Questions for Obama & Bush

by Michael Sean Winters

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Tomorrow, President Obama will be coming to Georgetown University for a Summit on Poverty. I wrote about this event last week here. This past Saturday, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush gave the commencement address at Liberty University in which he excoriated the President’s record on issues of religious liberty.

I have questions for both men.

For the President, I would like to know if he thinks alleviating poverty is a sufficiently important enough cause that he will help, rather than hinder, groups like Catholic Charities and other Church-based organizations which do more than any other groups in this country to address both the consequences and the causes of poverty.

The Obama administration’s track record in this regard is long, dismal and current. The Obama administration did not renew contracts for the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ human trafficking efforts, even though those programs got the highest rating, because Catholic agencies do not provide abortion services. Why should we be punished – and more importantly the people these programs helped – because we, as Catholics, when we encounter a pregnant woman believe that we have an obligation to care for both persons? Why should this be a litmus test? We know the answer. Because the pro-choice groups, with all their campaign funding, insist that this litmus test be applied.

I need not rehearse the controversy over the HHS mandate, but let us recall the President’s original provision which was so egregious, he had to modify it within a month.

More recently, the President threatened to veto legislation that would have overturned two DC laws that sought to ban discrimination against any employee on account of reproductive choices or because they are an LGBT citizen. The provisions lacked any ministerial exemption and the Attorney General for the District told the Council that they were legally insufficient because they ran afoul of the Supreme Court decision in Hosanna Tabor. Yet, the President, issued a veto threat. I thought he taught constitutional law once upon a time.

I understand that the President does not share our Catholic views on abortion. I also suspect that he does not think it is a good idea to have a Mohammed cartoon contest as provocateur Pamela Geller did in Texas last week. But, I am equally confident the President would defend Geller’s First Amendment right to articulate her hateful speech. Why is he so disdainful of the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion? These issues are complicated and I have dealt with them repeatedly in these pages. I think the USCCB has mishandled these issues too. But, if the President wishes to confront poverty, he will need the help of a robust civil society – churches, NGOs, community groups, unions, professional organizations, etc. Which is more important, Mr. President? Helping the poor or sticking it to the Church because the folks at Emily’s List are pulling his chain? Mr. Obama has an enormous amount of credibility with both LGBT and pro-choice groups. Will he at least entertain the possibility of having a Sister Souljah moment with these groups before he leaves office?

Mr. Bush used the occasion of his commencement address at the university the Rev. Jerry Falwell founded to offer a rigorous defense of the Christian faith and the consequences of that faith for society. I largely agree with what he had to say. But, there was one claim that seemed a bit of a stretch. Mr. Bush said: “How strange, in our time, to hear Christianity spoken of as some sort of backward and oppressive force.” You will recall that Rev. Falwell initially blamed the terrorist attacks on September 11 on feminists, gays and others:

I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians, who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say, “You helped this happen.”

The irony was lost on Falwell that the terrorist attack had been inspired by something other than the forces of secularization. I can think of other Christian leaders who have similarly provided ample reason for some to think our faith is backward and oppressive.

But, I know other Christian leaders who do indeed make “strange” any presumption that the Christian Churches are oppressive and backward. Yes, the Churches stood by for centuries while slavery was tolerated, but the impetus to end that evil also came from within the Christian Churches. Day in and day out, religious people are engaged in works that heal the wounds that beset any society. Like Bush, I find the sentiment that Christianity is oppressive, if not entirely inexplicable, at least very one-sided. Mr. Bush then went further, and I hope that many people in the audience began to squirm. He said, “I cannot think of any more subversive moral idea ever loosed on the world than, ‘The last shall be first, and the first last.’” I confess I was as surprised as I was pleased that Bush chose this moral idea to place before the graduates. We can only hope that he will examine the moral implications of this moral idea for public policy in the months ahead.

I fear – and fear greatly - that the Christian faith has become a political talking point. This would be horrific for both Church and State and it is highly advisable that leaders in both Church and State think about the dangers they are flirting with and find meaningful ways to step back. Mr. Obama has a chance to start pondering this tomorrow, in a roomful of people who have done more to help their fellow citizens than anyone at Emily’s List. Mr. Bush needs to wrestle with just how discordant the Christian moral vision is from much of what passes for normal economic and political activity in the U.S. And the rest of us also need to join this discussion, and urge everyone to move back from the brink. 

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