President Obama denounced those around the world who distort religion to justify wars and violence as he addressed faith and political leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.
“We see faith driving us to do right,” Obama said. “We also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge, or worse, sometimes as a weapon.”
Obama noted the recent atrocities by the Islamic State group, the January shooting at the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris, fighting in the Central African Republic and other recent events in which religion served as a motivating factor.
“We have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, profess to stand up for Islam, but in fact are betraying it,” Obama said. “We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious, death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism, terrorizing religious minorities like the Yazidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.” ISIL is one of several acronyms for the Islamic State.
Obama bowed his head toward the Dalai Lama, who was seated next to senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, and opened his address by welcoming the Buddhist leader amid tense relations with China. King Abdullah II of Jordan had been scheduled to read a biblical passage, but he returned home after the Islamic State released a video this week showing the killing of a Jordanian pilot.
Although Obama’s previous prayer breakfast speeches have tended to lean toward his own faith journey or the role of religion in the world, Thursday’s address included heavy doses of both.
The president raised concerns about the state of religious freedom internationally, celebrating the November release from North Korea of American missionary Kenneth Bae while also expressing hope for the release of Saeed Abedini, an American pastor who is in an Iranian prison. Obama pointed to faith as a force for good, using the example of Kent Brantly, the Samaritan’s Purse doctor who contracted Ebola in Liberia and later donated plasma that contained antibodies to fight the virus. Brantly offered a prayer at the breakfast.
Underscoring the value of religious tolerance in the United States, Obama pointed to former NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip, who gave the keynote address, as an example of how Americans can speak freely about the role of faith in their lives.
“Going forward, we will keep standing for religious freedom around the world,” Obama said. “And that includes, by the way, opposing blasphemy and defamation of religion measures, which are promoted sometimes as an expression of religion, but, in fact, all too often can be used to suppress religious minorities.”
Obama did not exempt the United States, noting that Christianity had at one time been used to justify slavery and laws discriminating against blacks. “So this is not unique to one group or one religion,” he said. “There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”
Referring to Pope Francis and the pontiff’s famous “Who am I to judge?” remark, Obama emphasized the role of humility in combating such tendencies in private and public faith. He said that humility — a word he mentioned 10 times during the speech — includes “not believing we alone are in possession of the truth.”
Speaking to his own faith, Obama said he has sought God’s guidance “not just in my own life but in the life of our nation.”
“If we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose,” Obama said. “We can never fathom his amazing grace. We see through a glass darkly, grappling with the expanse of his awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”
Some conservative religious leaders praised the president’s remarks on religious freedom but noted unresolved tensions on same-sex marriage.
“When we talk about religious freedom and the great values of this country, some of us pause to think, ‘Does that apply for the faith community today on marriage and other areas?’ ” said Focus on the Family President Jim Daly. “He’s saying the right things, so maybe we can move in the right direction in good faith.”