Tomorrow I will watch the U.S. presidential inauguration with my children and I will weep. I will tell them that we are watching history, glorious history, something I never thought I would see in my lifetime. I, like many people my age in the U.S., never thought I would live to see an African-American president.
I grew up in a country in which only rich white men could be president. I grew up certain I could never be the leader of my country. People who grew up in poverty, like me, could not be president. People who were female, like me, could not be president. People who were Jewish, like me, could not be president. When I was born, the country had its first Catholic president.
Well, despite all the hope the election of Barack Obama brings to me and to my children, someone like me could not be elected president in the U.S. today. I feel sure I will live to see a woman elected president. I think there is a decent chance I will live to see a Jew elected president. But I am also an atheist and that fact alone would likely prevent my election.
In a February 2007 Gallup Poll Americans were asked:
whether they would vote for “a generally well-qualified” presidential candidate nominated by their party with each of the following characteristics: Jewish, Catholic, Mormon, an atheist, a woman, black, Hispanic, homosexual, 72 years of age, and someone married for the third time.
In my view, all of these characteristics are irrelevant to qualification to hold office. Happily, only 5% responded they would not vote for someone who was black. Good news and the subsequent election proved the respondents were largely truthful. Seven percent would not vote for a Jew and only 11% answered they would not vote for a woman.
I was sad, but not surprised, that 43% would not vote for someone if he or she was gay. However, the only single characteristic that would prevent more than half of the respondents from voting for a candidate was atheism. Because I do not believe in a god, 53% of the respondents would not vote for me.
I thought about this poll quite a bit yesterday while I was watching the We Are One performance at the Lincoln Memorial. Virtually every song had a mention of god or prayer. Virtually every performer mentioned god or said “God Bless You” to the crowd.
Tomorrow, the U.S. Constitution requires that Barack Obama say:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Nothing else. He chooses to use the bible (not all presidents have). He chooses to add “so help me God” (not all presidents have). And the ceremony will include not one but two prayers (prayer was not part of U.S. presidential inauguration until 1937) – one prayer delivered by a man with a history of anti-gay positions.
I will weep tomorrow, as I did on election night watching the tears of civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and the crowds of people who, like me, never thought they would see this happen. I will tell my children again about what I think the election of a black president means in this country for people who are different and historically disenfranchised. But as an atheist, much of the day will be a slap in the face. On a day all about a new era of inclusion, I will still be on the outside looking in. And I can’t tell my kids that even they can be president some day because if they grow up to be atheists like their parents, probably they can’t.