Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers. – Barack Obama, June 28, 2006 (prepared remarks)
Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation – at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers. – Barack Obama, June 28, 2006 (as delivered)
Before Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, he made a statement about America and its historical reputation as being a “Christian nation.” I give the quote in the two forms you see above because, apparently, there’s been some controversy about the quote. This controversy is described in “Obama and the ‘Christian Nation’ Quote” at FactCheck.org. To me, the difference in the two versions is inconsequential. Both of them are quite troubling. I’ll use the “prepared remarks” version because that seems to be the one that Obama’s defenders think is the one more easily defended.
First of all, as a statement of fact – which it pretends to be – it is incoherent because it is self-contradictory. I think I understand what he’s trying to say, but he says it very poorly.
Second, because the statement is self-contradictory, it cannot make the point Obama wants to make – which, giving him the benefit of every doubt, is that America is a nation defined as free enough to accept all faiths and even those of no faith. This is because the statement uses various faiths and even no faith as an identity. A nation is an aggregation of individuals, and its identity comes from the identities of the individuals who comprise it. A nation can no more be all these kinds of nations than an individual can be all these kinds of individuals.
To show you what I mean, let’s work through this with a specific man in mind. Applying Mr. Obama’s logic to a man named Sam Smithers who has historically been known to be a Christian, the statement would look like this:
Whatever Sam Smithers once was, he is no longer just a Christian; he is also a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a nonbeliever.
If you were to make such a statement people would think you had either lost your mind or you were intentionally engaging in double talk. And this is just what I think about Mr. Obama when I read his statement.
Someone might object and say, “But, Mike, a nation is made up of many individuals and those individuals can be of many different religious persuasions or no religious persuasions at all.” Quite right. But you would then have to understand which of those views were most representative of the nation before you could define the nation. You might end up saying, “We are primarily a Christian nation, ” or “We are a religiously diverse nation,” or “We are a secular nation,” or something else. But what you would certainly not say is what Mr. Obama said – that we are all those things simultaneously. Being an unbeliever is mutually exclusive with being a religious person; being a Muslim is incompatible with being a Christian; and so on – otherwise words have no meaning.
Mr. Obama’s quote, therefore, is rhetorical mush. As best I can tell, he wants to make the point that it is no longer reasonable nor desirable to refer to America as a Christian nation…but he says it with words that equivocate. In political fashion, he’s speaking out of both sides of his mouth – saying that America is still a Christian nation while saying that America is no longer a Christian nation.
I wish he’d just come out and say what he believes: that America is no longer a Christian nation. If he did, I’d agree with him. Our difference would be that he thinks this is a good thing and so he’s happy about it while I think it’s a bad thing and therefore am sad about it.
Related post: Alexis de Tocqueville on Religion in 18th-Century America