State of the Union: The Secular Response

On Tuesday, President Obama gave his annual State of the Union Address. Recently, the Secular Coalition has been working more closely with the White House, including giving in-person input to encourage the recognition of nonbelievers and an accurate portrayal of religious liberty in the president's speech.

As a result of our work, the Presidential Proclamation on Religious Freedom Day, issued last week, recognized people of "no faith" and specifically included "atheists and agnostics" for the first time in over 200 years of Presidential proclamations.

In the lead-up to the speech, the Secular Coalition provided the White House with input on the State of the Union address. The submitted comments focused on areas in which secular issues aligned with the President's current policy agenda and covered issues of contraception coverage and false use of "religious liberty," the necessity of teaching evolution and fighting back against attempts to insert creationism in the classroom to provide a "high quality education," and recognizing the important role nonbelievers play in a religiously diverse country.

After all of our work with the White House, we were admittedly excited about this year's State of the Union Address. So, how did the President's speech do on secular issues? The results were mixed, but largely positive. While the president didn't specifically mention nontheists, he generally shied away from speaking about religion at all-which was one of our asks. He also made some key statements on issues important to the secular community, namely climate change. Here's how the President stacked up:

  • Someone needed it say it, and the President did. "The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact." And despite a spirited round of applause for his statement, there's an influential group of legislators who are not on board with what the rest of the country seems to recognize as settled science: the Republican members of the House Science Committee. This group has historically propped up false "scientific" debate and blocked legislation that would leave our children a safer world.
  • The President highlighted tax reform as a way to save money to invest in our country's infrastructure. His comment on "wasteful, complicated loopholes" focused on corporations; however, including churches and their "integrated auxiliaries" would raise billions for community improvement that helps all Americans, not just a select few. Addressing this issue would be simple: enforce the current tax exemption regulations against those churches that violate them. To make this possible, the current loopholes and protections need to be removed, creating a simpler and fairer tax code.
  • The President mentioned undoing the cuts to federally-funded research (including scientific research). Unfortunately, while this may be a priority of the President, this is a decision left up to Congress. Funding vaccine research and production is a core responsibility when it comes to protecting the safety and welfare of all Americans.
  • The President did mention religious groups during his speech once: he called on faith leaders (as well as business leaders, labor leaders and law enforcement) to act on immigration. The mention of religious groups understandably upset some in the nontheistic community, but we don't see this specific mention as necessarily negative. While not an issue of religion and government, immigration is an issue of community, hence the role of faith leaders. It is time for the secular movement to decide if addressing this issue is also important to the secular community. We do not need to agree, but as a community should discuss the moral, ethical, evidence-based reasons for immigration reform. If we want to be recognized as a community of invested Americans, we cannot stick our heads in the sand on issues that affect our entire country.
  • High quality education has always been a top priority for the secular movement. The skills highlighted by the President as crucial for the new economy, are skills the secular community champions: "problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, math." By focusing on these skills, the President is implicitly speaking out against programs that would diminish them, such as vouchers, and curricula that include the teaching of so-called intelligent design.
  • The President continued his push, from last year's speech, for high-quality pre-Kindergarten. He was clearly unhappy with the lack of progress and enlisted coalition partners to help get it done. That list had two obvious omissions: faith leaders and teachers. Faith-leaders is an omission we are pleased with, as the Secular Coalition has grave concerns as it relates to unlicensed religiously-affiliated child care centers. Their existence puts children in harm's way and the idea that they would receive federal funds to do so is atrocious. Fortunately, this has not been the case so far. However the omission of teachers is more concerning. While the listed coalition partners, including elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists are certainly necessary to get the structure of a nation-wide secular pre-K system in place, the framework of that system should be evidence-based on best practices in education.
  • President Obama spoke directly to women in the workplace. Specifically, to workplace mothers and pregnant women. Without diminishing those issues, women who want to hold off on having children, temporarily or permanently, were left out. He said "it is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode." What could be more outdated than debating birth control? An issue that was settled has now come back because employers want to tell their female employees to live their lives according to their boss' religion. If the President truly wants to "give every woman the opportunity she deserves," he will stand up against any and all attempts to limit a woman's access to controlling her body and her future.
  • The President spoke about our basic American ideals of "inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation." There could not have been a more perfect place to mention religiously motivated discrimination, especially against LGBT citizens. For his statement to ring true, anti-discrimination laws that protect the LGBT community should not have religious exemptions. Far from being "regardless of religion", these special provisions hold religion in the highest regard, written into our laws as a valid justification for hate.
  • Finally, the closing to every major speech given by almost any politician was the same on Tuesday night for President Obama: "God bless America." While the sentiment behind it is less religiously motivated and more ceremonial, it still makes 22 percent of Americans suddenly feel the last hour of inspiration was not for intended for them. Statements like these offer not-so-subtle insinuation that America offers "opportunity for all" with the usual footnotes of "if you believe in God." The problem is the lack of a good alternative --one that will speak to the entire country and evoke the same sense of closure to the speech and patriotism that are intended by these words. While challenging, this task is accomplishable, and the answer may already exist.

While the President's speech on Tuesday wasn't a major win for the movement, progress is being made, and we will continue to do our part in strengthening the separation between religion and government until the day it's no longer a question.




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