Tag Archives: Barack Obama

President Obama and Pope Francis on Mideast Christians

In the Boston Globe, the always worthwhile John Allen analyzes today’s meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis. Although the two men will agree on issues like economic inequality, Allen says, they will likely differ on others, including, notably, Mideast policy.

Pope Francis often highlights the crisis Mideast Christians face; President Obama, not so much. “Few on the Catholic side are inclined to see the Obama administration as a great defender of those Christians at risk,” Allen writes, “while standing up against violent anti-Christian persecution is emerging as a cornerstone of Francis’ social and political agenda”:

On Egypt, Obama took a “pox on both your houses” stance last summer with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood and the army after a military council declared controversial President Mohamed Morsi deposed. The Vatican was more favorable to the military intervention, inclined to see it less as a coup and more as a reflection of popular will.

In Syria, the Obama administration has made the removal of President Bashar al-Assad a precondition for any negotiated end to that country’s civil war, while the Vatican is more skeptical about regime change, in part out of concern that whatever follows Assad might actually be worse.

Underlying these contrasts is that the Vatican’s reading of the Middle East is heavily conditioned by the perceptions of the Christian minorities in these countries, who generally see either a powerful military or strong-arm rulers as a buffer between themselves and Islamic radicalism. They often point to Iraq, where a once-thriving Christian community has been gutted in the chaos that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein.

You can read the full article here.

Barack Obama and the Politics of the Nones

She means it as a compliment. At OnFaith, author Diana Butler Bass writes that President Barack Obama is reinventing American civil religion for the spiritual-but-not-religious age. It is “obvious,” she writes, “that the God of Obama’s public speech is not the God of previous presidents.” He has “moved beyond specifically biblical images and language toward a broader set of spiritual themes to speak to for a diverse American future.”

To illustrate, Bass offers the president’s use of the term “journey” in his second inaugural address. Journey, she explains, “is not only a biblical image”:

It is a central theme to many faiths: the Buddhist seeking enlightenment; a Native American on a vision quest; a Muslim embarked on the Hajj; a Jew hoping for “next year in Jerusalem” at Passover; a Catholic visiting a shrine; a Protestant tracing the footsteps of Martin Luther; a Wiccan making a way to Stonehenge; a humanist celebrating Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. We are a nation of spiritual migrants and immigrants, a restless sort of people, on innumerable sojourns paying homage to our saints and heroes, always searching out new meaning in the universe we inhabit. . . .

President Obama proposed … a journey toward a deep realization of community, prosperity, mutual care, stewardship of the Earth, peacemaking, and human rights. These six ideals form an American creed, the fundamental aspects of the democratic project. Each one of these could be interpreted as Christian or Jewish (as they have traditionally been) or could be much more widely understood through other religious perspectives. The address ended with a call to action: Serve the poor, have hope in the future, renew your hearts. Make new the nation’s ancient covenant of justice and equality in this uncertain world. Create a new American future.

Bass writes that future historians may well see President Obama’s redefinition of our civil religion–what she calls his “innovative form of pluralistic post-religious civil discourse”–as one of his “greatest achievements.” I assume she’s not being ironic.

It’s easy to chuckle at Bass’s earnest enthusiasm, but she may be onto something. America is now, and will for the foreseeable future remain, an overwhelmingly Christian nation. That’s just demography. The percentage of Americans who adhere to non-Christian religions, although growing, remains very small. But, since around 1990, there has been a large increase in people who claim no religious identity at all–the so-called “Nones.” By some accounts, Nones now make up about 20% of the general population and about 30% of young Americans. These are dramatic numbers, indeed.

The sort of all-inclusive, vaguely spiritual language Bass cites seems crafted to appeal to Nones. Surveys show that Nones don’t object to spirituality as such. Rather, they object to organized religions, especially organized religions that make exclusive truth claims. So the president’s language may reflect a recognition of a new force in American politics. If the evangelical imagery of George W. Bush was, as critics complained, a kind of dog whistle to call out his base, perhaps the New Age imagery of Barack Obama is a kind of dog whistle to call out his. It seems to be working. According to Bass, in the 2012 election, Nones overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama.

