Beliefs Culture Ethics Politics

Obama highlights religious freedom in National Prayer Breakfast speech

President Barack Obama speaks at Intel’s Fab 42 in Chandler, AZ on January 25, 2012.
President Barack Obama speaks at Intel’s Fab 42 in Chandler, AZ on January 25, 2012.

Photo courtesy of Nick Knupffer, Intel

President Barack Obama speaks at Intel’s Fab 42 in Chandler, AZ on January 25, 2012.

(RNS) Facing criticism that he does not give religious freedom enough attention, President Obama devoted most of his National Prayer Breakfast address to the issue, naming people imprisoned for their beliefs and calling out specific nations.

“We believe that each of us is ‘wonderfully made’ in the image of God,” Obama said. “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.”

Promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy, Obama said. He said he is looking to fill the religious freedom ambassador position, one that Suzan Johnson Cook left last fall.

“It is not always comfortable to do, but it is right,” Obama said. “When I meet with Chinese leaders — and we do a lot of business with the Chinese — I stress that realizing China’s potential rests on upholding universal rights, including for Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists, and Uighur Muslims.”

He noted the names of two Christian men imprisoned for their beliefs:

“We pray for Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who’s been held in North Korea for 15 months, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor,” he said. “We pray for Pastor Saeed Abedini.  He’s been held in Iran for more than 18 months, sentenced to eight years in prison on charges relating to his Christian beliefs.”

He also emphasized the freedom to have no faith. And he criticized blasphemy and defamation laws that have been used to suppress religious minorities. Asia Bibi, a Christian convicted of blasphemy by a Pakistani court, is one such person, though she was not named by the president. She received a sentence of death by hanging.

The president praised Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace efforts in the Middle East, saying, “We will continue to stand against the ugly tide of anti-Semitism that rears its ugly head all too often.”

Obama noted his upcoming meeting with Pope Francis. “Like Matthew, he has answered the call of Jesus, who said ‘follow me,’ and he inspires us with his words and deeds, his humility, his mercy and his missionary impulse to serve the cause of social justice,” Obama said of the pope.

Obama’s address was perhaps the most robust presidential statement on international religious freedom in U.S. history, said Judd Birdsall, a former U.S. diplomat who writes and speaks on religious freedom.

“It’s clear that the president views religious liberty not as an isolated, nice-to-have human right, but as a national security priority that is intimately tied to a range of foreign policy objectives,” Birdsall said. “The challenge for Obama now is to quickly nominate a qualified religious freedom ambassador and to demonstrate some tangible, meaningful successes in his religious freedom agenda.”

Official portrait of USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

Photo courtesy of USAID [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Official portrait of USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah

Focusing on extreme poverty, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah provided the keynote address, a departure from previous prayer breakfast speakers who have typically come from outside the administration — people such as Mother Teresa and Bono.

Prayer breakfast organizers could be making up for the past two breakfast speakers, who both called out Obama in his policies. Last year, Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s address drew controversy for criticizing the Affordable Care Act and other policies. In 2012, Christian author and speaker Eric Metaxas criticized policies on abortion.

In addition, prayer breakfast speakers have traditionally been Christian. They include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins — both outspoken about their Christian faith.

Shah is Hindu, though he noted his involvement in Senate prayer meetings and drew on the teachings of Jesus and Pope Francis in his remarks.

Foreign aid has been a target of those who want to cut federal spending, and in an effort to combat poverty worldwide, Shah has enlisted faith-based groups.

He has spoken on the need for faith-based organizations to be involved in international aid and has met with organizations such as World Vision and Compassion International. Shah was scheduled to speak at the evangelical conference Catalyst in October before the government shutdown precluded his appearance.

“Let us work together to end extreme poverty in our lifetime because this is achievable,” Shah said in his address.

Professional surfer Bethany Hamilton, whose life was made into the movie “Soul Surfer,” read two passages from the New Testament and spoke about her recovery after she lost her arm in a shark attack as a teenager. Haitian President Michel Martelly and Albania’s President Bujar Nishani were among the several thousand guests.


About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.


