During a 20 minute speech at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama said “killing the innocent” is the “ultimate betrayal” of God’s will. It’s a line that comes across as tone deaf given his own record on abortion. But what he said next makes it seem as if he is deliberately trolling pro-life Americans. That or perhaps he needs someone on his speech writing staff who is broadly familiar with the Bible.
The focus of the President’s speech was religious freedom around the world. This is a worthy topic that often seems to get less attention than it deserves. After a reference to ongoing conflict in the Central African Republican President Obama said “to
harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship
with God.” He continued this thought with this extraordinary paragraph arguing against nihilism:
“Extremists succumb to an aberrant nihilism that shows they don’t understand the faiths they claim to profess, for the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will. In fact is the ultimate betrayal of God’s will. Today we profess the principles we know to be true. We believe that each of us is wonderfully made in the image of God. We therefore believe in the inherent dignity of every human being.”
In context, the line about killing the innocent was clearly meant as a criticism of extremists who kill in God’s name, i.e. those with religious motivations. However the statement itself necessarily transcend this limited meaning. Either killing the innocent is the “ultimate betrayal of God’s will” or it is not. If it is then no appeal to secular (rather than religious) motives will make such killing any less a betrayal.
At this point an observer wonders how the President might square this statement of principle with his own support for abortion. As Penny Starr at CNS News points out, this is the President who once said he supported abortion because he wouldn’t want his daughters to be “punished with a baby.”
At the least this appears to be a case of tone-deafness. The President was thinking about terrorism and didn’t pause to consider how his statement of principle might apply in another context. But the President’s very next line, “each of us is wonderfully made,” also raises another possibility. Maybe he was trolling pro-lifers intentionally.
The turn of phrase the President used might not be immediately recognized by everyone but it would certainly be recognized by pro-life Christians. Obama is paraphrasing a bit of poetry from the bible, specifically Psalm 139, verse 14. The phrase he borrowed is actually the completion of a thought which begins one verse earlier. Here’s the whole thing:
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
It’s probably not hard to imagine how these verses are interpreted by many pro-life Christians (and Jews). Suffice it to say, this text is a perennial favorite on “Sanctity of Life Sunday” in many churches.
It should go without saying that not everyone cares what the Bible says and that the President is an elected politician not a pastor. We expect him to know policy not the psalms. That’s as it should be.
But the President appeared at a prayer breakfast to volunteer his thoughts on “killing the innocent.” If he’s going to do that he should probably know how his reference one sentence later to a verse about life in the womb will sound as a follow up. Which once again raises the question: Did he know?
There are only two possibilities here. Either the President referenced this verse because he (or his speech writer) had no idea how tone deaf it would sound. Or, alternatively, he chose it because he knew exactly how it would come across and he wanted to (somewhat cleverly) poke a stick at religious pro-lifers, a group he clearly disagrees with.
Under the circumstance the more charitable reading is probably the right one. Still I can’t help recalling something the President once said about putting lipstick on a pig. He denied any ill intent in that instance but, frankly, I didn’t buy it. The President is very competitive and he’s not above a political jab at his opponents. To be fair, he’s also been known to say politically dumb stuff no one thinks was a remotely good idea.
Even if we assume the best here, the President really ought to find someone to round out his speech writing staff who is more than passingly familiar with religious people beyond Reverend Wright. More importantly, he might want to spare a thought about how his grand statement about “killing the innocent” lines up with his long standing defense of the abortion industry.