On February 6th at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., President Obama affirmed that we are “all children of a loving God; brothers and sisters called to make His work our own. But in this work, as Lincoln said, our concern should not be whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.”
It was important, Obama said, that “as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion. . . . [This] freedom safeguards religion . . . [and] religion strengthens America. Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.”
In addition, the President declared, “promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.” Therefore, the U.S. must take steps to challenge the threats to that freedom around the world. “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, . . . 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.”
Specific criticisms for violations of religious freedom were directed by the President at China, Burma, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Syria and North Korea.
The President also made a personal confession of his own religious faith. He said, God had “directed my path to Chicago and my work with churches who were intent on breaking the cycle of poverty in hard-hit communities there. . . . [The] church fed me . . .[and] led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior . . . [and] to Michelle — the love of my life — and it blessed us with two extraordinary daughters [and] to public service. And the longer I serve, especially in moments of trial or doubt, the more thankful I am of God’s guiding hand.”
Earlier this year the President, proclaiming January 16th as Religious Freedom Day, emphasized that “America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals — freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.”
A similar statement about Religious Freedom Day was made by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. She said, “Protecting freedom of religion is a cornerstone of American foreign policy, carried out by prioritizing accountability for religiously-motivated violence, urging governments to adopt legal protections for religious minorities, and promoting societal respect for religious diversity. And at the United Nations, we work with our partners to fight for the world’s religious minorities, including adoption of the landmark Human Rights Council resolution calling on member states to combat intolerance, violence, and discrimination based on religion.”
 The New York Times and Washington Post issued reports on the President’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. Earlier posts have discussed the work on international freedom of religion by the U.S. Department of State and by the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
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Comment: President Obama Criticized for Not Addressing U.S.
Religious Freedom Issues
Kathleen Parker, a Washington Post columnist, criticizes President Obama for not discussing issues of U.S. religious liberty in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. She notes that the President did not even mention the current cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the First Amendment freedom of religion clause is being used to challenge the constitutionality of the contraception mandate in Obamacare.
My response to Parker is that these issues are being addressed in those cases, with both sides having legitimate arguments, and that the Court will resolve those legal disputes. We have legitimate, peaceful ways to resolve disputes of this nature unlike the problems of religious freedom in many countries of the world.
Parker, Obama’s blind spot on religious liberty, Wash. Post (Feb. 8, 2014), http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/kathleen-parker-obama-ignores-his-attacks-on-religious-liberty/2014/02/07/d4209ef2-903b-11e3-b46a-5a3d0d2130da_print.html.