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February 8, 2010

The President’s Confusing Messages on Religion

President Obama attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington this week. His own denomination–the United Church of Christ–has been teasingly described as “Unitarians considering Christ.” I don’t know how much he is considering Jesus, but he sure is quiet about it if he is. Even among Christians, the President seems to believe in a Christless Christianity.

He quoted President Kennedy’s Inaugural–always a good idea. “Civility is not a sign of weakness,” he said. But as with omitting Jesus, the President skipped the rest of the JFK quote: “…but sincerity is always subject to proof.”

We are seeing little proof of his sincerity these days. Former Bush speechwriter recognized Barack Obama’s great gifts–as all Americans once did. When he first appeared on the scene, it seemed Obama could be eloquent reading the telephone book. Of late, Gerson points out, more and more Americans think the President is just reading the telephone book.

President Barack Obama has told the world he is a Christian, not a Muslim. We have his word for it. We even have the word of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, for it. There has never been a religious test for any federal office, including the Presidency. In fact, the candidate elected in 1908—a full century before Barack Obama–was not a Christian. William Howard Taft was a fine President. But as a Unitarian, Taft rejected the Holy Trinity; he rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ.

When President Obama took the oath of office last year, he made a stunning rhetorical shift in his Inaugural Address. He described America as a nation of “Christians and Muslims, Jews, Hindus and nonbelievers.” Where did that come from? This was the first time in U.S. history that the Jews had been so displaced.

Jews first arrived in America in 1654, in the New Netherlands colony that was then owned by the Dutch. Jews have been an integral part of our history as a people ever since. They have fought in all of America’s wars.

Though a small minority, the Jews’ influence has been great. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wanted the official seal of the United States to depict Moses leading the Children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. My fellow black Americans took inspiration from the Hebrews in our own three hundred-year struggle for freedom.

Even though a small percentage of America today, the Jewish people are by all counts yet a larger percentage of the population than are American Muslims. And since Jews are, in the phrase of Pope John Paul II, “our elder brothers in the faith,” Jewish ideals and the the Hebrew Scriptures have animated Christians in this country from the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

So why has President Obama pushed them aside? It’s not just a rhetorical slip. A President’s Inaugural Address is freighted with meaning.

The President ventured deeper into theological confusion in his Cairo Address. He referred to “the Holy Koran.” He described the Mideast as the region “where Islam was first revealed.”

Muslims are certainly free to believe these things. But Christians cannot regard the sacred books of any other religion as holy or revealed. If they do, they are denying their own faith.

No one expects the President of the United States to use his state powers to Christianize the world. Previous attempts to advance Christianity with the sword have led to great discredit to the Church.

President Roosevelt was the first U.S. President to meet with the King of Saudi Arabia. F.D.R. met Abdulazziz aboard the U.S.S. Quincy on 14 February 1945. Because of this historic meeting, the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is known as Quincy House to this day.

Roosevelt was described by his son, Franklin, Jr., as “a very religious man.” F.D.R. found no need to bow to the Muslim king. The President attended Christian services on board Quincy and made no apologies for his faith.

When President Obama makes theological statements about Islam that no Christian can believe or accept, he is not reaching out, or simply engaging in diplomatic niceties. He is sending a most confusing message.

I am not questioning his beliefs, but I think the mixed messages he has sent only fuel speculation about those beliefs. These speculations then fly around the Internet and undermine the sincerity of his own professions of belief. This has created a credibility gap for him with millions of Americans.

You can be diplomatic and culturally sensitive without surrendering your Christian faith. I spent years meeting with Arab and Muslim diplomats when I served as U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission. I never sought to give needless offense to those with whom I was meeting. Neither did I ever give up one iota of my own Christian beliefs.

President Washington set the pattern. He wrote in 1790 to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport. He welcomed the messages of support the American Jewish community had sent to him and to the new government. We should be proud, Washington wrote, that “the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” has set the highest standard for religious liberty in the world.

The Muslim-dominant states to whom President Obama was reaching out have no such example of liberty. In none of the states where Islam predominates are the basic tenets of religious liberty honored. This is undeniable, as the President’s own State Department reports on religious freedom confirm year after year.

Washington was the first ruler in history to address the Jews as equal fellow citizens. His example helped to make this country a beacon for religious freedom. Our free churches and synagogues led the fight to end slavery, to stop segregation, and to protect human life.

In this, we have nothing to apologize for. No American should bow to any monarch. And no one on earth should bow to the persecuting King of Saudi Arabia. Instead, let us stand tall for liberty.

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