She means it as a compliment. At OnFaith, author Diana Butler Bass writes that President Barack Obama is reinventing American civil religion for the spiritual-but-not-religious age. It is “obvious,” she writes, “that the God of Obama’s public speech is not the God of previous presidents.” He has “moved beyond specifically biblical images and language toward a broader set of spiritual themes to speak to for a diverse American future.”
To illustrate, Bass offers the president’s use of the term “journey” in his second inaugural address. Journey, she explains, “is not only a biblical image”:
It is a central theme to many faiths: the Buddhist seeking enlightenment; a Native American on a vision quest; a Muslim embarked on the Hajj; a Jew hoping for “next year in Jerusalem” at Passover; a Catholic visiting a shrine; a Protestant tracing the footsteps of Martin Luther; a Wiccan making a way to Stonehenge; a humanist celebrating Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. We are a nation of spiritual migrants and immigrants, a restless sort of people, on innumerable sojourns paying homage to our saints and heroes, always searching out new meaning in the universe we inhabit. . . .
President Obama proposed … a journey toward a deep realization of community, prosperity, mutual care, stewardship of the Earth, peacemaking, and human rights. These six ideals form an American creed, the fundamental aspects of the democratic project. Each one of these could be interpreted as Christian or Jewish (as they have traditionally been) or could be much more widely understood through other religious perspectives. The address ended with a call to action: Serve the poor, have hope in the future, renew your hearts. Make new the nation’s ancient covenant of justice and equality in this uncertain world. Create a new American future.
Bass writes that future historians may well see President Obama’s redefinition of our civil religion–what she calls his “innovative form of pluralistic post-religious civil discourse”–as one of his “greatest achievements.” I assume she’s not being ironic.
It’s easy to chuckle at Bass’s earnest enthusiasm, but she may be onto something. America is now, and will for the foreseeable future remain, an overwhelmingly Christian nation. That’s just demography. The percentage of Americans who adhere to non-Christian religions, although growing, remains very small. But, since around 1990, there has been a large increase in people who claim no religious identity at all–the so-called “Nones.” By some accounts, Nones now make up about 20% of the general population and about 30% of young Americans. These are dramatic numbers, indeed.
The sort of all-inclusive, vaguely spiritual language Bass cites seems crafted to appeal to Nones. Surveys show that Nones don’t object to spirituality as such. Rather, they object to organized religions, especially organized religions that make exclusive truth claims. So the president’s language may reflect a recognition of a new force in American politics. If the evangelical imagery of George W. Bush was, as critics complained, a kind of dog whistle to call out his base, perhaps the New Age imagery of Barack Obama is a kind of dog whistle to call out his. It seems to be working. According to Bass, in the 2012 election, Nones overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama.