In advance of yesterday's National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama was under pressure to use the opportunity to condemn the anti-homosexuality bill pending in the Ugandan Parliament. The legislation, which would criminalize homosexuality and require the death penalty or life imprisonment for certain "offenses," has been described by human-rights activists as tantamount to instigating a genocide against sexual minorities, who are already persecuted in the African nation.
Obama, speaking just before the first anniversary of the launch of his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, once again fell into the religion-in-public-life trap: Faith is intended for good, and we must present it as such -- regardless of its exploitation for ends that are less than pure, and regardless of one's stated commitment to secular government.
The National Prayer Breakfast, hosted by members of Congress, is organized by the Fellowship Foundation, also known as "The Family," a secretive network of elected officials and business leaders that exerts enormous political influence under the guise of offering prayer and fellowship to Washington's power elite -- as well as political and business elites around the world. Although members of Congress "host" the event, The Family bars all media from attending, save for the president's traveling press pool.
The foundation's activities -- apart from the breakfast, at which the sitting president has delivered a keynote address for decades -- largely flew under the radar until the 2008 publication of Jeff Sharlet's book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. The next year, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford let it slip that his brothers at the Family-owned C Street House helped guide him through that difficult time in his life, in his infamous speech admitting to his adulterous Argentine affair. Soon, the nation knew that not only Sanford but other Republicans like Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, who had an affair with an aide's wife, gained political and moral cover from The Family network as they lived and prayed together in the organization's Capitol Hill townhouse.
Lately, Sharlet's reporting on The Family has shed light on far more insidious activities than helping politicians evade the same judgment the religious right would mete out for others' sexual sins. David Bahati, the member of the Ugandan Parliament who sponsored the kill-the-gays bill, is a close associate of The Family -- its point man in Uganda. The Family has denied playing a role in crafting the legislation, yet its public silence about its protégé's efforts led progressive religious figures to question Obama's attendance at the breakfast and to call on him to at least condemn the Ugandan bill. They held American Prayer Hours across the country in protest of both the secrecy of The Family and the Ugandan bill.
Obama's prayer breakfast speech was filled with evangelical code -- nods to abolitionist and religious icon William Wilberforce, rhetoric about interfaith cooperation, and platitudes about the love that lies at the heart of all major religions. But he pivoted when he addressed Uganda:
We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are -- whether it's here in the United States or, as [Secretary of State] Hillary [Clinton] mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.
Wayne Besen, executive director of the LGBT-rights organization Truth Wins Out, promptly fired off a statement lauding Obama's "bold" speech. Truth Wins Out is one of the organizers of the counter-event American Prayer Hours.
But Obama's speech, like his other public statements about the role of religion in public life, was not bold. It gave a pass to using religion to justify discrimination. By agreeing to disagree about gay marriage while declaring the Ugandan bill odious, Obama implied that discrimination based on religion can be acceptable, so long as it doesn't go as far as endangering people's lives and freedom of movement.
The prejudice motivating opposition to gay marriage is the same as that underlying the Uganda bill: Homosexuality is a sinful affront to God and the cause of untold societal problems. In the United States, religious activists dedicate enormous human and financial resources to thwarting equality for LGBT people on the grounds that their religion demands that others be deprived of rights. In Uganda, the argument is the same, even though the proposed punishment is obviously far more severe.
Stopping the bill's passage would be essential to protect LGBT Ugandans, their family and friends, and those working for LGBT equality. But Obama's tepid statement against the legislation was not enough -- persecution, abuse, and harassment are commonplace in Uganda, even without the law.
Obama falls into the religion trap that prevents him from doing more to protect the world's sexual minorities because he refuses to extricate himself from what has become a de facto requirement to hold public office: effusive expressions of religiosity. He is now shackled to the shiny, happy face of "faith," to the unfulfilled promise of dialogue and unity, and cannot utter a harsh word about the many misuses of faith in public life.
Religious arguments also have marred Obama's faith-based office, which has been billed as a government-community partnership to improve the lives of Americans in need. On the campaign trail, he had promised to end Bush-era rules that allowed nonprofits and churches receiving federal funding to discriminate in hiring based on religion -- rules that allowed grantees to fire, for example, a gay employee because their religion deems homosexuality sinful. Yet once the White House launched the office, it buckled under the objections of evangelicals who insisted they had no interest in the office if they could not fully express their faith. Obama reversed course and declared that his administration would address such instances of discrimination on a "case-by-case basis."
A year later, it is unclear whether any such cases have been addressed. Taxpayer money continues to fund programs without oversight in place to prevent proselytization. The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), which is composed of 25 religious liberty and civil-rights groups, has written a letter to Obama asking that he end discriminatory practices. CARD is also urging the administration to institute protections against government endorsement or subsidization of religion and proselytization by groups receiving federal dollars.
On the other side, evangelicals think the faith-based office hasn't done enough and have complained that his faith-based advisory council, and outreach to other faith leaders, has only been for show.
They may very well be right. But that doesn't mean we need more faith in politics, but less.
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