Of presidents and prime ministers who talk of faith

Obama in America and Cameron in Britain have spoken of how their Christian faith influences their approach to shaping society. The US presidential campaign is also skirting church-state issues. How much should religion and politics mix?

REUTERS/Larry Downing
Audience members pray at the 60th annual National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington Feb. 2. President Obama spoke to the assembled elected leaders and others.

Elected leaders rarely talk of how their faith inspires their governance. That tradition was reinforced Thursday by Barack Obama at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. “Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical,” the president said.

Still, in both his speech and a recent one by British Prime Minister David Cameron, both leaders proclaimed a religious basis for how they would shape society.

The very fact that Mr. Obama, a liberal, and Mr. Cameron, a conservative, feel comfortable in openly speaking about religion – including prayer – reflects just how much faith remains a public topic in these two secular democracies.

In America’s presidential contest, especially, religious issues are becoming nearly as important as job creation.

Dozens of evangelical leaders, for example, have lined up behind anti-abortion Rick Santorum to be the GOP nominee, even though their once-powerful influence in politics has waned. In much of the media, meanwhile, questions are being raised about the ability of Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (“Mormons”), to attract the votes of other Christians. And the Republican candidates have directly spoken to churches.

Last month, Obama stirred up a religious storm with a new health-care regulation. He insisted that religious-based hospitals that serve the public must provide women with access to birth-control methods, including the “morning after” abortion pill. In church pulpits last Sunday, Roman Catholic leaders spoke out strongly against the rule. They now want a religious exemption in Obama’s health-care law. The bishops say that their Christian mission to heal the sick and to follow their conscience should not be violated by a government dictate to dispense contraception and to support abortion.

Even liberal Catholics, many of whom differ from the church’s views on contraception, say Obama went too far in threatening hefty fines against a private group that doesn’t serve his view on how to meet society’s health needs.

This church-state controversy may color a big Supreme Court decision. The court will likely rule by June on whether the health law’s mandate for Americans to buy medical insurance violates individual liberty, such as a person’s reliance solely on prayer for healing.

Obama’s speech at the prayer breakfast was also seen as one of the most political by any president at such events. He cited the Bible as a basis for his policies, such as his desire to end tax breaks for the wealthy and his decision to deploy marines to Uganda. The president spoke of how his daily prayers as “leader of this great nation” influence the values behind his economic proposals. He hopes the nation would return to the values he cites in the Bible in hopes “that God will buttress [the nation’s] efforts.”

Cameron, in contrast, emphasized in his speech in December just how much each individual in Britain, with its strong Christian tradition, should support faith-based groups. He said charities first formed the welfare state and remain “at the heart of modern social action.” He cited the more than 30,000 groups that “help build a bigger, richer, stronger, more prosperous and more generous society.”

In these two speeches, Cameron and Obama stepped gently across the church-state divide, reminding both countries of their Christian heritage while offering differing views on how the Bible can influence public action.

Yet both men also noted the need for humility in promoting religious views. “The tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too,” the prime minster said.

The call to serve others does indeed start with the freedom to choose a calling for oneself. From that standpoint, through either charity or government or both, each person’s love for humanity can be expressed.

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