White House

White House Honors 12 Faith Leaders as Climate Change ‘Champions’

the White House / RNS

Left to right, the Rev. Mitchell Hescox, Huda Alkaff (hidden), the Rev. Kim Morrow,  Sunita Viswanath, Sister Joan Brown, Rabbi Marc Soloway, Steven Beumer. Photo via the White House / RNS

From a zero-waste synagogue to global development work after natural disasters, environmental projects by faith leaders are being hailed by the Obama administration as examples of exemplary leadership on climate change.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy highlighted initiatives by a dozen leaders from a range of faiths, who were recognized July 20 in Washington, D.C., as “Champions of Change” for their environmental initiatives.

“As faith leaders, no voice is really more important than yours in this,” said McCarthy.

A Primer on Fast Track Trade Authority for People of Faith

Image via pogonici/shutterstock.com

Image via pogonici/shutterstock.com

t’s also one of the most divisive political issues on the Hill right now. Here’s why: The notion of "fast tracking" trade deals with almost no congressional oversight has led to the creation of odd alliances — putting the Democrats and Tea Party in one camp (against), and the Republicans and Obama Administration (for) in another. Pro-business Republicans are long time supporters of free trade, while members of the Tea Party are against most anything that would allow the President to usurp legislative authority. As for Democrats, they argue that the TPP would allow multinational corporations to undermine labor safeguards, civil rights, environmental protection and healthcare, and derail urgent efforts at fighting climate change. Organizations typically aligned with President Obama are against him here: labor unions, environmental groups, and even traditionally non-political groups have fought hard against Fast Track and the TPP.

Indeed, the potential harm from the trade deal seems to leave few interest groups untouched. To provide just a few examples, Doctors Without Borders has called the TPP the "worst trade deal ever," claiming that it will cause millions to lose access to life-saving medicines; left-leaning Global Exchange has pointed to the increasing number of sweatshops such a framework would lead to; and the digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation has expressed its belief that the TPP would put overly restrictive controls on the internet. And we’ve already seen our political leaders weaken standards for protection against human trafficking and child labor should the trade deal move forward.

These are all compelling arguments, and they are ones faith groups are making as well.

Christian Nation vs. Secular Country?

AS WE SWING into the 2016 presidential campaign, we Americans can be certain of at least one thing: We will be treated to another round of very public arguments about the role of religion in our republic. If this were a boxing match, and if past patterns persist, the title of the bout would be Christian Nation vs. Secular Country. The sides, more eager to mobilize their own than have a conversation with the other, will happily seek to bludgeon one another.

Thankfully, a number of writers have set out to complicate this picture in a way that adds both color and hope. Peter Manseau’s One Nation, Under Gods and Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Quran are beautifully written accounts of our interfaith country. By interfaith, I mean both that there were people of different faith persuasions present from our earliest days, and that they constantly bumped into one another as they established their communities and sought to build up this country.

That interaction often went badly—the Salem witch trials, the anti-Catholic Know Nothing party, and present day anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are just some examples. As Manseau writes, “The story of how a global array of beliefs came to occupy the same ocean-locked piece of land is more often one of violence than of toleration.”

But there are inspiring threads of pluralism in the American tapestry as well. As Manseau puts it, “the repeated collision of conflicting systems of belief, followed frequently by ugly and violent conflict, has somehow arrived, again and again, not merely at peaceful coexistence but at striking moments of inter-influence.”

Both of these books display the full fabric.

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5 Takeaways from Tuesday's White House Celebration of Gospel Music

Photo via Adelle M. Banks / RNS

First lady Michelle Obama welcomes students to the White House on April 14, 2015. Photo via Adelle M. Banks / RNS

First lady Michelle Obama hosted a discussion with musicians and students on gospel music at the White House on April 14, praising gospel’s role as “a ray of hope” in American history.

“Gospel music has really played such an important role in our country’s history,” she told more than 100 students gathered in the State Dining Room, “from the spirituals sung by slaves, to the anthems that became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement, and to the hymns that millions of Americans sing every single day in churches all across the country.”

Here are some of the lessons learned during the 75-minute event, where Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli interviewed a panel of singers and songwriters ahead of a star-studded concert that will air on PBS on June 26 as part of the “In Performance at the White House” series.

1. Gospel music is personal for the first lady.

“I’m really thrilled that we’re really focusing on gospel,” Obama said of the series that has previously featured classical, country, and soul music.

“It’s something that I wanted to do since we started.”

What I Learned From Praying at the White House

The closing prayer. Image via Justin Fung.

The closing prayer. Image via Justin Fung.

I got the call on the morning of Maundy Thursday: Would you be interested in giving the closing prayer at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast?

Uh. Yes. Wow. Absolutely. I actually don’t even remember what my response was, but it was probably something like that.

My feeling upon hanging up the phone — and the underlying sense all through the emotion and significance and spiritual intensity of our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at my church — was, Who, me? 

I felt the same way walking into the White House with a bunch of leaders whose names and faces I’d seen before on social media or the news but never yet in person.

The other presenters that day were Rev. Amy Butler from Riverside Church in New York City, Sister Donna Markham of Catholic Charities USA, Fr. Anthony Messeh of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church, and Pastor Ann Lightner-Fuller of Mt. Calvary A.M.E. Church, and as we met and chatted in the Blue Room while we waited for the President and Vice President to greet us before the breakfast, we shared this common feeling. Who were we to be doing this? At one point, Fr. Anthony said, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they made a mistake!”

