WASHINGTON - President Obama gave a lovely speech at the recent National Prayer Breakfast - and one is reluctant to criticize.
But pry my jaw from the floorboards.
Without a hint of irony, the president lamented eroding protections of religious liberty around the world. Just not, apparently, in America.
Nary a mention of the legal challenges to religious liberty now in play between this administration and the Catholic Church and other religious groups, as well as private businesses that contest the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare. Missing was any mention of Hobby Lobby or the Little Sisters of the Poor - whose cases have recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court and that reveal the Obama administration's willingness to challenge rather than protect religious liberty in this country.
It is true that our religious-liberty issues are tamer than those mentioned by Obama. We don't slaughter people for their religious beliefs. We don't use blasphemy laws to repress people. But we are in the midst of a muddle about where religion and state draw their red lines, and it isn't going so well for the religious-liberty lobby.
As it turns out, many in the audience were reaching for their own jaws when Obama got to the liberty section of his speech, according to several people who attended the breakfast. Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, summed up the general reaction of many with whom he spoke: "Stunned."
"Several people said afterward how encouraged they would have been by President Obama's remarks if only his acts reflected what he said," Cromartie told me.
One table was applauding only out of politeness, according to Jerry Pattengale, who was sitting with Steve Green - president of the Hobby Lobby stores that have challenged Obamacare's contraceptive mandate. Pattengale described the experience as "surrealistic."
The government's position is that because Hobby Lobby is a for-profit business, the owners' religious beliefs can't be imposed on their employees. Hobby Lobby insists it shouldn't have to sacrifice its Christian beliefs regarding human life.
Pattengale, assistant provost at Indiana Wesleyan University and research consultant to the Green family, also noted the disconnect between the president's message and policies at home that "are creating a queue at the Supreme Court."
Perhaps Obama's advisers counted on the good will of the audience. Or they reckoned that juxtaposed against atrocities committed elsewhere, our debates about birth control might be viewed as not much ado. It is understandable that many Americans might not see these legal challenges as especially pressing, especially if they'd just like insurance coverage for contraception - a position with which I personally have no disagreement. But these cases are more than a debate about birth control. They have far-reaching implications and, as Obama pointed out, there is a strong correlation between religious freedom and a nation's stability.
"History shows that nations that uphold the rights of their people - including the freedom of religion - are ultimately more just and more peaceful and more successful."
Since this is so, one wonders why the administration is so dedicated to forcing people to act against their own conscience. By requiring through the contraceptive mandate that some religious-affiliated groups provide health plans covering what they consider abortifacient contraceptives, isn't the administration effectively imposing its own religious rules? Thou shalt not protect unborn life.
The answer to this question is above my pay grade, as Obama memorably answered when asked by Pastor Rick Warren when life begins. The more germane question to cases such as Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters is whether the government can accomplish its goal of making free contraception available without burdening religious objectors. Can't women in Colorado get contraception without forcing the Little Sisters, a group of nuns who care for the elderly, to violate their core beliefs? Their charitable work could not long survive under penalties the government would impose on them for non-compliance.
For now, the Little Sisters have been granted a reprieve, thanks to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Arguments in the Hobby Lobby case are scheduled for March, with a decision expected in June. Meanwhile, another case settled in 2012 reveals much about this administration's willingness to challenge religious freedom. In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the question boiled down to whether the government can decide whom a church hires as minister. Since when?
Not yet. In a rare move, all nine justices ruled against the government stating that the federal government does not, alas, get to direct who preaches the gospel. But it wanted to.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.