National Day of Prayer

You might not have noticed it, but today is the National Day of Prayer. I should say, a National Day of Prayer, as that’s what the US Code calls it. Every year, by law, the President issues a proclamation “designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, or as individuals.” President Obama’s proclamation this year is rather moving. It stresses the comfort that Americans draw, in times of suffering, from the simple fact that other Americans are praying for them:

Prayer brings communities together and can be a wellspring of strength and support. In the aftermath of senseless acts of violence, the prayers of countless Americans signal to grieving families and a suffering community that they are not alone. Their pain is a shared pain, and their hope a shared hope. Regardless of religion or creed, Americans reflect on the sacredness of life and express their sympathy for the wounded, offering comfort and holding up a light in an hour of darkness.

The proclamation itself ends with a prayer: “I join the citizens of our Nation in giving thanks, in accordance with our own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and in asking for God’s continued guidance, mercy, and protection.”

The day is not without its critics. The Freedom from Religion Foundation once filed a lawsuit, dismissed on standing grounds, arguing that a National Day of Prayer violates the Constitution, and the American Humanist Association hosts a competing National Day of Reason every year. (You might not have noticed that, either.) Orthodox theists of various sorts might find the day objectionable as well. To whom or what are Americans being invited to pray? Doesn’t officially-encouraged prayer to a nondescript deity lead to confusion and least-common-denominator religion? Not everyone finds generic prayers so harmless.

I’m not sure what the answer is, except to say that designating a National Day of Prayer seems entirely American. Public religious references of a nonsectarian character have long been a part of the American tradition, for better or worse, and there’s no stopping them now. The wisdom of our ancestors is in such things, as Dickens once observed in another context, and if we disturb them, the Country’s done for. Purists, of the secular and orthodox variety, have to adjust.

Thanksgiving Proclamation, 2012

A little while ago, the White House released this year’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. The tradition of Thanksgiving proclamations dates back to George Washington, and in his proclamation this year, President Obama touches on the customary themes. The proclamation begins, in a very American, nonsectarian way, with a reminder of the holiday’s religious content:

On Thanksgiving Day, Americans everywhere gather with family and friends to recount the joys and blessings of the past year. This day is a time to take stock of the fortune we have known and the kindnesses we have shared, grateful for the God-given bounty that enriches our lives. As many pause to lend a hand to those in need, we are also reminded of the indelible spirit of compassion and mutual responsibility that has distinguished our Nation since its earliest days.

After reviewing the history of the holiday and praising the good works of Americans in the armed forces and civilian life, the proclamation continues with  a more specific religious reference to the Christian concept of grace — though, lest anyone get the wrong idea, the reference is quickly diluted by a nod to the “grace” bestowed by other people:

On Thanksgiving Day, individuals from all walks of life come together to celebrate this most American tradition, grateful for the blessings of family, community, and country. Let us spend this day by lifting up those we love, mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God and by all who have made our lives richer with their presence.

And the proclamation concludes with the customary exhortation:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 22, 2012, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage the people of the United States to join together — whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors — and give thanks for all we have received in the past year, express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and share our bounty with others.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

The Catholic Vote and the Contraception Mandate

Here’s an interesting piece of data from Tuesday’s exit polls: President Obama won the Catholic vote. The margin was narrow — 50%-48%, which more or less mirrors the President’s popular-vote victory — but, still, he won. Now, you might say, this isn’t surprising. Catholics have traditionally leaned Democratic, and President Obama’s campaign stressed social justice concerns that resonate with Catholic teaching. One should remember, though, that the Obama Administration imposed the contraception mandate, and that Catholic bishops made the mandate a salient issue. Requiring Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives and abortifacients to employees, the bishops said, seriously threatens Catholics’ religious freedom. Apparently, the majority of Catholic voters disagreed. Or thought that the threat to religious freedom, if it existed, was not as important as other issues, like increasing taxes on wealthy Americans and leaving entitlement programs untouched. Perhaps Latino Catholics voted “ethnicity” rather than “religion.” Who knows? The point is, the majority of Catholic voters apparently did not accept the bishops’ understanding of the importance of the issue.

Leaving aside whether voters who disregard their bishops’ views on the contraception mandate are erring as Catholics – a question on which I’m not qualified to state an opinion – I wonder what implications this vote has for the future of the mandate. Legally, the lawsuits under RFRA will go forward, and I think they have a fair shot at success. But the atmosphere may have changed. It won’t show up expressly in judicial opinions, of course, but I wonder whether judges who support the mandate won’t feel more emboldened to find that the mandate doesn’t “substantially burden” Catholic institutions.  And I wonder whether the Obama Administration won’t feel more comfortable taking a hard line on whatever “accommodation” they are preparing for the final regulations, due before August 2013. The courts may or may not follow the election returns, but politicians surely do.

