And he was not lying. Today’s speech at the Washington prayer breakfast was remarkable. He talked about the importance of religious liberty. He talked about protecting innocent human life.
Yet even as our faith sustains us, it’s also clear that around the world freedom of religion is under threat. And that is what I want to reflect on this morning. We see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faithful. We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, or how they pray or who they love. Old tensions are stoked, fueling conflicts along religious lines, as we’ve seen in the Central African Republic recently, even though to harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship with God. Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don’t understand the faiths they claim to profess — for the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will.
Today, we profess the principles we know to be true. We believe that each of us is “wonderfully made” in the image of God. We, therefore, believe in the inherent dignity of every human being — dignity that no earthly power can take away. And central to that dignity is freedom of religion — the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear.
At the liberal National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters quotes the president and responds:
This would make sense if he had added, “Therefore, I am instructing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to stop obstructing the awarding of contracts to combat human trafficking to the USCCB which does such great work in that field. I am also instructing Secretary Sebelius to devise a better means of delivering the free contraceptive care to women who want, finding a way that does not infringe on the religious liberty of those religious institutions that object to contraception and, further, I am instructing the Attorney General to let the University of Notre Dame alone. And, I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize on behalf of the Department of Justice for that ridiculous brief in Hosanna-Tabor.”
But, the President did not say any of that, which makes what he did say about religious freedom seem at least a little bit rich.
Thank you, Michael Sean Winters! Would that someone in the White House — clearly knowing that as word gets around that the Little Sisters of the Poor don’t have the religious liberty to operate homes for the elderly poor in good conscience under Obama administration policy, the Obama legacy is in further jeopardy — would be this sensible. But instead, they insist on looking away from the religious-liberty problem at home: Here we are in the U.S. not robustly protecting religious liberty. The Little Sisters of the Poor are. The Mennonite Hahn family that runs Conestoga Wood is. The Green family at Hobby Lobby are. But the president simply wants you to look away.
Absolutely, we need to support the Nigerian man who puts his life in danger to go to Mass on Sunday. How do we do that if we don’t even protect the religious liberty of the nuns here at home who had to go to the Supreme Court for help from the Obama administration? How do we do that when under our watch the United States ceased to be a beacon for religious liberty?
The president does this in good conscience, I believe, because faith has been merely a safe harbor in a storm and a comfort (as it was expressed in recent years on Meet the Press) to many of us who have all too often tolerated — and even led efforts (JFK? personally opposed? Catholics Need Not Reside in New York?) to privatize religion and drive it to the sidelines of American life, invoking God in speeches and keeping him to an hour on the Sabbath or weddings and funerals. The greatest threat to religious liberty is the secularization internalized by people who profess faith. Which is why it is so important that we applaud and support the people who are fighting for religious liberty in America. They are fighting for a flourishing civil society and they are doing the work of rebuilding and renewal. What is real faith? You don’t have to buy in, but people who have it sure can make good neighbors and can help keep us honest.
And what about the innocent? Given the president tweeted about Wendy Davis’s pink sneakered stand off against protections for some women and children facing late-term abortions, he reminded us this morning that the strategy continues to be an insistence that we look away. By using words like and freedom and fitting them to your agenda. Mr. President, two weeks ago we marked 41 years since the Roe v. Wade decision. Groups you support — that you have asked God to bless — celebrated that. We do not have moral credibility on protecting the innocent if we continue this slide deeper into a culture of death that poisons so much of our politics and brings such pain to lives.
Some headlines cover the prayer breakfast speech by simply saying that the president and First Lady showed their spiritual sides. The president of the United States exposed the state of the soul of a nation, loosening its grip on that which made it exceptional, continuing to dilute the meaning of words, with many Christians really losing out on the transformational proposals of the Gospel, and the country losing out on the benefits that real faith in its communities and nation!
Thank God for those who are fighting for religious freedom here at home. For the sake of good stewardship and to be hope in the world for those who fight for it with their lives abroad. I’d love to have been able to the applaud the president this morning, because the plight of Christians persecuted the world over for the freedom to love God, truly, should bring us together and make us, as Pope Francis, has said, weep in prayer and insist on leadership.
When professing Christians try to conform faith to our image, rather than let God change us, we all lose out.