Paul Greenberg

They set a table for the president of the United States in the presence of his country's enemies at this year's session of the UN General Assembly. But this time, instead of apologizing for American principles, Barack Obama stepped forward to defend them -- after weeks of pussyfooting around them. And they were first principles, too, as in the First Amendment with its words about freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

What a refreshing change from the quivering silence, followed by fulsome apologias, with which Washington first greeted the murderous assaults on our legations throughout the Islamic world. This time, the president's voice was clear, direct, forceful, grounded in American history and principles:

"Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views -- even views that we disagree with." Freedom of speech, he pointed out, is inseparable from freedom of religion, for "efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities. ... Given the power of faith in our lives and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech."

An Oliver Wendell Holmes or Louis Dembitz Brandeis could scarcely have put the American faith in freedom better. Yes, the president's speech contained the usual boilerplate distancing this country from that stupid little video insulting the Prophet Mohammed -- the one that has been used as an excuse for arson and murder by al-Qaida types, and by all those who seek to appease them. As if it were necessary to explain to civilized people that, because a free country allows bad ideas to be expressed, it must mean we endorse them.

This time, it was the president's defense of American freedoms that captured the headlines, and should have. That was the part of his speech that was new -- and news. Good news, welcome news. This president can listen to his critics after all, and even change course.

It was particularly refreshing to hear Barack Obama defend freedom of religion after all his administration has done, and continues to do, to restrict that freedom for faiths who still believe in the sanctity of human life, specifically the Roman Catholic Church.

This administration has tried to tell churches what teachers they must hire or fire in their religious schools, and force Catholic schools, hospitals and universities to subsidize practices that go against the church's beliefs -- like contraception, sterilization and abortion. That struggle between a church and a state seeking to intrude on its beliefs continues even as the president utters fine words about freedom of religion.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.