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Religion and Society

Obama coping with Interreligious Cooperation

Neil P. Sloan

During his visit to Washington, D.C. on April 17, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gathered with representatives of the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions to contemplate "Peace our Hope." The Holy Father cited the history of interreligious cooperation in America and encouraged religious leaders to persevere in their collaboration in order to enrich the public square with their spiritual values. Meeting with President George W. Bush a day earlier at the White House the pontiff praised the way that America's religious beliefs have been a driving force for good. Now, with a new president in the White House, Americans have the opportunity to reassess the role of religion in society and to discern the attitudes of President Barack Obama regarding the relationship between religion and government. At the annual National Prayer Breakfast Obama addressed religious leaders, declaring "There is no religion whose central tenet is hate." Seeking to build a common mission from this basic agreement, Obama discussed the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Founded under President Bush, this office uses federal funds to assist religious organizations serving the needy. Obama's recommitment to Bush's initiative included the founding of an interfaith council of religious leaders to advise him on ways to foster understanding and peace. A debate continues regarding the limit to which the government may regulate faith groups that receive funding through these partnerships. Faced with this challenging question, Obama has not yet finalized the office's rules.

 

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has petitioned Obama with many social concerns. In a letter to Obama, Conference president Francis Cardinal George outlined the USCCB's priorities. George asked the president to address the economy, religious freedom in Iraq, and immigration reform. He expressed concerns for education initiatives, the defense of traditional marriage, the protection of the unborn, the disabled, and the terminally ill, and safeguards to protect the rights of healthcare workers to refrain from participating in unethical procedures such as abortion. George welcomed Obama's plans to empower faith groups "as effective partners in overcoming poverty and other threats to human dignity." The USCCB International Justice and Peace office has also united with interreligious leaders under the "National Interreligious Leadership Institute for Peace in the Middle East" to petition Obama to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis between Palestine and Israel.

 

Less than 100 days into his presidency, Obama has enacted some policies which have been welcomed by the USCCB and others which have not. The bishops welcomed his executive ban on torture, yet his reversal of the Mexico City Policy, restoring funding to groups that perform or promote abortion abroad, has disappointed the bishops. While Obama has shown willingness to promote the role of religion in society, concern remains over the president's voting record on abortion and other practices. Thankfully, a pluralistic society fosters dialogue and collaboration even between those with religious, political, and ethical differences. The USCCB and other religious groups will continue to speak to President Obama, praising the good that he does and expressing concern or disappointment when necessary. The political hope that many have placed in Obama certainly falls short of the hope in God's peace that religious leaders expressed with Pope Benedict during his visit. Yet, Obama's continuation of faith-based partnerships, his openness to advice from religious leaders, and the joint efforts of the nation's religious communities to unite for the common good is something to be hopeful about.

 

Neil P. Sloan, Research Assistant, Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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