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  • South Korea is notorious for locking up contentious objectors who refuse military service for peaceful religious reasons.

  • Funny how the President didn’t pay any attention to the freedom of religion issue swirling around Obamacare. Trying to coerce an order of nuns–among others–to violate their consciences at state demand isn’t exactly a good example of First Amendment freedom to show to the world.

  • Freedom for ALL faiths / gods…Obama prays for at National Prayer Breakfast.

    President Barack Obama said that “around the world, freedom of religion is under threat.” “…We sometimes see religion twisted in attempt to justify hatred, persecution against other people just because of who they are and how they pray or who they love,”

    …is Obama referring to people who embrace freedom of self-rights, freedom of self-religion, freedom of self-sexuality?

    The definition of “Religious Freedom” = the RIGHT (it is right / it is good) to be free (without consequence) to worship ANY ‘god’.
    The truth is that President Obama, leader of the free world, promotes and confesses that it is RIGHT & GOOD to be free (without consequence) to worship ANY self-justified ‘god’ as per man’s desires.

    …BUT Jesus Christ said that we are to love and worship the One Only Lord Creator and to serve Him Alone, His Will Alone.
    …BUT the One God gave command that one is to worship Him Alone.
    …BUT the Creator said that man would die, that his way would die, if he disobeyed Him and took of the forbidden tree of knowing / establishing “good / evil” for one’s own desires.

    INSTEAD, President Obama has confessed that “FREEDOM” is the “Light”, that it is the “will” of his ‘god’…of fortresses.
    This “freedom” speaks of peace and justice…but in reality it does the opposite. The real fruit of this “freedom” is conflict, hatred, and death…for it justifies each to do what is right in one’s own eyes…it justifies the desire to serve and magnify the self (XES).

    There is Only One True Way…it is the Way of Jesus Christ, SON of the Only Creator God.
    Soon, The One Lord Jesus Christ will return to rule the earth in power according to and in obedience to the Will of the Only Yehowah Elohim and NOT according to man’s first love for “his freedom”.

    John Stefanyszyn
    …a bondman of the One King Jesus Christ, Son of the Only God.

  • So, did Barack Obama offer any prayers for that persecuted Christian wedding photographer in New Mexico?

    How about those bullied Christian bakery owners in Oregon? Did Obama mention THEIR religious freedom? Did he forget?

    Constitutional freedoms of religion and speech should exist for ALL Americans, not just the politically correct, not just the gay activists and their allies.

  • Persecuted does not mean whining that your bigotry is no longer given color of law. Nor is it complaining that the law doesn’t support your efforts to create a “Jim Crow” for the 21st Century.

  • Obama made many good points! A special thanks for acknowledging the non-believers!

    I am totally convinced that Obama is a closet atheist! If only he could say it out loud!

  • Neither the photographer nor baker were “persecuted” for defying their states by daring to be devout Christians. That’s not illegal in Oregon or New Mexico, and it’s not what was alleged about them.

    What was alleged, and in fact was ruled by the NM Supreme Court in one of those cases, is that they broke the law of those states by violating others’ civil rights. You see, by law everyone has civil rights. This includes gays, and any number of other kinds of people, whom some other sorts of people dislike. This is just how things are.

    While this country does have religious freedom, this does not mean one is entitled to inflict one’s own religion on others, or violate the civil rights of thers because of it. In the cases of bakers and photographers, they are not participating in the ceremony; they aren’t officiating, nor are they witnesses. Their involvement in the wedding, or lack of it (had it been legal for them to decline), does not, and will never, make the wedding happen or not. People can, and do, get married without photographers and without cakes. Neither photography nor baking can make or break a wedding. (Yes, I know, that might sound strange these days … but it is the truth.)

    The presumption that bakers’ and photographers’ peripheral involvement in weddings somehow makes them legally parties to the wedding, and therefore abridges their religious freedom, is laughable, and is evidence of their hubris and arrogance. A wedding isn’t about a baker or a photographer, and for them to believe it is, is childish.

    It’s time for religious folk in the U.S. to understand the reality of the world around them, which is that their dour metaphysics no longer controls it. There are things like gay marriage now, in some states. They can either accept that gays can now get married, or they can kvetch and moan about it. The choice is theirs. But I suggest that the former is the more mature path to follow.

