What the State of the Union speech didn't say

Shortly before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, a small Washington think tank called the Institute on Religion and Public Policy appealed to him to say something about the “highly troubling” state of religious freedom in the world. Recent months have witnessed “increasingly repressive and violent acts of religious persecution,” institute board chairman Joseph K. Grieboski declared. 

President Obama said nothing about human rights and religious freedom in his Jan. 25 address. His silence was more disappointing to advocates of human rights and religious liberty because he had met with Chinese President Hu Jintao just a week before and, according to the White House, discussed these matters with him.

Truly of ‘one heart’? 

As expected, Obama’s principal focus in the State of the Union talk was on deficit reduction and new spending that he said would help upgrade the nation’s infrastructure in the long run. Reactions were mixed. A typical response was that the president had painted an attractive picture of the future but passed over problems here and now like unemployment, well above 9 percent, and soaring mortgage foreclosure rates. The Washington Post called his deficit reduction proposals “drearily familiar.” 

Despite talk about bipartisanship and civility, the realistic prospect is for months of wrangling over budget issues and fiscal policy between the administration and Congress, especially the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Political interests will loom ever larger on all sides as the 2012 elections draw near. The real debate will begin when Obama submits his proposed budget this month.

None of this is new. Neither is inattention to human rights and religious freedom in the American government’s approach to the rest of the world. This is in sharp contrast with recent developments in Rome. 

Interviewed on Vatican Radio after Pope Benedict XVI’s equivalent of a State of the World address — his annual talk to diplomats accredited to the Holy See — U.S. Ambassador Miguel Diaz declared the Vatican and the Obama administration to be of “one heart” in their commitment to religious freedom. The pope, who lately has spoken often about religious persecution, on Jan. 10 delivered a heartfelt plea for religious liberty coupled with strongly worded criticism of offenders in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

Even before Obama’s silence on the issue in the State of the Union, people knowledgeable about human rights and religious freedom found Ambassador Diaz’s claim of convergence between Washington and Rome surprising. In fact, it was said, the Obama administration has shown comparatively little concern for these matters up to now — an attitude signaled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s famous statement in 2009 that the United States wouldn’t let human rights “interfere” with the relationship with China.

Misdirected attention 

According to a former State Department official familiar with this area of policy, the administration since then has put far more time and effort into pushing gay rights at the United Nations and in other international settings than it has devoted to promoting religious freedom. 

An indication of the low priority assigned the latter issue by the administration up to now is its continued failure to put an ambassador-at-large in place to head up the State Department’s religious freedom office, as required by law. 

It was only last June, nearly a year-and-a-half after taking office, that Obama nominated someone for the position. The nominee was Suzan Johnson Cook, a Baptist pastor from New York City with no experience in foreign affairs or religious liberty questions. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not hold a hearing on the nomination until November, and time ran out without the Senate voting on it, leaving the top State Department position on religious freedom vacant for the foreseeable future. 

Against that background, the human rights community found room for a modest renewal of hopes in the fact that Secretary Clinton in a Jan. 14 speech made reference to human rights and religious freedom as issues of U.S. concern in the China relationship. Moreover, religious freedom then did come up in the conversations between President Hu and President Obama on Jan. 19.

Acknowledging need 

At a news conference later, the Chinese leader went so far as to acknowledge that there is room for improvement in his country’s record in this area, which includes the repression of Tibetan Buddhism and the Falun Gong sect, and the appointment by the government — over strong Vatican objections — of bishops of its own choosing for the Chinese Catholic group it controls. President Obama, by contrast, offered apologies for China’s religious repression in his remarks. 

In the State of the Union speech, Obama did touch on at least one issue of particular concern to Catholic organizations — immigration reform. He called for steps to “protect our borders” and enforce the law, while also taking unspecified steps to deal with “undocumented workers … living in the shadows” and finding ways to hold onto well-educated illegal immigrants rather than expel them. 

About abortion and the life issues the president had nothing to say. He didn’t need to. Two days before Washington’s annual March for Life protesting the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973, Obama issued a statement promising to keep protection and promotion of abortion a priority of his administration based on the “fundamental principle” that “government should not intrude on family matters.”

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Critical Issue (sidebar)

“The attacks on Coptic Christians on New Year’s Eve in Alexandria, Egypt, and the recurring violence against Christians in Iraq ... are truly only two instances in the midst of a world climate ridden with heightening religious fundamentalism and oppression. 

“The significance of bettering their conditions in the moment can help to both further religious freedom in the whole of the Middle East, and serve as the emblem for the United States’ dedication to the defense of religious freedom. 

“As you said in your recent statement addressing the attacks on the Christian communities in Egypt: ‘The perpetrators of this attack were clearly targeting Christian worshipers, and have no respect for human life and dignity. They must be brought to justice for this barbaric and heinous act.’ We agree with these sentiments and believe that the distinctly deteriorating patterns of escalating violence and considerable global indifference are devastating religious minority communities around the world. And we as a nation cannot afford to ignore this. 

“It is clear that the magnitude of this issue is one that merits pointed condemnation. ... We believe it is critical that you publicly implore the Iraqi and Egyptian governments to prioritize and implement strategies to protect their citizens of all religions, protect vulnerable communities, and prosecute those responsible for these atrocious acts of violence.” 

— Letter from the Institute on Religion and Public Policy to President Barack Obama before the State of the Union speech