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Rick Robinson: Prayers for the People

This column is written by Rick Robinson and originally appeared at Rare.

I’ve risen and fallen in faith so many times in my life I suspect that when I eventually show up at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter’s scorecard on me will closely resemble a game board for Chutes and Ladders. Thus, it was with great humility that I accepted an old pal’s invitation to attend the 62nd Annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

My friend Jim Young and I ran together in high school. As adults, we went our separate ways, but always maintained some degree of contact. Jim drifted into the “Loaves and Fishes” business, working today for a faith-based non-profit. I went into politics. It was clear that he’d have one up on me when the topic of salvation popped up at our table.

The National Prayer breakfast was founded in 1953. Hosted by a group called The Fellowship Foundation, every president since Dwight Eisenhower has participated. Keynote speakers at the breakfast have been wide-ranging — from Tony Blair to Mother Teresa to Bono.

Having never attended the breakfast before, I was not quite sure what I was expecting to hear. However, I was surprised when I heard this:

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 — dignity that no earthly power can take away. And central to that dignity is freedom of religion — the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear.

The speaker professed religious freedom to be a basic tenet of American foreign policy because nations that protect these freedoms are more just, peaceful and successful. He said freedom of religion matters to U.S. national security because, “Nations that do not uphold these rights sow the bitter seeds of instability and violence and extremism.” And he offered prayers for prisoners of conscience “whatever their faith and wherever they’re held.”

Now before anybody goes off on a tangent about ugly Christian-right rhetoric, know that these words were spoken by President Barack Obama. The man who once chided people for clinging to guns and religion was now talking faith before a crowd of 3,500 people of faith.

President Obama praised Pope Francis. He spoke of how U.S. foreign policy now includes meeting with religious leaders from Burma, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Pakistan, Egypt and Syria. He said China’s potential “rests on upholding universal rights, including for Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.”

The president called upon North Korea to release Christian missionary Kenneth Bae and for Iran to release Saeed Abedini, an American pastor serving time for creating a network of Christian churches in private Iranian homes.

Of course, each side of the political spectrum took from the speech what they wanted. After all, this is Washington, D.C. where even the discussion of God is political.

Mentioning the pending Obamacare cases involving Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor, the right declared the President to be no friend of religious freedom. On the other side of the aisle, a portion of the speech where the president decried people who twist religion in the name of hate was changed by the left to have Obama denouncing “twisted religion.”

Personally, my thoughts wandered neither left nor right as President Obama spoke. I thought not of domestic issues, but wondered how his statements would be received by world leaders persecuting those that practice their faith. Sometimes a president’s words matter more abroad than they do here at home.

In America, we argue about the meaning of the Freedom of Religion Clause in the U.S. Constitution, while around the world people are killed for their beliefs and the freedom to follow those beliefs.

Personally, I’ll continue to exercise my freedom to do the former. And, like most in the room yesterday, I’ll pray for the souls of those who suffered the latter.

Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast speech:

Rick Robinson is an award-winning novelist and top-selling political humorist. Follow him on Twitter @authorRick

White House photo from National Prayer Breakfast