  • That he could actually stand up there and say that after having called in cluster munitions on civilians in Yemen, and after presiding over Guantanamo where all kinds of Muslims have been imprisoned who are completely innocent… it is scary. We live in a frightening time. I am not a Muslim. Not anything close. But when I see a lie I have to say something. America is better than Obama’s sickeningly hypocritical discourse.

  • Obama should talk about the protests against the Dalai Lama though! Because while he was preaching there was a lot of protesters singing: Dalai Lama give! Religion freedom!!!

  • I am sure that Jewish,Muslim,Hindu and atheist Americans would disagree. Favoring Christianity is unconstitutional.
    It is just that simple.

  • Yes…I believe Humanity.
    There is no religion in the world which allows persecution to others. Nowadays, people are accusing and insulting someone religion if he or she done something wrong. I think it’s absolutely stupidity because we shouldn’t insult and accuse anyone religion if he or she did something against law or inhumanity.
    We should punish him or her not their religion. All of us know very well that there is two kinds of human beings on this world. ..Good and Bad.
    If someone is good. .we must praise him or her,it’s doesn’t mean that we must convert their religions and if someone is bad or terrorist we must punish him or her but we shouldn’t insult or accuse their beliefs so called their religions.
    Today, there’s so many people who are accusing and insulting someone religion because of his or her behaviour. Why we should we must consider like this?
    Furthermore, if someone who believes Islam do something inhumanitily some non Muslims insult and accuse the whole religion.Why we are doing like this?Because we hate each other and we still don’t know what is the mean of Humanity.
    If someone who did unfair things or believe terrorism we must punish him or her under rule of law but we shouldn’t insult and accuse their entire religion….

  • In reality the issue isn’t about favoring any religion over another. With all due respect all religions besides Christianity and Judaism are treated as acceptable and a persons right. Name just one prisoner in the world locked up for their spiritual beliefs who is NOT a Christian or Jew. Name just one. You can’t, just as Obama couldn’t name one. They are ALL Christians and Jews. Sorry but it’s true. Christians and Jews just want the same rights as the rest of the religions. And for others to do the same as us when we see or hear worship of other gods. We quietly dismiss ourselves or we quietly and respectfully allow them their moment. If you don’t want to say “under God” then don’t. Big deal. I don’t believe Allah and Jehovah are the same. That’s my belief. Just give me the same respect as is given to others. It’s really simple.

  • Do he does not care about Christians except when we make big stinks about someone it has taken two years for his administration to say anything about pastor abdini

  • Seperation of Church, and state….
    The problem is very simple if you don’t want to use contreception then that is your decision, but don’t push it on others either ! Simplistic solutions is what we need to look at as a society !!! Namaste, Bless you, Be enlightened, Love is the answer, simplify your life for Love is the only answer to life’s pains…

  • the president’s speech demonstrated complete ignorance of history, followed to a “T” secular criticism of Christianity, proof one can sit in churches like the Reverend Wright and demonstrate a depth of theology belonging at the shallow end of the pool….he exemplifies the skills of Neville Chamberlain

  • wake up muslims you have been lied to. Islam worships a false pre-islamic diety who doesn’t even exist. long before muhammad was even born, the ancient sabaens of arabia worshipped the daughters of allah, al-lat, al manat, and al-uzza. muhammad wanted to start his own religion, so ist he turned to the jews who didn’t believe in his prophethood. then he turned to his tribe, the quarishi, in medina and took their god , allah, one of the false 360 idols at the kabba in mecca and made him his god and declared himself his prophet.He was a robber and a murderer. robbed jewish caravans. got wealthy. why the jews .? because they refused to worship him as a prophet.1billion people worship and follow and kill in the name of a false prophet and a pre-islamic diety who doesn’t even exist.fact. look up what i wrote. daughters of allah. existed long before muhammad even born. He also had 12 wivwes, one a 9 year old. look up its ok to have sex with girls that young.why do you see the cresent moon everywhere in islam? because they worship the false non-existing pagan diety called allah.