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Our President’s Faith

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.

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Ted McGoron
8 years ago
   Obama acts like a Muslim. He does not act like a Christian. A Christian would not bow to a Muslim monarch. You know the old saying about what walks like a duck, etc.
David Britt
8 years ago
Thanks for your advocacy on breastfeeding.  It seems like a no-brainer to choose a FREE option rather than expensive formulas that don't nutritionally replace mother's milk or the crucial emotional bonding that breastfeeding brings.  Yet WIC mothers are deluged with formula supplies.  Research shows that breastfed babies actually score higher on IQ tests and are healthier for years after weaning.  God created our bodies so that breastfeeding is natural and normal.  Treating it as shameful somehow seems sacriligious. 
sheila dierks
8 years ago
A sorry world it is when drive-thru meals and artificial foods build a group of children for whom obesity is going to be a lifelong health challenge.  Wonder what's on the menu at Johnny Rocket's Restaurant?

All over the world children are nourished by their mothers.  Thank heavens for breast milk. Perfect for babies.  
And my husband always thought it came in such cute containers!
David Gibboni
8 years ago
As usual, you miss the point.  Just because it's a natural function, and just because it offers health benefits, doesn't mean it's something that ought to be done in public.  Urination and defecation are natural functions with substantial health benefits when practiced regularly, but that doesn't mean I can crap right in the middle of Johnny Rocket's. 
Lori Amann-Chetcuti
8 years ago
Having nursed three babies, I agree that mothers should be as discrete as possible out of consideration for other guests. 

But banning nursing in public?  Only a sick mind would equate feeding a baby with defacating.  Nursing clothes, a loose-fitting shirt, a cloth diaper or a small blanket enabled me to show less skin & cleavage when nursing in public than the average teenage girl shows everyday in fastfood restaurants.
Caroline McEnroe
8 years ago
The higher the mother's education the more likely she will nurse her baby.  That is not
always the case.  I question the doctors who do not provide sound education in this area.  I have
a nurse daughter-in-law who refused to breastfeed as she thought it 'gross'.  Had she been educated better in her field she would have felt differently, I believe. Our daughter breastfed both my grandchildren and it was a beautiful experience for her and all.
Thank you for the article.
Caroline McEnroe
Christine Villecco
8 years ago
I am six months pregnant and entirely plan on breastfeeding. However, despite breastfeeding being natural, it is not always possible for various reasons and not as easy as many think, as many of my "educated" friends have told me. I think mothers who choose to breastfeed and those who cannot need to be respected (like mothers who choose cloth diapers and mothers who choose disposable both need to be respected as well) Demonizing anyone for choosing certain options, whether educated or ignorant, is not the Christian way, but rather encouraging what is healthiest and best while refraining from personal judgment. God bless mothers! Our society does seem decidely not supportive enough of us.
Colleen McCahill
8 years ago

Human milk is designed by our Creator for humans. Therefore, feeding human babies human milk is not only natural, but also right, and true, and faithful.
We are societally confused about the "rights" of women to nurse their babies in public. It is the baby who has a "right" to eat when he is hungry. If the optimal food is instantly available, and free of cost, it is outrageous that a civilized society would consider making it difficult for the baby to receive this. 
Nursing a baby is almost always possible, but not always easy. Most mother/baby couples who cease nursing did not receive the support they needed, and concluded that the endeavor was not possible, when in fact it was difficult. Persevering through any initial difficulties will be possible for most, and the difficulties will pale in comparison to later assisting the same child through middle school math.
Eating is precisely a natural function with substantial health benefits, and is done in public ALL the TIME. Try comparing apples to apples, Guy.
How sad that so many of us think of a baby enjoying his food as gross. I suppose watching some of our educated, adult friends and relatives eat might be considered gross, too. Like, really gross. But we forgive them and love them anyway, because they're cute, or funny, or have big eyes which melt your heart, or a thousand other reasons. Plus, they gotta eat.
Paul Leddy
8 years ago

I can’t resist, I gotta jump in on this one.

30+ years ago my (now, ex) wife would breastfeed my then infant daughter when schedule demanded, where ever the two were …including church, during Mass, if needs be. As was his custom, Msgr. O’Donnell would, during the “exchange of a sign of peace,” walk up one side and down the other, the length of the church, shaking hands with those sitting on the aisle in the pews.  One Sunday, he got to Kathy, who was sublimely nursing away; he extended, and then quickly withdrew his outstretched hand; a tad shaken, he made a good recovery and carried on to the others. I don’t recall any incidents of people reacting negatively over Kathy breastfeeding in public.  Msgr. was a bit flustered for a second and it was kinda funny at the time, but we all seemed to have survived. And this would be a great segue to my bragging about my daughter and grandkids, but I’ll resist the temptation.

James Sheehan
8 years ago
In response to Ted's comment (#1), why is Obama not Christian?   Because he cares for the poor, and hasn't decided to lie about the reasons for a new war?  Or should he be a born again Christian who does not go to Church, but rather consults astrologers like Ronald Reagan?  The hatred of Obama by some Christians is not Christian, and the reasons they claim for this hatred are usually not based in fact. 
Bernard Campbell
8 years ago
The lack of knowledge about their Catholic faith is surprisingly common.  It is a surprise to me that the Bishops seem to be unaware of this phenomenon.  My suspicion is that many Catholics have been ingrained with the idea of blind obedience in religion and knowledge?  They are encouraged to approach their faith "devotionally and not intellectually?"  It is for this reason, I enthusiastically encourage Catholics to read the new Adult Catechism.  It is a brilliant publication.  Presently, I use it in a weekly class of inmates at the state prison.
It is very disappointing to encounter the strong anti-intellectual attitude in the Catholic community.  It is amazing to encounter how many Catholics hate the New York Times?  Many it seems to me obediently listen to and accept the comments made by provocateurs in the media.  Many Catholics that I meet prefer to read tabloids.  This is surprising since many of these people have come from the same Catholic educational background as myself.
It is my impression that many Catholics want to reside in an intellectual ghetto?
8 years ago
I agree with you wholeheartedly.  There is definitely a need for continuing adult faith formation/religious education today.  It seems that average Catholics who went to public schools ended their religious education after CCD classes in junior high.  I could be wrong, of course.


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