Monday, March 12, 2012

Freedom of religion: Obama, God and politics

Blogger’s note: I got an e-mail from a friend in New Zealand recently who had received a document blasting President Obama and his administration’s attack on Christianity. She readily admits she knows little about Obama and American politics, then asked my opinion. I responded that I generally follow the old adage that it’s a really good idea not to discuss politics and religion with friends, then spent several hours framing my response. Here’s what I wrote.

Barbara: I could write pages on the issue of Obama, religion, Separation of Church and State, and attacks by Obama’s enemies on the political and religious right. The polemic you forwarded, pulled together by David Barton, is filled with misinformation; half-truths and flat-out lies.

Barak Obama is a U.S. citizen. He was born in Hawaii; he’s a Christian and he’s a firm believer in The U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment that details, among other points, the Separation of Church and State. It’s a concept that became the law of the land when the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787.

Much of what Barton details in his step-by-step look at Obama and his administration (the full document can be found here) go to the heart of what’s found in the First Amendment and the U.S. Bill of Rights. I’ll grant that the origins and intent of church and state separation is open to debate; it’s a heated issue that often serves as a Rorschach test that is supported or abused depending on one’s political and religious beliefs.

Let’s be clear on one point. Christianity is alive, well and thriving in the U.S. Christians can practice their religion today openly and freely. It is not under attack. None of my neighbors are worried about soldiers carrying them away because they are Christians. They can pray in their churches and, despite what some political opportunists would have you believe, Christians can pray in schools, at meetings, sporting events, private gatherings – and in the White House!

There is, however, no national religion or national prayers. Prayer meetings cannot be sanctioned by the state, nor should they be. Why? Once upon a time, back in the 1950s when I was just a little lad attending elementary school in small-town Georgia, we would begin the day with a morning devotional. Each day a different child was expected to read a line or two of scripture from the New Testament. There were no exceptions. So I was essentially forced to read from the New Testament, lines of scripture I didn’t believe in or understand. We finished up each morning by reciting the Lord’s Prayer – a Christian prayer.

Barbara, I’m not a Christian. I was and remain an observant Jew. What I was forced to do by the state was simply wrong. To this day, I wince whenever I hear the Lord’s Prayer; I refuse to bow my head when attending a public meeting when a prayer – even a non-denominational prayer – is offered. God is very personal to me and I certainly don’t want my government telling me that one religion is better – or truer – than any other or sanctioning any form of public prayer. That’s a very slippery slope in my opinion. If I want to pray, I’ll attend a prayer session at my synagogue or simply find a quiet spot in my house, along the river in my neighborhood or, when traveling, at the airport. Prayer, for me, is both an inward journey and a process that connects me with my faith community.

But I digress. I have absolutely no desire to spend much time with The Rev. Barton’s nonsense. Just about all that he includes in part 4 of his article, poorly labeled and painfully spelled out as “Acts of preferentialism for Islam” is simply false. Let me repeat that point. Everything dealing with Obama and Islam is false! Much of the rest of Barton’s 50-point note is open to interpretation and argument.

One example. Under the heading, “Acts of hostility toward people of Biblical faith”, Barton reports that “The Obama administration (released) new health care rules that override religious conscience protections for medical workers in the areas of abortion and contraception.” Although I’m not exactly sure what all Barton is referencing here, one contentious area that falls in this area has to do with pharmacists refusing to honor prescriptions for birth control and “morning after” meds. So, for instance, Barton is bothered that a pharmacist who opposes any form of contraception as a matter of “conscience” has lost the right to ignore legal prescriptions. I don’t consider this a “hostile” act, but a hearty and welcome defense of the Separation of Church and State.

Much the same argument could be used when exploring all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the Obama Administration’s recent proposals to have religious-based institutions – specifically, the Catholic Church – through their insurance providers, offer coverage for contraceptive meds and devices. Barton, and others like him, sees this proposal as an attack on Christianity and religious freedom. I see it as an issue of women’s healthcare and reproductive rights and, yet again, a defense of the U.S. Constitution and the Separation of Church and State.

A final note. Barton, if handed a magic wand and told he now has the power to create a “perfect” government and country, would most certainly trash the Constitution and immediately go about setting up a Christian theocracy. Children once again would be reading New Testament scripture and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in schools. Jews, Muslims, gays, socialists and commies would be prosecuted and persecuted. The religion police would be running the country and within a generation the United States would start to look a whole lot like Saudi Arabia.

I’m thinking George Washington got it right when he said that "Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience." I’m also thinking that Thomas Jefferson was right when he declared “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state."