When President Barack Obama was in Northern Ireland several weeks ago, taking part in the G8 Summit, he made what I can only hope was an ill-advised blunder. During a talk to 2,000 people in Belfast, our President said, “If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden — that too encourages division and discourages cooperation.”
In the firestorm that followed, a Catholic priest, Father John Zuhlsdorf, wrote on his blog that President Obama’s comments were “another example of what this man wants: total isolation of any religious values in the private sphere alone. President Obama is working either to intimidate or legislate or even tax religious freedom out of the public square.”
While I hope that President Obama and Father Zuhlsdorf are both wrong, the fact that the president would even say such a thing bothers me a lot. I believe in Christian schools. I think our kids need to study the Bible and we need to get our forefathers’ values and principles back into the basic education stream. I also believe there has never been a time when the United States “government” has been as focused on eliminating Christianity from the American way of life.
If so, that is a tragic mistake. Christianity is the number one religion in the world with 2.18 billion followers, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That is one-third of all the people in the world. Of that number, about a billion – or roughly half – are Roman Catholics. Some were at Waterfront Hall in Belfast and could hardly believe what they heard.
In all fairness, here is a transcript of exactly what the President of the United States said:
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“We need you to get this right. And what’s more, you set an example for those who seek a peace of their own. Because beyond these shores, right now, in scattered corners of the world, there are people living in the grip of conflict — ethnic conflict, religious conflict, tribal conflicts — and they know something better is out there.
“And they’re groping to find a way to discover how to move beyond the heavy hand of history, to put aside the violence. They’re studying what you’re doing. And they’re wondering, perhaps if Northern Ireland can achieve peace, we can, too. You’re their blueprint to follow. You’re their proof of what is possible — because hope is contagious. They’re watching to see what you do next.
“Now, some of that is up to your leaders. As someone who knows firsthand how politics can encourage division and discourage cooperation, I admire the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly all the more for making power-sharing work. That’s not easy to do. It requires compromise, and it requires absorbing some pain from your own side. I applaud them for taking responsibility for law enforcement and for justice, and I commend their effort to “Building a United Community” — important next steps along your transformational journey.
“Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity — symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others — these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it. If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.
“Ultimately, peace is just not about politics. It’s about attitudes; about a sense of empathy; about breaking down the divisions that we create for ourselves in our own minds and our own hearts that don’t exist in any objective reality, but that we carry with us generation after generation.”
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So why does the United States government seem to have just the opposite attitude? I don’t get it. As Father Zuhlsdorf opined, “Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a foreign visit to an Islamic nation where he told people on his arrival that they shouldn’t have madrasas. Can you? Did he, when visiting, say, Israel, say ‘You Jews shouldn’t have synagogue schools and you Muslims shouldn’t have mosque schools.’ I can’t remember. Did he?”
The answer is obvious – of course not. I am hoping he was trying to appeal to the Protestant-Catholic hearts and using the schools as a common ground but the feeling in Ireland is that it was a slur towards the Catholics, their schools so much better than the Protestant models. Ironically, it is widely believed the Christian schools in America are much better than the public schools, too.
Could part of it be that public schools in the United States, per the Supreme Court, threw Christianity out years ago? It seems like every day some “Church versus State” rebellion is cropping up somewhere in America and I contend that America has become so “politically correct” we’ve lost much of our identity.
I believe that Barack Obama’s remarks in that Belfast meeting hall actually “encouraged division (and) discouraged cooperation.” That bothers me a lot. A “total isolation of religious values,” as Father Zuhlsdorf points out, bothers me even more. So I am going to pray about it in hopes it might help.