Our secular president

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“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

That is our Declaration of Independence, the 1776 document that set our new nation on its risky course of challenging the preeminent 18th-century superpower.  Our beginning could have been — arguably was likely to be — aborted.  The odds were against us.  Ultimately, America was the only British colony over the course of four centuries and a British empire spanning the globe to win its independence by war.

When President Obama recently addressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, he quoted that passage as follows (clip at 22:30): “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal [pause], endowed with certain unalienable Rights: Life and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

I’ve much less interest in either the religious or the political point than the rhetorical point.  The President’s paraphrase is interesting for two reasons: it preserves the politically incorrect “Men” and omits the less politically incorrect “Creator.”  “Men,” no hiccup; God, hiccup.

Why would this President — assailed in various corners for irreligiosity and Islamic sympathies — edit the Declaration of Independence to omit reference to the “Creator”?  Certainly that benign reference offends no one, and it is as non-denominational as it was possible to be in the 18th century (as Deist Thomas Jefferson precisely intended).

This is the President who wrote, in The Audacity of Hope, that he chose to follow Jesus because “what was intellectual and what was emotional joined, and the belief in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, that through him we could achieve eternal life — but also that, through good works we could find order and meaning here on Earth and transcend our limits and our flaws and our foibles — I found that powerful.”


Most of the religion of politicians is fake.  They pretend so as not to offend.  They act the part because the electoral damage of failing to act the part would be severe.  Politicians, the aspirants to power, believe first in power and its culture, and distantly third, in God.

So the President purports to believe in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, and that through him we can achieve eternal life — now that’s down-home religion — but he hiccups at referring to “the Creator” when he quotes the Declaration of Independence?

That hiccup comes from a thoroughly secular mind.  There is no religious sensibility here.  For the burgeoning swath of Americans who believe the President is a Muslim, take comfort, he is not.  His mind and heart are thoroughly secular, incapable of genuine religious devotion.  His sympathies for religions are political, not religious, impulses.

President Obama was the first president to mention non-believers in an inaugural address when he said, “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.”  Another interesting phrasing and sequencing.

We’re actually a nation overwhelmingly of Christians — 78.4% — compared to 0.6% Muslims, yet that is the President’s chosen coupling.  Jews, rhetorically cast with Hindus and non-believers, comprise 1.7% of our population, roughly three times the number of Muslims.  Buddhists, who are unmentioned, comprise 0.7% of the population, more than Muslims.  “Unitarians and other liberal faiths” also log in at 0.7%.

The President’s solicitude for Islam may or may not be a good thing, but it is political, not religious.  His sympathy for non-believers — who are 10.3% of the population (counting agnostics, atheists, and “secular unaffiliated”) may well be sincere.

Kendrick Macdowell is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.