President Obama called Thursday for religious humility and dogged protection of the separation between church and state, as he condemned “fierce certainty” that can lead to religious oppression and violence.
Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, the president urged religious leaders and lawmakers to guard against intolerance and protect religious freedom. He called out the Muslim extremist group Islamic State but stressed that no faith is immune from “those who seek to hijack religion for their own murderous acts.”
“It is not unique to one group or one religion,” he said, citing the Crusades, slavery and Jim Crow laws as oppression once justified by Christians. “There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency, that can pervert and distort our faith.”
Obama made his remarks at the 63rd annual breakfast, a gathering of lawmakers, religious leaders, and other officials.
Among those in the audience was the Dalai Lama. As pro-Tibet protesters gathered outside the hotel ballroom, Obama greeted the Tibetan monk and activist as a “good friend” and “a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion and inspires up to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.”
The Dalai Lama's attendance inevitably raised unwanted but familiar tensions with the Chinese, who consider him to be a separatist agitator for his opposition to China’s control of Tibet.
Obama has met privately with the Dalai Lama three times at the White House. Each of those meetings have sparked condemnation from Chinese officials, although with few apparent ramifications in U.S.-Chinese relations.
The religious leader was not slated to address the breakfast and White House officials said there were no plans for a meeting between the two men Thursday. It was not immediately clear whether they greeted each other informally at the event. If so, it would be their first such encounter in public.
Still, the breakfast was not without political moments.
The keynote speaker at the bipartisan event was former NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip, who told of his own journey from rowdy rising star to man of faith. His description included what appeared to be a dig at the president and Obama’s use of executive action.
"I always wanted to change the rules," he said, then looked to Obama. "You know guys like that, right?"
In return, Obama took a moment during his own remarks to joke about the names that Waltrip had said he’d been called while he was racing. Obama said that the vitriol paled in comparison to the insults targeted at him.
“That's the best they can do at NASCAR?” Obama asked, to laughter.
The president took a more serious turn and tried to remind his audience of lawmakers and leaders of the importance of humility.
“The starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us and doesn’t speak to others,” he said.
“We should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling toward him.”
Those who assume that humility are more likely to respect the divide between church and state, Obama said.
“Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to participate in a particular faith or any faith at all.”
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