Last week our founding editor wrote a piece about comments U.S. President Barack Obama made regarding religious education in Northern Ireland.
“If towns remain divided – if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation,” Obama said in Belfast.
Obama was indeed referring to the longstanding battle between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland – a conflict “which has been raging for decades, killing thousands of people,” as our editor said. But this was not an attempt to “lump all faith-based education into some sort of malevolent monster.” To interpret the president’s comments as such is to take them out of context.
To understand the true meaning of the president’s statement, we must evaluate it in its entirety. Just prior to the sentence quoted above, Obama said, “issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity — symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others — these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it.”
Thus, Obama was attempting to show that the continued self-segregation of these communities was not conducive to resolving conflict.
The decades of violence between elements of Northern Ireland’s nationalist community (which is Irish and/or Roman Catholic) and its unionist community (which is British and/or Protestant), commonly referred to as “The Troubles,” includes but is more complicated than where children go to school, and the president’s comments were intended to reflect that, not to disparage parochial education.
Because the conflict is the result of discrimination against the Nationalist/Catholic minority by the Unionist/Protestant majority, some Catholics were concerned about Obama’s comments. In fact, the group American Catholics for Religious Freedom (ACRF) issued a statement condemning what they called “President Obama’s anti-faith, secular agenda,” and insisting that he “can’t bear the thought that Catholic and parochial schools not only teach important values but consistently produce better educational results at lower cost than America’s failing public schools.” The group went even further, stating that “All Americans of faith should be outraged by these comments which clearly telegraph the President’s belief system and are in fact at their core even anti-American.”
This is not only a misinterpretation of the president’s statements, it is a misguided reduction of the complexities of the region.
In Northern Ireland, Catholics primarily attend Catholic schools, while Protestants primarily attend government-run schools. The intricacies of this issue for the people most affected by it cannot be understated. Sectarian divisions in the region do not being at school, they begin at home. Parents are free to choose where to send their children to school, but they may be perpetuating and reinforcing “The Troubles” in the next generation when they do not allow their children exposure to other other belief systems. Isolation breeds misunderstanding, contempt and conflict.
Obama made the speech in question just prior to a visit to the area’s only integrated primary school with British Prime Minister David Cameron. In fact, integrated schools represent only 6 percent of the primary and secondary school sector in Northern Ireland. With that speech and his visit to that particular school, President Obama wanted to emphasize that it is possible for young Catholics and Protestants to attend school together without conflict. In so doing, perhaps the next generation in Northern Ireland will have a better understanding of their counterparts across the religious divide, and understanding breeds cooperation, something that is desperately needed between Catholics and Protestants in the region.
In fact, Catholics United, a faith group that is more liberal than ACRF, has since defended Obama’s comments in Northern Ireland and pointed out the fact that the president has honored Catholic education leaders at the White House in the past.
James Salt, director of Catholics United, has accused more conservative Catholics of ginning up the controversy over Obama’s remarks:
“President Obama’s comments are directly on point and in no way disparage Catholic education. Obama has been a consistent supporter of Catholic schools and has held multiple events honoring them at the White House,” Salt said. “The real story here is how far the Catholic far-right will go to disparage this President. Simply put, Obama’s detractors have taken an innocuous yet important comment out of context as a way to score cheap political points with an electorate that doesn’t fully understand the context of religious and public education in Northern Ireland.”
Obama’s comments were not about American Catholicism or American parochial education – they were about one aspect of a region in the midst of religious turmoil. They were a plea to the people of that area to begin to integrate their lives in an attempt to better understand their brethren across the religious aisle. Taken in their full context, the president’s comments were that of a world leader attempting to encourage the peaceful resolution of a longstanding conflict. That’s it.
Amy Lazenby is the associate opinion editor at FITSNews. She is a wife, mother of three and small business owner with her husband who splits her time between South Carolina and Georgia. Follow her on Twitter @Mrs_Laz or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.