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February 4th, 2009
06:14 PM ET

Commentary: Obama’s welcome to non-believers

Randall Balmer
Special to CNN

Editor's note: Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a visiting professor at Emory University. His most recent book is "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush."

President Obama's mention of "nonbelievers" in his inaugural address represents an important broadening of the circle of acceptability in American life, an acknowledgement of our growing diversity and a fuller embrace of the principles articulated in our nation's charter documents.

One of the hallmarks of American life, dating to the 17th century, is its religious pluralism.

The Atlantic seaboard during the colonial period was home to everyone from Puritans, Roman Catholics and Dutch Reformed to Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Swedish Lutherans, Anglicans, Huguenots, Mennonites and Schwenckfelders. Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654, refugees from South America after the Portuguese takeover of Recifé.

Somehow it all worked, especially in the crucible of religious pluralism in the Middle Colonies: New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where William Penn launched his "Holy Experiment" of religious toleration.

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Filed under: Barack Obama • Raw Politics • Religion
soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Tom

    How about the President choosing to NOT ATTEND the Military Heroes Ball for the Inauguration. This is the Ball of the Recipients of the Medal of Honor, to honor the President, and the President CHOSE to NOT ATTEND!! That is the first time this has ever happened! What a slap in the face to these people who gave thier all for this country! All for the troops, eh, Mr. President!? Why was this NOT REPORTED to the public, Mr. AC360? No Bias! No Bull! The most trusted name in the news! Yeah.......Right!

    February 5, 2009 at 3:04 pm |
  2. Jeanean

    It doesn't surprise me that when inclusive language is used the strongest opposition and deepest felt fear comes from those who believe in a supreme being. The idea that supernatural voodoo is at work seems silly, but all my life I have tolerated the hypocracy of those who do believe. But maybe we should ask Ted Haggard his opininon.

    February 5, 2009 at 3:01 pm |
  3. Melissa from New Orleans

    Good, its about time that a President acknowledged the rest of us even if the use of the word "unbelievers" is insulting.

    The problem is that now he's catering to the religious with so called "faith based initiatives" allowing discrimination.

    I've been a full supporter of Obama. This is the first time I've ever been disappointed in him.

    February 5, 2009 at 2:28 pm |
  4. Maria

    There is no problem in tolerating faith pluralism, diversity, inter-faith or none. In fact tolerating is part of good behavior regardless what belief human do choose.

    February 5, 2009 at 2:18 pm |
  5. Christine

    I hope Obama, calling himself as a Christian man, have read the book of Jeremiah and Judges. There in these books are examples of bad leadership and corrupt nation. I moved to America and became a U.S. citizen knowing deeply that this country is a Christian nation that supports Christ-like ministries. As a kid, American missionaries visits our village, and I imagine America as a great nation of great faith and deeds. I am so sad that it is going on the different direction, and I am here in my beloved country seeing it day by day. God is love, however, He is also a just God. He brings justice to His name and to His people. I pray that Obama will realize that wherever he goes, whatever he does and whenever he opposes God's way, there are consequences that affects the nation and the citizens.

    February 5, 2009 at 11:21 am |
  6. DRKellogg

    In truth, you only know what someone believes if they tell you. A person can say anything, but it may or may not reveal their heart and their intentions.

    I was pleased to hear President Obama reach out to "non-believers". Many times they are a forgotten group.

    And Jim, if you want to invoke the name of Israel, learn to spell it!

    February 5, 2009 at 11:16 am |
  7. Grumpyoldfan

    Alas, religion is as diverse as politics. There are those lean far to the right or left and those who sit merrily in the middle. The separation of church and state was deemed necessary by our forefathers because, rightly the majority came from a country, (England) where the two were so interwoven as to be inseparable in power (think Henry the VIII and all his wives).

    Fortunately, our fore fathers realized that abuse existed in both forms – religion and politics and to combine the two entities could rightly or wrongly end in a cacophony of abuse compounded. What strikes me with the preceding posts on this board is that those who are offended by the President’s comments, seem to be, simply because the President used an inclusionary term instead of an exclusionary term referring only to one belief. It seems too, that those who require this ‘exclusionary’ terminology do so to justify their patriotic beliefs.

    There is thin line between love and hate and between politics and religion. While the line is thin it is dug deeply into the fabric of our society and does not allow for understanding when so much is intertwined. To those who seek exclusionary status – I say to you, it is your right to stand up for your religious beliefs but it is not guidance you offer in your rhetoric – it is dismissal of those who do not share your beliefs and the danger in such is that your words carry not a joyous song in praise of that which you believe in but a thunderous declaration of fanaticism with little or no tolerance of others beliefs.

