Barack Obama: Waving Goodbye to the Humanist-in-Chief

Barack Obama: Waving Goodbye to the Humanist-in-Chief January 17, 2017

While Barack Obama isn’t a self-declared humanist, he was raised by one. Indeed, he’s been the most atheist-positive president in history. No other president has mentioned nonbelievers in their inaugural speech.


Hopefully, Barack Obama won't be the last humanist-in-chief.
Photo credit: Pete Souza.

The pixel mines have been working overtime to supply the words spilled on what Obama’s presidency has meant to the African-American community. And rightly so. But I think we need to spare a few pixels to pay tribute to his other pioneering precedent, as the nation’s first secular-raised Commander-in-Chief.

If the rise of the nones continues apace, he won’t be the last.

In fact, President Obama made a practice of regularly mentioning nonbelievers whenever he’s listed faith groups in his speeches, which he proudly pointed out in an interview with Bill Maher.

That is certainly a far cry from the what the Bush family dynasty paterfamilias famously said on the campaign trail for the presidency in 1987 in response to questions from the late Robert I. Sherman, a reporter for American Atheist:

No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.


Yes, I support the separation of church and state. I’m just not very high on atheists.”

Well, I wasn’t that high on him, either, thank you very much. Though compared to his son, George W. Bush, he was practically Lincoln.

Despite what atheists might wish to believe, we have to accept what Barack Obama has repeatedly asserted: He is a Christian.

Still, while Barack Obama looks like a Christian and acts like a Christian, he quacks like someone who was raised by a nonbeliever. His anthropologist mother instilled in him the values of humanism and taught him to respect all religious beliefs, including those of the godless.

That’s something we will lose when Barack Obama leaves office in a few days. Though Donald Trump is no evangelical, he has a sociopath’s instinct for pandering to prejudices and base instincts, as shown by his overwhelming support among evangelicals.

Barack Obama’s Secular Humanist Upbringing

There is a good reason for President Obama’s regular shoutouts to atheists. He was raised by a mother he’s called “the last of the great secular humanists.” (Let’s not address the reference to last; it’s affectionate rhetoric.) His half-sister called their mom an agnostic.

Barack’s absentee Kenyan dad was indeed raised as a Muslim–as so many Republicans are fond of pointing out. But Barack Sr. was an atheist by the time he married Stanley Ann Dunham.

(What he’s most assuredly not is a Muslim. Even our “esteemed” incoming president has backed off that baseless and basely racist claim.)

Still, I think it’s fair to say that our departing president is a humanist born and bred. President Obama might not label himself as a secular humanist, he’s governed with compassionate values and set forth humanistic policy goals.

As President Obama said on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast, regarding his late mother:

I always call her the last of the great secular humanists. She thought all religions had something to say and she thought all cultures were fascinating and…we’d go to church for Easter sometimes…but she instilled in me these core values, that for a while I thought were corny, and then right around twenty, you start realizing, you know honesty, kindness, hard work, responsibility, looking after other people, they’re actually pretty good values.

Indeed they are. And, as card-carrying humanists, we need to take up the battle flag to fight for those human-centered values. President Trump–ugh, I still can’t bear to say that or even type it–certainly won’t.

Barack Obama’s Next Political (and Humanist) Mission

Fortunately, Citizen Obama won’t be retiring to a beach house in Hawaii to lick his wounds as his signature accomplishments are dismantled one by one. Barack is throwing himself into a new venture that may in the long run change the hyper-partisan climate in Washington that thwarted so many of his plans.

In 2014 the GOP drew 52 percent of the vote, yet garnered 57 percent of congressional seats. The victors had decades of Republican gerrymandering to thank for their data-carved safe districts.

Meanwhile, the Democratic talent pool has been ever-shrinking in state governments, the farm team for the national political stage. According the Daily Kos:

Republicans have total control over 25 states outright and another two where they can override a Democratic governor’s vetoes. These 27 states cover 56 percent of the population. Meanwhile, Democrats have total control outright in a mere six states and veto-proof majorities to override a Republican governor in just two more. These eight Democratic-controlled states add up to only 19 percent of the population, or roughly one-third as much as Republicans control.

In many ways, this stranglehold has put the GOP in a demographic bind, though it helped hand the presidency to Donald Trump. Republican-leaning groups are on the decline. And as their numbers dwindle, they will have to appeal to burgeoning sectors of the electorate such as Hispanics.

But gerrymandering has produced an ever more polarized congress on both sides, as Democrats are shunted into liberal concentration camps, I mean legislative districts. That’s hardly conducive to the give-and-take of political negotiations.

This issue is of tremendous importance as we prepare for the 2020 census, which will shape our politics for the next decade.

Yet it’s not just the Democratic Party in jeopardy. Gerrymandering is corrosive to the democratic process in general. That’s why our most intellectual of presidents has made eliminating gerrymandering his post-presidential crusade.

Republicans love to mock Barack Obama’s roots as a community organizer, the words dripping with contempt. But of course that was nothing more than a racist dog whistle.

Still, in many ways, President Obama is returning to his political roots. Though he’ll be ostensibly working to give the Democratic Party greater grass-roots power, at heart he’s still fighting for the underserved and to give a voice to the powerless. He understands that the path to building community strength lies in organizing it.

And the best way to support humanistic values is to to fight anti-democratic Republican electoral maneuverings. After all, the GOP certainly won’t “look out for other people.”

This new calling will be Barack Obama’s last next great act of humanism.

Photo credit: Pete Souza.
Photo credit: Pete Souza.

**Parts of this post previously appeared in The Secular Spectrum.**

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