The relationship between religion and politics has become murky in recent years. The effort of America’s Founders to prevent the establishment of a state religion has been twisted and reinterpreted to create an increasingly large gulf between religion and public life. That gulf became even wider this past week, when President Obama’s administration asked Georgetown University to remove all signs and symbols from their hall before the President delivered his speech to the assembly. The University was only too willing to strip the hall of its religious symbols in order to land such a prominent speaker. The message was clear: religion has no place in the public square.
This is not the first time Mr. Obama has shown signs of his low view of religion in the public square. In a 2007 speech, he criticized many evangelicals involved in politics, saying, "Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked. Part of it’s because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who’ve been all too eager to exploit what divides us." Mr. Obama seems to believe any religious opinions that can be construed as divisive have no place in politics. The natural conclusion is that religion’s only place in the public square is to function as a kind of feel-good, unifying placebo. No one should make public arguments rooted in religious truth.
Obama continued on his multi-cultural embrace, explaining, "Whatever we once were, we’re no longer a Christian nation. At least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, and a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers." A diversity of religious beliefs has always existed in America, so what point is the President making here? In the context of his previous quote, he seems to have trouble with any religious viewpoint that makes actual truth claims. This kind of all-inclusive religiosity is based upon a form of relativism directly at odds with the fundamental tenets of many faiths. Apparently, Mr. Obama believes that if you want to present your religious views in the public square, you must remove all statements that contradict or criticize any other religion or belief.
It’s not surprising that a man who believes that the firm opinions of religious people have no place in the public square would seek to hide religious signs and symbols during his speech at Georgetown University. Among other changes, Georgetown officials covered the monogram "IHS" (an early Christian monogram of Jesus Christ’s name) that was on the wall behind President Obama as he gave his address. If the President already agreed to speak at Georgetown University—a Catholic University—why did he feel the need to strip the University of all vestiges of its Christian heritage? The University’s associate vice president for communications Julie Green Bataille tried to argue that "it seemed most respectful to have [the symbols] covered so as not to be seen out of context." But Ms. Bataille neglected to mention former First Lady Laura Bush’s previous appearance at Georgetown, where she spoke in front of the very same sign and did not cover it. Surely the average viewer would realize that the murals and signs on Georgetown’s walls were part of the college itself and not endorsed by the President. The President appears to be going out of his way to strip even the slightest hint of religion from his political discourse.
Perhaps even more troubling is Georgetown University’s ready complicity with the White House’s request. University officials were all too quick to remove the symbols of their religious founding when presented with the opportunity to net a famous speaker. Georgetown is a Jesuit University founded in 1789, and yet its administrators were willing to hide the school’s religious identity in order to land a popular guest. Patrick Reilly, President of The Cardinal Newman Society, understands the situation well: "It is such a sad commentary that Catholic universities are willingly hiding the most visible signs of their Catholic identity when hosting secular leaders. What’s next, will Notre Dame cover images of Jesus and Mary and ban rosaries when they honor President Obama next month?"
Why are Georgetown’s administrators willing to hide their faith? Their tradition is clear on this point. In Matthew 10:32-33, Jesus said, "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven." Apparently the prestige of having the President speak was just too great a temptation for the University’s officials.
Americans need to rethink their understanding of church and state. The Founders sought to guard against the establishment of an official state religion. They did not want the church to wield the sword of government. But they did not seek to ban religious discussion from the public square. In fact, they sought to guard religious speech and practice in the First Amendment to the Constitution. They understood that removing religious speech from the political sphere discriminates against religion. A public square stripped of religion is not somehow "more fair" for everyone—rather, it discriminates against the religious in favor of atheists and agnostics. A person’s religious beliefs inform who they are, the way they think, the truth they accept, and the very basis of their arguments. To seek to remove religious speech from the public square is to establish secularism as the only acceptable mode of political discourse.
The President’s efforts to remove all vestiges of Georgetown’s religious roots during his speech is troubling. Is our President so afraid of religion in politics that he will not allow even the name of Jesus to remain on the wall behind him when he speaks? His previous comments and latest actions paint an increasingly clear picture of a man who believes strong religious belief has no place in public. Perhaps he, like many others these days, believes that a man’s religious beliefs should be left in his closet at home. Such views do far greater harm to free political discourse than a sign on a wall.