From the moment he rose to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast, it was clear President Barack Obama intended to respond to critics who accuse him of being weak in his defense of religious freedom.
"As Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion," noted Obama, early in the recent address. "Yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too -- because religion strengthens America. Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals. ...
"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."
In the days after this blunt address, critics across the spectrum of American religious life -- including on the left -- affirmed what the president said, but also marveled at what he left unsaid.
The bottom line: Where were the Little Sisters of the Poor?
In other words, what about the religious-liberty conflicts currently unfolding here in the United States, as opposed to those in distant lands?
The Little Sisters -- a Catholic order that ministers to the elderly poor -- are among the many religious schools, parachurch groups and nonprofit ministries that continue to clash with the White House. One bitter conflict centers on the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer employees, and even students, health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills." Similar clashes on gay marriage and other issues of moral theology have affected groups linked to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the National Association of Evangelicals and other religious networks.