Eight years ago, a 25-year-old, grad-school-student, fanboy-and-campaigner-in-chief Justin would have been unreservedly and unabashedly over-the-moon about an opportunity like this — and please don’t get me wrong, I was excited. There were a lot of things I thought about saying to the President — “Big fan, sir!” or “We’re praying for you!” or “Come visit The District Church — we’re just a couple miles up the road!” or “How about that Championship game last night?”

But all that came out was, “Great to meet you, Mr. President!” And then I had nothing.

The breakfast itself was a fun thing to be a part of, too. From Vice President Biden’s opening remarks to President Obama’s reflections (and jokes, the man’s got a great sense of humor!)to the song by Amy Grant (a childhood musical hero of mine) to the scriptures read from 1 Corinthians and Mark’s Gospel to the homily on having the courage to hope and keep moving forward, the event was a thoroughly Jesus-saturated. It felt like an extension of Easter Sunday.

And I guess that’s what God has impressed upon my heart this weekend and through the prayer breakfast: we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. Before the breakfast, I met Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and we both commented on how even famous people need Jesus, how even nice suits and dresses can’t hide the things that we all have to deal with.

White House Releases Blueprint for Cutting U.S. Greenhouse Gas Pollution 26-28 Percent by 2025

Environmental blueprint. Image via Moon Light PhotoStudio/shutterstock.com

Environmental blueprint. Image via Moon Light PhotoStudio/shutterstock.com

On Tuesday, the White House revealed President Obama’s blueprint for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas pollution by 26-28 percent before 2025. The Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) is in accordance with the United Nations formal effort to come to forge an international climate agreement in Paris in December.

In November, the United States released a historic joint agreement with China that both countries would work toward limiting greenhouse gas emissions but until this morning no further details of this agreement had been seen.

The release of INDC has generally been supported by the environmental community because the pollution cuts in the Administration’s plan can be achieved without new action from Congress. As Greenpeace representative Kyle Ash said, “By announcing its plan ahead of Paris as agreed, the U.S. has at least shown it is committed to the negotiation process and willing to push the other nearly 200 countries to deliver.”

Ash continues that there is still much room for improvement in the outline:

“We welcome the US submission as a first step, but it would not do enough to avert global catastrophe…The Obama Administration’s [plan] begins to treat the wound, but does not stop the bleeding. As the world’s second largest emitter, the US must strengthen its commitment to climate solutions before Paris to ensure an agreement that immediately spurs the necessary transition away from fossil fuels and towards 100 percent renewable energy.”

In preparation for the Paris 2015 Climate Negotiations, all countries were asked to by the United Nations to submit individual outlines for greenhouse gas reduction by April 2015. So far only the European Union, Mexico, Norway, Switzerland and now the United State have submitted their national plans to the U.N.  It is hoped that the announcement of the United States’ reduction plan will spur other countries to announce their own contributions to the U.N. negotiations. 

Obama to Host Pope Francis at White House in September

Photo via Pete Souza / White House / Flickr / RNS

President Obama and Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 27, 2014. Photo via Pete Souza / White House / Flickr / RNS

President Obama will welcome Pope Francis to the White House during the pontiff’s U.S. visit in September to “continue the dialogue … on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said March 26.

The meeting with the president and first lady will take place on Sept. 23, apparently near the start of a visit — the first to the U.S. by the Argentine pope — that will take Francis from the U.S. Capitol to New York and the United Nations and will conclude with a huge outdoor Mass in Philadelphia.

“During the visit, the President and the Pope will continue the dialogue, which they began during the President’s visit to the Vatican in March 2014, on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues,” Earnest said in a statement.

Those issues, he said, include “caring for the marginalized and the poor; advancing economic opportunity for all; serving as good stewards of the environment; protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom around the world; and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”

Obama: Alleged War on Islam Is ‘An Ugly Lie’

Photo via REUTERS / Joshua Roberts / RNS

President Obama speaks during the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. Photo via REUTERS / Joshua Roberts / RNS

President Obama said Feb. 19  that governments across the globe are obligated to confront the “warped ideologies” that lead to terrorism, “especially their attempt to use Islam to justify their violence.”

National leaders must also dispute claims that there is a clash of civilizations in the world, the president said during a second-day speech at the White House Summit on Confronting Violent Extremism.

“The notion that the West is at war with Islam is an ugly lie,” Obama said. “And all of us, regardless of our faith, have a responsibility to reject it.”

Obama also addressed summit delegates on Feb. 18 in a session devoted to discussing how local communities can help dissuade young people from following the path of violent extremism.

Obama: No Religion Responsible for Terrorism

Photo via American Spirit / Shutterstock.com

Photo via American Spirit / Shutterstock.com

President Obama said Feb. 19 he doesn’t use terms like Islamic extremism because doing so would promote the false idea of a Western war with Islam, which would help extremists recruit more terrorists.

“No religion is responsible for terrorism — people are responsible for violence and terrorism,” Obama told delegates at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.

Obama also said military force alone will not defeat terrorism, and the nation must work with local communities to reduce the influence of those who advocate violent extremism.

“They are not religious leaders,” Obama said. “They are terrorists.”

He also said: “We are not at war with Islam — we are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

White House Announcement on Executive Action on Immigration Tonight

President Obama released a video with details of tonight's speech. Screen captur

President Obama released a video with details of tonight's speech. Screen capture via The White House Facebook page.

Yesterday, President Obama released a short video providing more information on a much-anticipated executive action announcement on immigration policy. While the details remain unclear on how many of the 11 million undocumented and aspiring Americans will be covered, relief is rumored to the following:    

  • Temporary legal protection for undocumented parents of children who are legal U.S. citizens.
  • Temporary legal protection for undocumented immigrants with a longstanding presence in the United States.
  • Extension of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The president will address the nation tonight at 8 p.m. ET. Watch the speech live here.  

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