From the moment he rose to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast, it was clear President Barack Obama intended to respond to critics who accuse him of being weak in his defense of religious freedom. "As Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion," noted Obama, early in the recent address. "Yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too -- because religion strengthens America. Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals. ...
"We believe that each of us is 'wonderfully made' in the image of God. We, therefore, believe in the inherent dignity of every human being -- dignity that no earthly power can take away. And central to that dignity is freedom of religion -- the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear."
In the days after this blunt address, critics across the spectrum of American religious life -- including on the left -- affirmed what the president said, but also marveled at what he left unsaid.
The bottom line: Where were the Little Sisters of the Poor?
In other words, what about the religious-liberty conflicts currently unfolding here in the United States, as opposed to those in distant lands?
The Little Sisters -- a Catholic order that ministers to the elderly poor -- are among the many religious schools, parachurch groups and nonprofit ministries that continue to clash with the White House. One bitter conflict centers on the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer employees, and even students, health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills." Similar clashes on gay marriage and other issues of moral theology have affected groups linked to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and other religious networks.
The Little Sisters have refused to bow to a government-enforced doctrine that columnist Kathleen Parker recently described as, "Thou shalt not protect unborn life." The order has escaped punishment, so far, due to a reprieve granted by liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
The Obama speech would have made perfect sense, noted progressive Catholic commentator Michael Sean Winters, if he had only added: "Therefore, I am instructing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to stop obstructing the awarding of contracts to combat human trafficking to the USCCB which does such great work in that field. I am also instructing Secretary Sebelius to devise a better means of delivering the free contraceptive care to women who want, finding a way that does not infringe on the religious liberty of those religious institutions that object to contraception and, further, I am instructing the Attorney General to let the University of Notre Dame alone."
Meanwhile, Obama received lots of praise for mentioning the plight of specific individuals and religious minorities, including the Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, Baha'i in Iran and Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt. He requested prayers for missionary Kenneth Bae, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, and the Rev. Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen held in Iran for more than 18 months, apparently for his public ministry to orphans. The president openly opposed "blasphemy and defamation of religion measures, which are promoted ... as an expression of religion, but, in fact, all too often can be used to suppress religious minorities."
But the president's testimony also contained the seeds of future conflicts. After recounting his own conversion -- "I was broke and the church fed me. ... It led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior" -- the president proceeded to attack what he considers extreme forms of faith, such as the beliefs of traditionalists who continue to oppose gay rights.
"Yet even as our faith sustains us, it's also clear that around the world freedom of religion is under threat," he said. "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. ...
"Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don't understand the faiths they claim to profess."