    Fortunately, our President recognizes this line and the dangers to those who cross it willingly. President Obama accords to each individual the rights given by our forefathers starting with the right to pursue their own beliefs. He does not take the child of belief of many mothers and seek to give it to only one, but instead proposes to take the child of belief and split it between the many so that all will see that to truly love that belief means that it cannot belong to simply one ideology. All have a deep love for their religion and for that religion to be truly free they cannot seek to claim that freedom for only their child of belief.

    February 5, 2009 at 9:29 am |
  8. Ivorettecooper

    I watch cnn on a regular basis and I am not happy with Anderson Cooper addressing President Obama as "Mr" Obama. He needs to give him the respect he deserves.

    February 5, 2009 at 8:24 am |
  9. Jayanti

    Question of the day is why fedrally rescued banks will lend money to firms like PFIZER pharma to acquire WYETH PHARMA when CEO of PFIZER is proudly saying he will eliminate 26000 jobs -not to durvive but to increase profit

    February 5, 2009 at 7:46 am |
  10. J.V.Hodgson

    The Bush administration put economic ideals and preference over religious tolerance, along with excessive "patriotism" and "national sovreignty" plus an excessive desire for "western style democracy" in other states and a total rejection of the spin phrase of "theocracy." Sorry if muslims and Isalmics can be happy with Theocracy, burkhas and women as second class citizens, then changing those has to come from within each respective nation and not political ( religious?) dictat from America, or anywhere else.
    Overt and strong indications of Religious tolerance toward Muslim and Islamic states or nations will be key to resolving again the spin phrase of the " war on terror" .
    There is no war against the over whelming majority of Muslims or Islamics ( make that ,clear, clear,clear).
    But there is a fight against any extremist minority who use death and destruction be it from within any states or countries significant minority outside operatively or beyond thier own state or nations borders.
    QED Al Qaeda are the real terrorists or offshoots thereof and we can justify "War" against them.
    With the rest of the Mulim Islamic world we can have a much more effective " fight" not war thru beneficial diplomacy or war of words.
    QED thru winning the hearts and minds of the majority of Muslims and Islamics wherver by guaranteeing thier religious rights and chosen government style you isolate Al Qaeda and its offshoots, and local muslims and islamics will defeat ( base on western clear support therfor) by thier hearts and minds because the west agrees that's how to do it as well.
    This is religion, politics, and govrnment – -101. = America stop trying to impose your excessive version of national Sovreignty and Patriotism on other SOVREIGN states, or government style a la Iraq.
    It is thier Oil, deal with the issue thru Domestic US policy changes, i.e. US Energy independence investment not by war driven by economic or fuel source needs. old argument, but still true, and maybe Obama has got the message and his policies will bring the needed "change" and peace will reign once more.
    Regards,
    Hodgson.

    February 5, 2009 at 3:18 am |
  11. Barbara

    Hi Anderson – I watch your show always. I have been noticing that you and your guests seem to be reluctant to call Obama 'Mr. President' or 'the president' Tonight you and your guests referred to the President as if you all were reluctant to call him 'Pressident' I would like to hear from you about this.

    February 5, 2009 at 2:22 am |
  12. Marion Allbritton

    I believe those who are non-believers at this point should have taken action on making things better 8 years ago. I think it’s funny that Dick Chaney or any other Republican can say anything negative after doing nothing when they had the opportunity. Republican think Americas are fools with short memories. As for the corporations I feel they are asking for welfare and wants the American people to pay for there support. I am a small business of 16 years and because of the Bush Administration I now find myself without a home and lost of my business.

    February 5, 2009 at 2:00 am |
  13. Ray

    I think Anderson you can teach ALL CNN Staff to be more respectful and refer to Our President as Mr.President and not Obama.

    February 5, 2009 at 1:53 am |
  14. Marion Allbritton

    I beleave those who are non-beleavers at this point should have taken action on making things better 8 years ago. I think it's funny that Dick Chaney or any other Repuclian, can say anything negitive after doing nothing when they had the oppertunity. I think they the Republicans that Americas are fools that have short momories. As for the corporations I feel they are asking for welfare and wants the American people to pay for there surpport. I am a small business of 16 years and because of the Bush Administration I now find myself without a home and lost of my business.

