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This Week in God

President Obama at a visit to a Northern Ireland school this week.
President Obama at a visit to a Northern Ireland school this week.Getty Images

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at the uproar among conservatives over comments President Obama made in Northern Ireland about religious schools.

To hear the right tell it, the U.S. president issued a scathing attack on sectarian institutions. Drudge told his readers Obama made an "alarming call" for an "end to Catholic education." The conservative Washington Times ran an 800-word article on the "backlash" to Obama's comments. Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter cited the remarks as proof of the president "attacking America while he's abroad." David Limbaugh said it was "unbelievable" to see the president "attacking Catholic schools," adding, "How much evidence do people need to understand the breadth and depth of Obama's radicalism?"

"Unbelievable" is certainly the right word under the circumstances.

What, exactly, did the president say that got the right so worked up? Obama was speaking to young people at a town hall meeting in Belfast on Monday, and stressed the importance of "breaking down the divisions that we create for ourselves."

"Because 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. If towns remain divided -- if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs -- if we can't see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.

"Ultimately, peace is just not about politics. It's about attitudes; about a sense of empathy; about breaking down the divisions that we create for ourselves in our own minds and our own hearts that don't exist in any objective reality, but that we carry with us generation after generation."

Generations of religious strife in Northern Ireland is certainly a difficult issue, but to characterize Obama's emphasis on breaking down barriers of division as "attacking Catholic schools" and "attacking America" is absurd, and for Fox News and pretty much every conservative site on the Internet to try to turn this into an important religio-political scandal is quite silly.

The context, as Andrew Lawrence explained, is everything. Michael McGough added, "Northern Ireland is not the United States. Even in my childhood, when Catholic kids were encouraged to attend Catholic schools and there was an arguably Protestant ethos in many public schools, Catholics and Protestants weren't as isolated from (or as distrustful of) one another in this country as they continue to be in Northern Ireland.... Society in Northern Ireland is much more stratified, and the role of religiously defined schools more problematic. You can be perfectly comfortable with the role of Catholic schools in the American context and worry about their contribution to estrangement between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland."

Also from the God Machine this week:

* End Times radio host Rick Wiles told his listeners this week that he heard from "demon-possessed" viewers of The Rachel Maddow Show following Tuesday's show.

* An odd religious liberty case out of Oklahoma: "A Methodist pastor of a suburban Oklahoma City church is suing the state, claiming its license plate image of a Native American shooting an arrow into the sky violates his religious liberty. Last week, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled his suit can proceed. The pastor, Keith Cressman of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Bethany, Okla., contends the image of the Native American compels him to be a 'mobile billboard' for a pagan religion."

* Danielle Powell has a more compelling case against a conservative Christian college in Nebraska, which she left after falling in love with a woman: Grace University expelled her and "then sent a bill for $6,000 to reimburse what the school said were federal loans and grants that needed to be repaid because she didn't finish the semester." Powell is fighting back, "arguing that her tuition was covered by scholarships and that federal loans wouldn't need to be repaid in that amount."

* Drones for Christ: "Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., was founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell. Its publications carry the slogan 'Training Champions for Christ since 1971.' Some of those champions are now being trained to pilot armed drones, and others to pilot more traditional aircraft, in U.S. wars. For Christ" (thanks to reader R.B. for the tip).

* And finally, all's well that ends well? "Margaret Doughty, an atheist and permanent U.S. resident for more than 30 years, was told by immigration authorities this month that she has until Friday to officially join a church that forbids violence or her application for naturalized citizenship will be rejected." Once a controversy ensued, officials backed down and Doughty's application was approved (thanks to reader R.P. for the tip).