[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
I was among the billion people who watched the inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama. And like most of those people, I was moved and filled with hope for a better world.
For me, one of the striking points in the inauguration ceremony was that it started with a prayer by pastor Rev. Rick Warren, and ended with a benediction by pastor Rev. Joseph E. Lowery. During the whole ceremony, repeatedly, God was praised, His blessing was asked, and His Scriptures were evoked.
Imagine if something similar would happen in the inauguration of our next prime minister, who will probably be, again, Mr. Tayyip Erdoğan. Imagine if an imam would open his ceremony with prayers, and another imam would close it with blessings. Imagine if verses from the Koran were read out loud in the nation’s capital, Ankara, in order to sanctify its leadership.
Let me tell you what would happen: Turkey’s secularist establishment would go crazy and the country would fall into an acute crisis, and even come to the brink of a military coup. Thousands would rush to visit Anıtkabir, Atatürk’s tomb, and beg for his help against the “Islamists” who had taken over his legacy. Fellow columnists would tell you that the country was falling into “darkness,” and that we couldn’t waste time with childish things like democracy. Tanks could even hit the streets, as they did in 1997, to stage yet another “post-modern military coup.”
But let’s be fair and see the other side of the picture, too. Had imams blessed the inauguration of Turkey’s new prime minister, neither these clerics nor the PM himself would probably mention Christians, Jews, Hindus and “unbelievers” as our fellow citizens, as it was the case in Obama’s inauguration. Theirs would probably be a less pluralist and inclusivist form of faith. (One has to give credit to Mr. Erdoğan for trying to achieve progress in that regard, such as his campaign to reach out to the unorthodox Alevis, but Turkey has more way to go.)
Beneath this difference between Ankara and Washington, there lies the genius of what author Jon Meacham calls “the American Gospel.” The Founding Fathers of America enacted a public faith that embraces all of “God’s children” regardless of their race, creed and sect.
This “national religion” is based on various religious sources such as the Bible, but also, and maybe more so, on human reason. Thus the Deist, the Jew, Muslim, Christian or Hindu can interpret references to the “Creator,” “Nature’s God,” “the Supreme Judge of the world” and to “divine providence” in their own way. At the end of the day, the “self-evident” truth which matters is that the Creator created all men equal.
To be sure, it has taken a long time for America to realize and fulfill this principle. It has taken, for example, two centuries to overcome the suppression and exclusion of African-Americans. And many Americans continue to have a much less ecumenical understanding of religion that divides the world between friends versus foes, the chosen versus the damned.
This Manichean view get much worse and more severe when America feels itself under threat. After Pearl Harbor, all Asians were seen as the enemy’s fifth column. After 9/11, some Americans, including policy makers, started to see the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims as potential terrorists. Such cases of paranoid bigotry had harmed not just America itself, but, especially in the recent case, also the world.
All men, indeed
Yet the American Gospel still stands out there as a source of inspiration that will help overcome these crises and move toward the principles of justice and liberty for all. Today President Obama is the right person to carry that banner and lead America forward. I had personally canvassed for him in Virginia three months ago. I am now so happy to see him in the White House.
His presidency definitely signals a triumph for America’s civil rights movement. But there is much more way to go. Americans need to fully realize that all nations, including the ones with which they don’t have too many cultural ties, deserve justice and liberty as well. Yes, all men are created equal, and this dictum includes, for example, the downtrodden people of Palestine, too, who also deserve a “land of freedom.”
President Obama has given us the hope that he understands this and he will lead his nation accordingly. So help him God. He should proceed bravely and unyielding. If he does, he will be indeed a leader dear to all of us. But if he fails, alas, so will the American gospel.