Obama Fumbles on Uganda at National Prayer Breakfast

At the 58th annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington today, President Barack Obama finally spoke about the pending “kill the gays” bill in Uganda, calling it “odious.”

We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are, whether it is here in the United States or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.

Gay and lesbian groups and straight allies have been quick to praise him for it.

Wayne Besen at Truth Wins Out, one of the organizers of the American Prayer Hour, a progressive Christian response to the breakfast created by the C Street group, “The Family,” who have influenced the Ugandan legislation, issued a glowing statement:

We applaud President Obama for having the courage to confront those responsible for the heinous anti-gay bill in Uganda, said Wayne Besen, Executive Director of Truth Wins Out. We hope that the President’s laudable stand makes it clear to Family members in the United States and Uganda that the world is watching. Religion can no longer be used to justify bigotry, intolerance and persecution anywhere on the face of the earth.

UCC pastor and blogger Rev. Chuck Currie gushed, “We are fortunate in the United States to have a president of deep faith who is willing to defend human rights.”

I watched the speech this morning and I can say, without a doubt, that the gay and lesbian community has very low expectations of this president if this tepid expression of disgust over this pending law is something we should be cheering. He mentioned it only in passing and while he called it “odious” he didn’t actually say he condemned it. He didn’t warn Ugandan authorities that they may face any consequences if they ultimately pass it. He didn’t even tell them that the law was “unChristian.” Rick Warren’s clear condemnation of this law was stronger than anything the president uttered over the bacon and eggs at this morning’s breakfast. And we’re supposed to applaud? I suppose after the past eight years of having a president who couldn’t say “gay and lesbian” without looking like he would pass out from utter disgust, gays and lesbians get giddy just having a president who sounds like he respects us when he says that phrase, but I expected more.

President Obama has spent the past week verbally spanking both Republicans and Democrats for their partisanship and bickering, showing great courage and flair in the process. When he has a chance to spank religious bigots, however, he drops the ball – and mentions, only in passing, a piece of legislation that many in that room support —or at least have failed to denounce. Where is the backbone he has been displaying the past few days? Perhaps he left it in his other suit.

Obama’s timidity in front of this group is appalling and should not be applauded. The one who should have garnered the applause this morning was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She took on the issue in strong terms, telling the crowd that no matter what religion we practice, we all have the same “talking points” because “all religions direct us to love our neighbor.”

Yet, across the world we see organized religion standing in the way of faith, perverting love, undermining that message. Religion cloaked in naked power-lust is used to justify horrific violence. Religion is used as a club to deny the human rights of girls and women from the Gulf to Africa to Asia and to discriminate, even advocating the execution of, gays and lesbians.

I was almost as disappointed in Clinton as Obama since she failed to mention the country of Uganda at this point, but she continued:

We are standing up for gays and lesbians who deserve to be treated as whole human beings and we are also making it clear to countries and leaders that these are priorities to the United States. I recently called Pres. Museveni, who I have known through the prayer breakfast, and expressed the strongest concerns about a lawbeing considered in the parliament of Uganda.”

Clinton, like Obama, didn’t say she “condemned” the law, but she was not afraid to take the matter head on and to make bold statements of support for gay and lesbian people – and take the case of gay and lesbian civil rights directly to Uganda’s president. That’s far more than President Obama has done in this matter.

Overall, both Clinton and Obama had a sterling opportunity to speak boldly and directly to the organization that is helping to pass this legislation in Uganda. Neither of them scored a touchdown, but at least Clinton was able to move the ball down the field before Obama fumbled.

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