It should have come as no surprise when President Barack Obama recently described himself as “a Christian by choice.” The president described in detail his journey to the Christian faith in his book Dreams from My Father. Still, unfounded suspicions about the president’s “true” religious faith persist, proof that what Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in America politics” remains as insidious as ever. Speaking to local families in Albuquerque, N.M., in September, the president was asked once again why he is a Christian. “Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings, that we’re sinful and we’re flawed and we make mistakes and we achieve salvation through the grace of God,” Mr. Obama said.
The same week it was reported that Michelle Obama, while vacationing in Spain this summer, told a local Salesian priest that her husband keeps a picture of Mary Help of Christians in his wallet. Ms. Obama did not explain why the president chose this particular icon of Mary, who serves under that title as patroness of the Salesian Order. It seems unlikely that the president was drawn to Mary Help of Christians because of her reported intercession in two major battles against Turkish forces. It is also improbable that Mr. Obama is a “closet Catholic,” as some commentators have mischievously suggested.
Perhaps the answer lies in the humility that undergirds President Obama’s faith. Mary has always been invoked to intercede for Christians who know they are sinful but still seek God’s mercy. That our president is aware of the need for such grace should be evidence enough, for those who still require it, that he is our brother in Christ.Halfway to Heaven
If ignorance is bliss, then respondents to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey are halfway there. For they answered correctly, on average, only half the 32 questions posed in interviews during May and June 2010 for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. An average of 50 percent, however, would mean in most schools that the class failed the exam. That is the real outcome in this case. Reporters have noted that atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons, in that order, outscored Christians. But the three top groups correctly answered only 65 percent, 64 percent and 63 percent respectively of the questions—nothing to brag about.
Most respondents (two-thirds or more) knew that public school teachers cannot lead the class in prayer, that an atheist is one who does not believe in God, that Mother Teresa was Catholic, that Moses led the Exodus, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that the Constitution says government shall not establish nor interfere with religion and that most people in Pakistan are Muslim. But only half knew that the Koran is the Islamic holy book, that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday, that Joseph Smith was Mormon, that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation and that the four Gospel writers are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Catholics, with 14.7 correct answers, scored below average. And nearly half (45 percent) did not know the church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy Communion are not merely symbols, but “actually become the body and blood of Christ.”
While college graduates scored highest overall, lack of education alone does not explain why Catholics fared so poorly. Religious ignorance, however, does explain why many adult Catholics have difficulty in two areas: teaching the faith to their children and understanding how Catholic belief and practice fit in an increasingly pluralistic society.The Right to Breastfeed
Last July the manager of a Johnny Rockets restaurant in Kentucky told a mother who was nursing her 6-month-old daughter that she would have to go outside to a public bench, or else nurse her baby in a bathroom stall. The incident led to protests with signs like “Johnny Rockets is not a family restaurant” and “No, I will not feed my baby in your bathroom.”
Kentucky is one of 44 states that permit breastfeeding in public. California’s enlightened civil code states that a mother may breastfeed her child in any location; on receiving a jury summons, a nursing mother can request a year’s deferral.
Although breastfeeding provides an infant with essential nutrients to protect against illnesses like diarrhea and pneumonia, the number of women who nurse their babies is declining. The higher the mother’s educational level, the more likely she is to breastfeed. A pediatrics study in 2010 found that if 90 percent of mothers breastfed their child for six months, the United States could save $13 billion in medical costs and prevent almost 1,000 infant deaths yearly.
Last year Representative Carolyn Maloney introduced the Breastfeeding Promotion Act which would protect a mother’s right to breastfeed. It requires employers to provide mothers “with reasonable break time and a...non-bathroom place to express milk” up to the child’s first birthday. The bill deserves support. In its larger sense, the issue underscores the rights of women, as well as health considerations for them and their children.