President Obama’s Brilliant Religious Freedom Speech Lost On Religious Republicans

This column readily admits to berating politicians, particularly Democratic politicians, for failing to call out the nasty Republican machinations in service to the religious right. No matter if it is attacks on women and freedom to control their own bodies, or the biblical assaults on LGBT Americans; no politician ever cites their religious origins. Cowardice drives them to cite Republicans’ “ideological” differences and not a theocratic imposition, or what Republicans claim is “their religious freedom.”

Yesterday President Obama spoke to American Muslims in Baltimore and stunningly it was his first appearance at an American mosque. The purpose of his visit, and speech, was impressing on all Americans that it is crucial to “protect the nation’s tradition of religious freedom.” Religious freedom Republicans and evangelicals believe applies only to them and gives them authority to control government and other Americans’ lives.

At the Islamic Society of Baltimore, the President spoke directly to “his fellow Christians” because although impressing on Muslim Americans that they have the same freedom of religion as Christians, only the Christian right attacks Muslims. All the while, they cling to their bible and Constitution to justify their deep-seated evangelical bigotry toward faiths other than Americanized Christianity.

The President said,

If we’re serious about freedom of religion — and I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country — we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up. And we have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion.”

President Obama was talking to more than just “his fellow Christians.” He was talking to Republicans in Congress, state legislatures and the current crop of GOP presidential aspirants; all of whom embrace politics that incite bias against and target Muslims for political expediency.

At least the President echoed this column’s assertion that Americans have to start speaking up against religious bigotry or watch the nation become a Christian iteration of the Islamic State. Even though he framed it in different terms; “We can’t be bystanders to bigotry. Together, we’ve got to show that America truly protects all faiths.” If that were only true.

The President continued.

I want to speak directly to the young people who may be listening. In our lives, we all have many identities. We are sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters. We’re classmates; Cub Scout troop members. We’re followers of our faith. We’re citizens of our country. And today, there are voices in this world, particularly over the Internet, who are constantly claiming that you have to choose between your identities — as a Muslim, for example, or an American. Do not believe them. If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.”

The reaction from the beleaguered Muslim community was positive and, according to the Islamic Society of Baltimore President Muhammad Jameel, “a new step and a new milestone in Baltimore County if not nationwide.” The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) echoed that sentiment and said “The President’s first trip to a U.S. mosque and his message promoting religious pluralism reaffirms the place of Muslims in American society.”

President Obama actually went farther in noting that historically, “Islam has been a part of America’s fabric since colonial times.” He even mentioned that America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, each had copies of the Muslim holy book, the Quran. “When enshrining Freedom of Religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.”

The President should have reminded Republicans and evangelicals that Adams and Jefferson were behind the unanimous declaration to Muslims that “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” but it would have been as lost on religious Republicans as his speech on religious freedom for all faiths.  But at least he spoke to the problem of religious bigotry, hate, and real persecution that religious-right Republicans impose on millions of Americans as part of their religious freedom.

It was most refreshing to hear the President say, “Mere tolerance of different religions is not enough. Our faiths summon us to embrace our common humanity.” It is likely that the President is going to have to reiterate his speech a few times and target the Republican evangelical right in particular; if for no other reason than remind them that “common humanity” is a legitimate thing and applies equally to atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Heathens, Hindus, Jews and all faiths. Some may correctly argue that evangelicals lack any humanity, because if they did they would not be driven by inhumanity toward anything not Christian.

Sadly, the President’s religious freedom speech did not get the kind of media coverage being given to hate-inspired evangelical Republicans claiming their religious freedom justifies banning, interring, and deporting Muslims from American shores. But Muslims should not feel singled out by religious Republicans. Not when the same Republicans use religious freedom to single out women, gays, and other faiths for bigotry and persecution.

If the Republican religious right had the capacity to understand, or embrace, the President’s message about religious freedom for all Americans, he should be encouraged to give the same speech on national television, during a major sporting event. But that kind of speech would be as lost on many, many Americans as it was on all evangelical Republicans. It is telling how far this nation has drifted from the Founding Fathers’ concept of religious freedom; a concept that President Obama used as a basis for a brilliant religious freedom speech that was completely lost on religious Republicans.