President Obama's Cheap Talk on Religious Liberty

Erica Wanis
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Posted: Feb 11, 2015 12:01 AM
President Obama's Cheap Talk on Religious Liberty

Much ado has been made over President Obama's remarks at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, namely his comparison between the Christian Crusades and the racism of the Jim Crow South and the heinous tactics of ISIS. Christians are outraged, as are most conservatives. Even MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell found the President's condescending (and, it turns out, inaccurate) history lesson in poor taste, coming as it did mere days after a Jordanian pilot was burned alive at the hands of Muslim extremists.

Needless to say, enough ink and airtime and bandwidth have been expended excoriating the President on this point. So much so that a second and perhaps more fundamentally problematic issue with his speech has gone unaddressed. A good deal of the President's talk revolved around the sacred importance of religious liberty. He praised it as a bastion of democratic society and a cornerstone of America's constitutional order. He lauded the good work done by those who dedicate their lives to caring for "the least of these." He had a great deal to say about the value of humility, the importance of heeding God's commandments, and the responsibility to speak out against agents of hate, oppression, and religious perversion. From the speech:

"And, first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt – not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth – our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion – any religion – for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom – freedom of religion – the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination."

To read the above words, you'd think that the President is a man who in his own life and in his own administration accords great respect and deference to religious faith and those who embrace it. You'd think he is a man conscious of his own limitations, humble in the face of what he doesn't clearly understand and hesitant to use his bully pulpit to impose his own religious beliefs upon others. As with so much of what our President says, however, his actions belie his words. In the same way that his promise of "if you like your health care, you can keep it" was a semantic manipulation that only a lawyer could muster, his proclamations of respect for religious liberty are dubious at best.

The President talks a good game, but when you examine his actions with regard to religious liberty, it's quickly apparent that his talk is cheap. Unless you subscribe to his particular brand of "faith," don't expect this President to lift a pen or a phone in defense of your religious liberty. What you can expect is a man determined to eradicate every last vestige of orthodox religious influence from the public square.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis describes the watered-down understanding of the Christian God that prevails in contemporary secular society:

"By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness – the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, 'What does it matter so long as they are contented?' We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves', and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, 'a good time was had by all'"

So much of what our President and his ideological ilk mean when they refer to religious faith is contained in the sentiment above. For them, the only kind of acceptable faith and the only kind of acceptable God are those that offer uncritical affirmation. This brand of faith posits only one commandment: If it feels good and can be made to sound "nice," do it. Any conception of God that includes uncomfortable moral prescriptions is not merely rejected, but targeted for eradication through litigation and cultural warfare. The President invokes a spirit of religious humility when in reality he could hardly be less tolerant. He is an influential agent of what Mary Eberstadt of the Ethics and Public Policy Center calls "the new intolerance."

President Obama speaks of humility; he pays lip service to compassion and understanding while practicing an insidious form of civil persecution and oppression of those who dare to put their faith into practice. As Eberstadt writes:

"For there is no mercy for putting butchers and bakers and candlestick makers in the legal dock for refusing to renounce their religious beliefs – but that's what the new intolerance does. There is no mercy in stalking and threatening Christian pastors for being Christian pastors, or in casting out social scientists who turn up unwanted facts, or in telling a flight attendant she can't wear a crucifix, or in persecuting organizations that do charitable work – but the new intolerance does these things, too. . . . Above all, there is no mercy in slandering people by saying that religious believers "hate" certain people when in fact they do not; or that they are "phobes" of one stripe or another when in fact they are not. This, too, happens all over public space these days, with practically no pushback from anyone. This, too, is the new intolerance at work."

I am reminded of President Obama's infamous remark about bitter Midwesterners clinging to guns and religion. Despite later attempts to clarify his meaning (as usual, everyone misunderstood him and needed re-educating), he made the comments while speaking to a group of progressive liberal supporters in San Francisco, and his meaning was crystal clear: Religion – at least the kind of religion that still embraces ideas of moral absolutes, human sin, immutable truths and the like – is a crutch for the ignorant and disenfranchised, a crutch that needs to be replaced by an ever-evolving social consensus that defines what is politically correct, supported by the benevolent arms of Uncle Sam.. President Obama doesn't identify with the faith of people like that; he sees them as lost sheep that need to be herded back into the Big Government fold, re-educated to believe that Christ came into the world and died on a cross so that everyone could be free to follow their bliss wherever it may lead.

The contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act is a reflection of this idea. The President and his ideological cohorts view free contraception as a fundamental, inalienable right; call it a penumbra or emanation of the Declaration's "pursuit of happiness." Anyone who disagrees with this notion or takes issue with the morality of preventing conception or terminating the life of an unborn child is an enemy of liberty that must be thwarted.

By now we're all familiar with the cases. In response to the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act, certain entities petitioned the Obama Administration for a religious exemption. Hobby Lobby wanted an exemption from four of 20 varieties of contraception. Conestoga Wood Specialties and the Little Sisters of the Poor wanted nothing to do with offering contraceptives and abortifacients to their employees due to strong religious objections to such technology. They didn't want to pay for it and they didn't want the government paying for it for them. And they didn't want extra time, as New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan famously said, to figure out how to violate their consciences.

President Obama refused to accept this. His religious humility wasn't adequate to imagine that some people believe that God designed sex for the purpose of procreation and that preventing the creation of life, or worse, terminating a newly conceived life, is a grave sin. He was unable to imagine that an employer who holds these beliefs would be troubled by financing the commission of such sins by others. He couldn't understand why Catholic nuns might have a problem with the morning-after pill, or any pill at all that prevents conception from occurring or terminates it after the fact. (Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising considering that Mr. Obama twice voted against "born alive" legislation while serving in the Illinois senate).

In light of this inability to identify with those whose religious faith leads them to different conclusions than his own, the President branded these petitioners as foot soldiers in the Progressive-manufactured "war on women" and took them to court. So much for humility. Thankfully, the twelve justices that sit on the highest judicial bench in the land have a bit more appreciation for religious liberty than the current Commander in Chief, and the case for religious exemption to the contraception mandate was vindicated.

How any person of integrity could execute the above actions and then stand before an audience of religious leaders and claim spiritual solidarity with them is beyond comprehension, but that's exactly what President Obama did. It's what he does all the time, as consistency, transparency, and honesty don't seem to rank high on his list of political priorities.

Ultimately, the Prayer Breakfast speech was vintage Obama: A hefty dose of professorial lecturing about the sins of the majority (re. Western, white, Christian) as a means of downplaying the barbarous acts of a perceived minority (remember, to Progressives criticism of Islam is tantamount to racism). Offensive? Absolutely. Insensitive, given the atrocities being committed by ISIS on a daily basis? Yes. Surprising? Unfortunately no.

If Obama had spoken honestly, he would have talked more about his admiration for the separation between Church and State (at least as he understands it to be). He would have told the audience that he thinks religion is swell, so long as any and all vestiges of faithful conviction are checked at the front door. He would have explained that his understanding of God's love requires an uncritical embrace of the social and political agendas of LGBTQs and feminists at the expense of historically venerated, traditional conceptions about marriage and family.

This is what he should have said because this is how he really feels, at least so far as his actions indicate. In his eyes, the faithful remnant in today's secular progressive America only clings to guns and religion because government has let them down. The sooner Big Brother can realize its dream of cultivating a nation of Julia's, the sooner the need for old time religion and all its pesky notions about God and morality and man's ultimate purpose will be relegated to the ash bin of history.