    February 5, 2009 at 1:50 am |
  15. John Shamblin

    Well said, Matt.

    February 5, 2009 at 1:24 am |
  16. Kent, Illinois

    Tammy MS.......Ahhh, that is assuming I believe in a "Graduation Day", and a GOD the same as your GOD you believe in......that is where our differences lie. So many hold up a GOD as if there is a man way up in the sky that we are trying to impress so he will let us into the pearly gates. I do not need to pray.....I do not need to study a book made by man....and I am not waiting for redemption. I am not lost or searching. What you are seeking is available now....this moment. The "Holy Spirit" you might say is within yourself, as it is in all living things........look inside.

    February 5, 2009 at 1:01 am |
  17. Marvin

    I watch President Obama's new administration with great excitement. After announcing the enaction of the law for universal child healthcare insurance, he now declares putting a salary cap of $500,000 on the CEOs of corporations receiving government bailouts. I applaud his decision. This time, common sense and decency prevail.

    Now, we can hear this warped logic and flawed rhetoric that putting a cap on CEO salaries can cause an exodus of talent. Let me ask these people a question. How much was Einstein paid as a university professor? How much is Stephen Hawking paid? How much is a rocket scientist at NASA gets paid? How much is a medical doctor or a lawyer graduated from the Ivy League gets paid? Many of these people are a lot smarter and work harder than these corporate CEOs, yet most of them get paid much less than $300,000 in annual salary, so why should CEOs such as John Thain gets paid $45 million a year plus bonuses, corporate jets, etc. etc. ? I bet there are numerous more capable and talented people who are more than happy to receive an annual salary of $500,000 or less to replace him and do a much better job. Let us return to common sense and come to the realization that corporate CEOs don't deserve millions of dollars a year. Their job is no more difficult than most other jobs and they don't have an extra high I.Q. than people in other professions. It is time to shatter the myth that corporate CEOs possess special talents that make them deserve earning more than $500,000 a year.

    February 5, 2009 at 12:31 am |
  18. Frank Hardy

    We have no idea – at all – what Jesus actually said, we only know what other people – who had all axes to grind – thought they remembered him saying, long after the fact. These random collections of "Jesus Stories" were then shoehorned into something vaguely resembling narratives. ( How well do you remember exactly what you were doing, and saying, 30+ years ago.) If what Jesus had to say was so darned important, why didn't Jesus, or at least ONE of the disciples, write it down at the time? Why? Because they all believed that Jesus was going to return, in Clouds of Glory, within their lifetimes. Jesus even says that's what's going to happen. When it became clear that wasn't gonna happen, THAT"S when they started writing things down. If you do any research, you'll soon come to understand that there are really only two gospels. Mark, Matthew, and Luke, are merely variations on an ur -Mark. John doesn't agree in any meaningful way with the synoptic gospels. We've been waiting almost 2,000 years, not a single Cloud of Glory so far. Luther said it plainly – I paraphrase – Reason is the absolute / number one / irredeemable / etc, enemy of faith, you should strive to eliminate it from your life.
    To use a word coined by Ambrose Bierce – Science and Religion are absolutely incompossible. It's about time we freethinkers got some recognition. Non-Believers of the World – Unite!!

    February 4, 2009 at 11:48 pm |
  19. Matt

    Jesus is the only way. God sent his only son here and his blood was spilled for you. Accept or perish. For every one there will be one thousand fallen. The flames of Hades are fueled with Pagans and Sodomites and Buddhists and all "non believers". This statement was said at the inauguration of the Antichrist! Seek refuge in Alaska from the torment of the Apocolyplse. Remember-God loves you.

    PALIN 2012

    February 4, 2009 at 11:17 pm |
  20. Bob4232

    I believe that it is doubtful that Congress can legally recover the executive bonuses that have been paid. Also, it may be that at least some of those bonuses were in conformance to legal contracts. However, I have a suggestion.

    The President and Congress should announce that if any person who was an officer of an organization that in the past received bailout funds received a bonus of more that $250,000.00 and whose base compensation was more than $250,000.oo does not iwithin 30 days purchase preferred stock in their organization with the excess of a $250,000.00 bonus that that organization shall be ineligible to receive additional bail out funds. Further, that if any such officer refuses to so perform that he/she must be terminated at once.

