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Does President Obama Understand Religion?

Laura Hollis

By Laura Hollis

Published March 2, 2015

Former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani's recent comments about President Obama not loving American has set off a week of apoplectic press pronouncements and "gotcha" interviews with GOP candidates pelted with the questions: "Does President Obama love America?" and "Do you think President Obama is a Christian?"

These are manifestly silly exercises, largely because the press has no interest in determining the actual answers. (If they did, they would have doggedly pursued those answers years ago.)

Instead of asking what the president's religion is, however, one might do better to ask whether the president understands religion. Because a great deal depends upon that understanding. And his background, many of his comments and his policies all suggest strongly that he does not.

President Obama himself has acknowledged that neither of his parents was religious. His largely absent father was a non-practicing Muslim of far-left political sensibilities. His mother (at least according to her friends) described herself as an atheist. Obama writes that she was "a lonely witness for secular humanism" in Indonesia, and credits her with awakening his interest in politics as a vehicle for change.

Indeed, Obama's view of religion seems always to have been skewed by political expediency. Ed Klein, author of the 2012 book, "The Amateur," conducted hours of interviews with President Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who revealed that when they met, Obama knew very little about Christianity, but a great deal about Islam. (The president has said that he has never practiced Islam.) Rev. Wright further stated that church was "never (the Obamas') thing," but admitted that Obama needed visible membership in a Christian church to court the Chicago black vote.

In his (now classic) "bitter clingers" speech in 2008, then-candidate Obama summed up his take on the motivation behind rural Christians' religiosity as being nothing more than thinly veiled economic malaise, saying, "jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing's replaced them. ... And it's not surprising then, they cling to guns or religion ... as a way to explain their frustrations."

The "jobs/economics versus religion" theme is a common one for President Obama. In the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor case, his Justice Department took the position that EEOC employment discrimination policies should trump a church's right to decide who provides pastoral and ministerial education — a position that the U.S. Supreme Court (including Obama appointees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan) rejected, 9-0.

Throughout the Obamacare debacle, including the obnoxious HHS contraceptive mandate that has prompted over 100 court cases, the president has treated Christians' deeply held beliefs as mere annoyances that should take a back seat to "public health" issues. (And in so doing, he not only dismisses religious beliefs, but constitutional limits on government power.)

Most recently, we have been subjected to the absurd pronouncements of the State Department through its deputy spokesmodel, Marie Harf. Ms. Harf invited widespread global mockery when she confidently stated that ISIS would be defeated by addressing the root causes of its attractiveness to Arab youth, including "opportunities" and "jobs."

It isn't clear that Obama understands religion at all. Oddly oblivious to its spiritual or redemptive dimension, he focuses almost exclusively on religion's role in addressing temporal concerns. He appears to view religion as a sort of interesting cultural phenomenon, the need for which will wither away given the "proper" education or economic improvement. And so he somewhat cravenly invokes it when it suits his purposes (the "social justice" Jesus makes frequent appearances in support of higher taxes) but ignores it as purely partisan opposition when it runs counter to his political objectives (no mention of what Jesus would think about abortion).

This is, I suppose, unsurprising, given that "economic inequality" is the lens through which Obama views everything. But it is frustrating and infuriating for American Christians (and others) seeking to protect their First Amendment religious freedoms in the face of persistent government incursion.

Worse, it is flat-out dangerous for all Americans when it forms the basis for his foreign policy. As countless members of al-Qaida (including the 9-11 perpetrators) and ISIS have shown, Islamic terrorism appeals to some people of distinctly middle- and upper-middle class upbringing, who have left behind every comfort and opportunity that Obama would presumably consider important. They are pursuing terrorism not as a substitute for what they do not have in this life, but because of how they view the next. Dangling better economic circumstances in front of them is as pointless as offering a Benedictine monk a Bentley.

The president of a pluralistic society should be seen as tolerant. But tolerance is not synonymous with ignorance. To the extent that Obama dismisses all religiosity as a mere placeholder for economic betterment, or equates all religious beliefs, he is displaying an ignorance that puts our liberties — and our lives — at risk.

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Laura Hirschfeld Hollis is on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches courses in business law and entrepreneurship. She has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, community service and contributions to entrepreneurship education.

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