No need for president to have religion

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I'm looking forward to voting for America's first atheistic or agnostic president. We've had presidents who weren't religious, of course, but none, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson, were honest about it.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels embarrassed to live in a country where the White House has to issue a press release attesting to the president's faith in Jesus the day after a poll says that the number of inattentive, stupid or hostile Americans who believe he's a Muslim has doubled since the previous year.

An agnostic in the White House wouldn't dream of parading his or her lack of faith before the public for electoral advantage. An atheist would go even further and laugh the poll off with the most sensible rejoinder of all: What's the percentage of Americans who also believe in ghosts, alien abductions, ESP, 9/11 conspiracies, astrology, and that America is a Christian nation?

Americans believe in a lot of things that aren't true, including the lie about our utter and unshakable righteousness. Our "Christian" presidents have aided and abetted this myth because it has suited their politics to do so.

Once in office, our Christian presidents rarely challenge the irrational prejudices of the electorate. It is easier to pander to voters, no matter how ill-informed, than to hold them accountable for ideas that fail even minimum standards of logic or morality.

When asked whether he believed President Barack Obama was a fellow believer, the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, gave an answer that would have made 14th century divines chuckle in recognition:

"I think the president's problem is that he was born a Muslim, his father was Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim, his father gave him an Islamic name," Rev. Graham said, slyly building a case that Mr. Obama is a candidate for apostasy in the Muslim faith.

"Now it's obvious that the president has renounced the prophet Mohammed and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ," Rev. Graham said. "That's what he says he has done. I cannot say he hasn't. So, I just have to believe that the president is what he has said."

Since when do Mr. Obama's critics on the religious right, including Rev. Graham, give him the benefit of the doubt on any issue? Even if clergy like Rev. Graham pretend to be reasonable, they're not discouraging the less discerning folks in their congregations from believing all sorts of nonsense about Mr. Obama being a Kenyan-born Manchurian candidate. This is the kind of double-dealing nonsense Mr. Obama has to put up with every day.

President Obama's legitimacy as president is under assault from various quarters where rationality is in short supply. Pamela Geller, the blogger who initiated the protests over the building of an Islamic center two blocks north of ground zero, has argued that Mr. Obama is the illegitimate son of Malcolm X. This is the caliber of opposition the White House is dealing with.

I was pleasantly surprised that we were spared images of Mr. Obama conveniently emerging from church over the weekend. I was willing to bet that we'd see pictures of him with his eyes closed and his hands folded in prayer in response to the latest polls about voters' perception of him being a Muslim. We may, in fact, get those images the first weekend the president is back from vacation and "on the job."

Two centuries of American democracy has come to this -- a de facto religious test for the highest office in the land. That's why many people, believers and nonbelievers alike, pray for a sincere skeptic in the White House. An agnostic or an atheist would have the latitude and political freedom to tell our nation's ayatollahs to go to hell.

A non-theist president would be free to weigh in on controversies such as the "ground zero mosque" according to the Constitution, without fear of being judged insufficiently Christian. Mr. Obama is constantly checkmated by his enemies because he wants desperately to be accepted as a Christian on their terms.

Honestly, it would be better for the president to say to his critics that he may not be a Christian in the way that they define it. There would be no shame in such a confession. It is obviously the case with Mr. Obama.

Many of us look forward to the day when a president will be sworn in with hand firmly planted on the U.S. Constitution and nothing else. The Bible is too sacred to be used as a prop.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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