rick Warren and others during the ceremony. 
A federal judge said no late last week to the demand for a restraining order.
“One of the things I thought as I listened to his inaugural address yesterday was that the radical separationists couldn’t have been very happy with the religious allusions and biblical quotations,” Land said. “They want an artificially secular public square where they practice religious apartheid -- and they consign any religious expressions to ‘home, hearth and kirk.’ He clearly was not playing by their rules.”
The Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich., gave Obama high marks for trying to be inclusive -- to be the “president of everyone.”   
“I think he’s acknowledging the reality that America is a very diverse culture that is not defined by a doctrinal creed,” Sirico told “I take no offense at that. The Second Vatican Council acknowledge the reality of unbelievers. In fact, Catholics, every Good Friday, have a whole litany for – to use the phrase that we use -- ‘those who have not yet come to believe.’”
Sirico said Obama is a left-leaning president -- and political battles over cultural issues are undoubtedly waiting in the wings – but the new president deserves “the benefit of the doubt” about how he approaches religion in the public square.
As long as Obama isn’t trying to say that Americans somehow have a “freedom from religion” he’s on firm ground, Sirico said.
“The Constitution says that no law shall be made with respect to the establishment of religion.” Sirico said. “I’m very happy to be living in a society that does not have a creedal base. But the fact is that America emerged from the Judeo-Christian tradition, from natural-law thinking.”
Dr. Elmer Towns, dean of the Liberty University School of Religion agreed – though he does think Obama was acknowledging that he was elected president of a nation that was radically different than the one that either Washington or Lincoln headed.
“I thought that was a fair, descriptive statement of the United States as we exist today. But it was a statement that George Washington could not have made – and probably a statement that Abraham Lincoln could not have made. It was a statement that, probably Teddy Roosevelt could not have made. But it is a description of where we are today.”
Towns added: “If Obama is setting an agenda of tolerance, let’s make sure that the tolerance extends to the majority as well as the minority.
“The Baptists have an old saying – “Let the minority have their say, let the majority have their way.’”