Over the course of our history, hundreds of millions of prayers have been uttered for the United States. Numerous petitions—including a yearly National Day of Prayer proclamation issued by the President and hundreds of mirrored state pronouncements by governors wishing to appear pious, or at least pretend they are doing something useful “in these troubled times”—have constantly beseeched a power beyond nature to “bless America” and keep us from harm. To no avail.
The governor of Texas has publicly asked “Divine Providence” for rain during that state’s worst dry spell since 1895. His prayers were followed by wildfires that this year have burned an area greater than half the size of Lake Erie, destroying more than 1,500 homes.
Ten years ago, on a crisp, clear September morning when a good percentage of the occupants of the World Trade Center, residents of New York City, workers at the Pentagon, and passengers on flights AA11, AA77, UA175, and UA93, had sought “God’s protection” over their families, our country witnessed a horrific failure of prayer in the form of a faith-based attack on American lives, property and ideals. There can be no doubt that in light of this tragedy of religious terror, prayer is the last thing this country needs right now.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter of congratulations to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for possessing the good judgment and the courage to insist that the city-arranged ceremonies marking the tenth anniversary of the nightmare of 9/11 remain entirely secular. This time, no religious leaders were invited to preach lofty sermons, perform holy rituals, or intone sanctimonious incantations. The event, orchestrated by a secular government, was for all the people, not just believers. Feeling neglected and insulted, many in the religious right had complained bitterly about their inability to mark the occasion with their stamp of godliness.
But Bloomberg held his ground—his ground zero. Instead of a narrow and divisive faith-based spectacle, we observed a broader and inclusive human-based commemoration. Poems were read. Secular songs were performed. Even George W. Bush, the champion of faith-based initiatives who likes to quote Jesus, chose to read the words of Abraham Lincoln. All seemed to be going well, but just when we thought we could relax and enjoy the truly respectful ceremony, who should step up to the podium to mar the occasion by reading from the bible? Not a priest, pastor, rabbi or slick megachurch evangelist. It was none other than President Obama, the leader of our secular nation, who decided to inject his own personal god into the public proceedings. Not only was this very bad taste—akin to someone inviting a former abusive husband to make comments at your second wedding—it was grossly insensitive to the spirit of the occasion. Obama’s entire remarks consisted of reading Psalm 46 (from the Protestant New King James Version of the Bible):
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. Though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling, there’s a river whose streams shall make glad the City of God, the holy place of the Tabernacle of the Most High. God is in the midst of her. She shall not be moved. God shall help her just at the break of dawn. The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved. He uttered his voice. The earth melted. The Lord of Hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge. Come behold the works of the Lord who has made desolations in the Earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the Earth. He breaks the bough and cuts the spear in two. He burns the chariot in fire. Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the Earths. The Lord of Hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge.”
Of course, it is obvious that the biblical deity is not “a very present help in trouble.” He was no help when the planes hit those buildings, and is no help today. If we take this scripture seriously, we must conclude that God is the source of the trouble: “Come behold the works of the Lord who has made desolations in the Earth.” This is confirmed by Isaiah, three books later, in a passage that is even more relevant to terror falling from the skies: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.” (Isaiah 45: 7,8) It was righteousness, after all, that the hijackers were “pouring down” that day. If the god of the bible claims “I create evil,” who is Obama to pretend otherwise?
And with what authority does the President of a secular nation, at a nonreligious event, presume to administer a biblical edict from the god of just some of the citizens? “Be still and know that I am God,” we are commanded. “I will be exalted among the nations.” Based on the brutally successful terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, those words could be attributed just as easily to Allah as to Yahweh. Who gave Obama the right to pick which god gets to speak?
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Or the right to pick any god to speak? Nonbelievers were also murdered on 9/11. Atheists and agnostics were in the audience to whom Obama was speaking. He seems not to know that just seven psalms later we atheists are unjustifiably maligned by the same holy book: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.” (Psalm 53:1)
There are no atheists who do good? We are all corrupt? It wasn’t nonbelievers who committed the “abominable iniquity” of 9/11. What moral right does the president have to quote from a book that so unfairly blames the wrong party, staining a pure ceremony with a divisive sectarian message? Or did he consider the unifying memorial to be a campaign opportunity to pander piously to religious right voters?
One of the great principles of American liberty is the freedom to disagree about religious matters. When our democratically elected President publicly takes sides in the argument, he dishonors not only millions of good citizens who do not share his personal beliefs, he also dishonors our Constitution.