The President, Faith, and Same-Sex Marriage

An interesting point that may be overlooked in President Obama’s announcement yesterday that he supports same-sex marriage. According to the President, his faith as a Christian helped lead him to this position. Referring to his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, he said:

This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others.

But, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

Of course, as the President suggested, not everyone agrees with his assessment of what Christianity requires in this respect — the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example. Still, in stating that his religious faith helped determine his position, the President is well within the American tradition of political leaders who explain their policies in religious terms.

Commonweal on the Bishops’ Religious Freedom Statement

Over the past week, I’ve written about criticism from the Catholic right of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent statement on religious freedom. Of course, there’s also been criticism from the Catholic left. This week, Commonweal has a negative editorial about the bishops’ statement. More in sorrow than in anger, Commonweal maintains that the statement veers into political partisanship. The  bishops’ simplistic, one-sided language, the editorial complains, makes them sound more like Republican party operatives than pastors. Young people already are turning away from organized religion because it seems too political and conservative on social issues. Surely the bishops do not want to exacerbate that trend?

I wonder about this criticism. It’s true that the bishops’ statement highlights the Obama Administration’s contraceptives mandate. The mandate is the first on the list of threats to religious freedom the bishops identify, and surely served as the prime motivation for their statement. But the second item on the list is state anti-immigration laws, like the recent Alabama measure forbidding assistance to undocumented immigrants. In criticizing these laws, the bishops are hardly mouthing GOP talking points. Republican politicians often favor such measures, while the Obama Administration has filed a lawsuit challenging the Alabama law.

Even with respect to the contraceptives mandate, the bishops could be forgiven for saying that they didn’t start this fight. The bishops surely knew that objecting to the HHS mandate would have the effect of highlighting the Church’s position on contraception, and that this position is unpopular, particularly with Millennials. But what choice was there? It was the Obama Administration that issued the mandate during an election year. For that matter, it was the Obama Administration that argued this Term in Hosanna-Tabor that the religion clauses did not even apply to a church’s decision to fire a minister, a position that a unanimous Court characterized as “remarkable.” If it’s inappropriately partisan for religious organizations to respond when government takes steps like these, then religious organizations can never defend themselves in public debate. That may be a good thing from a spiritual point of view, but I don’t think it’s a result Commonweal would approve.

Douthat on the New HHS Regulations

Ross Douthat has an interesting piece in the Times today about the Obama Administration’s decision to require religiously-affiliated universities and hospitals to cover sterilization and contraceptive drugs, including drugs considered to be abortifacients, in employees’ health care plans. An exemption applies to religious institutions that primarily serve members of their own faith, rather than the public at large – parish churches, for example. Douthat takes the traditional libertarian line: even if one disagrees with religious objections to contraception, such that one would oppose government’s attempt to discourage their use, one might wish to allow private voluntary associations, like churches, to conduct themselves according to values that government does not share. Otherwise, by eliminating the state’s competition, one risks creating a despotic government that ultimately will trample on the liberties of the people. Douthat also points out the perverse incentives the proposed regs create. If a religiously-affiliated institution believes that conscience requires that it not cover sterilization and contraceptive drugs, including drugs considered to be abortifacients, for its employees, the institution must limit its charitable work to co-religionists. Not exactly encouraging Good Samaritans.

Washington Post on Contraceptive Coverage

Here’s a bit of surprise: the Washington Post has come out against the Obama Administration’s decision to require religiously-affiliated employers  to cover contraceptives, including abortifacient drugs, in their health-insurance plans:

The best approach would have been for HHS to stick to its original conclusion that contraception coverage should generally be required but to expand the scope of its proposed exemption for religiously affiliated employers who claim covering contraception would violate their religious views. The administration’s feint at a compromise — giving such employers another year to figure out how to comply with the requirement — is unproductive can-kicking that fails to address the fundamental problem of requiring religiously affiliated entities to spend their own money in a way that contradicts the tenets of their faith. . . .

[T]he significance of the new health-care law is that the federal government will for the first time require all employers to provide insurance coverage for their workers — in other words, to spend their own money to help underwrite this coverage — or, in many cases, to pay a penalty. In this circumstance, requiring a religiously affiliated employer to spend its own money in a way that violates its religious principles does not make an adequate accommodation for those deeply held views. Having recognized the principle of a religious exemption, the administration should have expanded it.