- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 2, 2012

Speaking at the traditionally nonpartisan National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama on Thursday cited his Christian faith in offering a vigorous defense of his political agenda of tax hikes for the wealthy, universal health care and greater regulation of Wall Street.

“We can’t leave our values at the door,” Mr. Obama said. “This is especially important right now, when we’re facing some big challenges as a nation.”

The speech came as criticism mounted of the administration’s recent decision requiring religious institutions to provide contraception services as part of the new federal health care law. And some Republicans rebuked Mr. Obama for using the annual prayer breakfast gathering to promote his election-year agenda.

Mr. Obama also appeared to take a subtle swipe at Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney for his remark to CNN Wednesday that he was “not concerned about the very poor” in his campaign because they have a safety net provided by the government.

The president told the audience that he is motivated by “the biblical call to care for the least of these — for the poor, for those at the margins of our society, to answer the responsibility we’re given in Proverbs to ‘speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.’ “

Presidents have attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast for 60 years, and partisanship typically is left at the door. But that didn’t stop Mr. Obama from laying out a defense of his agenda that sounded at times like his stump speech.

“When I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street, when I talk about making sure insurance companies aren’t discriminating against those who are already sick, or making sure that unscrupulous lenders aren’t taking advantage of the most vulnerable among us, I do so because I genuinely believe it will make the economy stronger for everybody,” Mr. Obama said. “But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God’s command to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ “

He also offered an argument rooted in the Bible for his effort to raise taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year. Congressional Republicans are resisting his push, saying it would hurt job creation.

While defending the tax on economic and fairness grounds, Mr. Obama also observed, “For me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.”

“It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who’ve been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others,” he said.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie immediately criticized the president for mixing politics and religion. On his Twitter account, Mr. Gillespie said, “Prez invokes Jesus endorsement of his proposed tax increases at natl prayer bkfst. How much more polarizing can this guy get?”

White House press secretary Jay Carney defended the president’s remarks, and denied there was any subtext in Mr. Obama’s talk aimed at Mr. Romney.

“This president was simply explaining how his faith guides him,” Mr. Carney said. “It was not a political event.”

The administration found itself on the defensive on another front involving religion, pushing back against strong criticism from U.S. Catholic bishops and other religious groups over Mr. Obama’s decision to require Catholic hospitals, charities, colleges and other non-church entities to cover contraception in insurance plans.

“We believe it strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious beliefs and providing access to services,” one senior administration official said in defending the move.

House Speaker John A. Boehner on Thursday criticized the administration’s decision.

“This mandate violates our Constitution. I think it violates the rights of these religious organizations, and I would hope that the administration would back up and take another look at this,” said the Ohio Republican during his weekly briefing with reporters.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who, like Mr. Boehner is Catholic, said Thursday she supports the administration’s decision.

Sean Lengell and Paige Winfield Cunningham contributed to this report.

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