It was time again today for the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual occasion for the President of the United States to reaffirm his piety in general and his Christianity in particular. While again declaring Jesus his personal savior, President Obama made nice as usual to all the major faiths, insisting that religion, properly understood, is a positive force in the world. It inspires people to acts of conscience, he said, his implication being that for some religion is not just the sufficient but the necessary impetus for such acts. He appears convinced that human dignity depends on our having been "wonderfully made in the image of God," and that thus grounded, that dignity is something that "no earthly power can take away."
Obama then warned that "around the world freedom of religion is under threat." Of course, he failed to acknowledge the threat to "freedom of religion" some fellow Americans perceive in his own health-care law, but he took threats abroad quite seriously. For some observers, this part of his speech is a no-win scenario for the President. As I suggested, some domestic critics will find his solicitude for foreign people of faith hypocritical. Foreign critics will see the speech as another excuse for an American president to claim unearned moral superiority by scolding other countries for their intolerance. For instance, he chided China for its repression of Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in its far west, arguing that "China's potential rests on upholding universal rights." In general, he argues that "no society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all its peoples, including religious minorities."
That sounds very nice, but it all seems to rest on an unexamined premise. Do religions, be they minorities or majorities, uphold universal rights? Do religions guarantee the rights of all people? Obama believes that they do, or at least presumes that in the ideal form he described today, they should. Yet for every instance of an ostensibly atheistic regime oppressing religion as such, there's at least one case of one religion oppressing another, or all others in a territory the majority faith claims as its own. Obama's answer to such phenomena is that "extremist" religion isn't real religion. When one religion attacks another, or when all fight each other, the President argues that religion is "twisted." He charges that "Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don’t understand the faiths they claim to profess." Obama himself is satisfied that "the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will," and that "to harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship with God." This, to say the least, is an ahistorical account of religion in general and his own faith in particular. It should be obvious that the President is describing a type of religious experience few on Earth will recognize as much like their own -- a faith in which, for all intents and purposes, Martin Luther King is the seal of the prophets, with Mahatma Gandhi as John the Baptist. Islamophobes, with characteristic tunnel vision, ridicule claims that Islam is essentially a religion of peace. How much less ridiculous is it to argue, as Obama does, that religion in general is essentially peaceful or conducive to social justice? I'm sure that Republicans in this country will ridicule Obama's speech (here's an early example), but that shouldn't deter others from doing likewise when they have better reasons.