    February 4, 2009 at 11:00 pm |
  21. Matt Lewin

    I felt that one of the most significant, and welcome, aspects of President Obama's inaugural address was his inclusion of the term "nonbelievers" alongside references to various religious groups. All citizens of the United States, regardless of religious belief or non-belief, are entitled to equal benefits of citizenry. Some of the founding fathers were themselves "non-believers". The true beauty of this country is that we are all free to exercise our religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) as we see fit without governmental interference and, conversely, the government may not force upon us the religious beliefs of the majority (despite the efforts of many in the majority to do just that).

    February 4, 2009 at 10:29 pm |
  22. Tammy, MS

    In response to Kent above – you believe in God but do not believe in religion, prayer or Bible study? That seems like saying I really believe in school but I don't attend classes, study or do my homework – but I'm really nice to my fellow classmates. While it is commendable that you "do unto others...", I'm afraid that alone won't earn a diploma come Graduation Day.

    February 4, 2009 at 9:50 pm |
  23. Amanda Walton-Ontario, Canada

    This is a very interesting read and enjoyed your views about the evolving of how the U.S religious belief have come to differ over a short time. It is very important to learn how we all must learn to co exist together as we grow in diversity as a world and our beliefs need to be accepted, even if we all share different opinions. It's really what makes life interesting as we are all different and why it's so heartbreaking we have to have deadly fighting over it.

    My ancestors came from Great Britain and settled in the Chespeake Bay area in the 1700's. My ancestors fought in the American Revolution and left to come settle in Lower Canada in the English Protestant part of Quebec. My other ancestors came from France and settled in the Ottawa Valley/Sudbury Roman Catholic area in Upper Canada also in the 1700's.

    I know all to well what religious fights are all about, thankfully ours never turned deadly, just many left with sour tastes in each others mouths.

    Stay Safe Randall

    February 4, 2009 at 9:40 pm |
  24. Dulcie - Denver

    It's so good to hear this from a clergyman. A great many of us consider ourselves outside the more traditional religious paths and we feel very alienated and even angry when others' religious beliefs creep into politics and law.

    Separation of Church and State needs to be reinstated.

    As far as Jim, above, is concerned, I'm sorry, but I don't believe in the same God you do. Therefore your predictions of doom are lost on me.

    February 4, 2009 at 9:01 pm |
  25. Kent, Illinois

    It is possible to be "Spiritual" and not believe in the ideology of religion. You can believe in GOD, but not religion. As long as we are trying to be good people who cares if you are led by religion or philosophies of Spirituality. I do not pray to a figure of a man. I do not study the Bible. But, I am a good person and treat people the way I would like to be treated. Do not force your ideologies onto me. It is comical when I see the fight between religions.....as if one's GOD is better than another's GOD. Don't most religions point in the same direction?

    February 4, 2009 at 7:46 pm |
  26. Dana C. LaRocca

    My family came to Maryland in the seventeenth century to escape religious persecution in merry old England. That said, as the colony started to take on the veneer of civilization Catholics were banned from holding public office. Catholic politicians routinely posed publicly as Anglicans.

    Yes, Randall, One of the hallmarks of American life at that time was its religious pluralism, but so was hypocrisy.

    Neither has changed.

    February 4, 2009 at 7:43 pm |
  27. Gene Penszynski from Vermont

    FINALLY a man of the cloth with intelligence and the compassion of the TRUE Jesus Christ. most definitely a GENUINE Patriotic American.

    God Bless You Mr. Balmer !

    February 4, 2009 at 7:22 pm |
  28. JC-Los Angeles

    I was under the impression that President Obama's use of the term "non-believers" was mean't to mean the countless people that don't believe a word out of his mouth.

    February 4, 2009 at 7:17 pm |
  29. Tonisha Fortune a.k.a. momafortune

    We will all come together as One people with the Entire Earth creating the "New World". The Second Coming has happened, and we will create Heaven on Earth.

    February 4, 2009 at 7:13 pm |
  30. Jim,

    We may tolerate it, but how long will God? You think you can break his laws without consequences? You think you can commit Adultry, Fornication, Homosexuallity,Witchcraft, Murder,Lie,Steal, Etc. & be blessed by God? Like Isreal in days gone by America will learn the lessons the hard way.Like Isreal they will not repent even when and as Judgement falls. Woe unto America & Woe unto the world as the prophecies are fullfilled.

    February 4, 2009 at 6:43 pm |
  31. Annie Kate

    To each his own...as long as a person's religious beliefs hurts no one else I fail to see any problem with living peacefully with any and all religions – even some of the religions people consider out of the ordinary. As one religious traditions says – if it harms no one then do as you will.

    February 4, 2009 at 6:32 pm |