Catholicism, Christianity, Crusades, Im-Politic, Inquisition, Islam, Judaism, misogyny, moral equivalence Saudi Arabia, National Prayer Breakfast, Obama, racism, radical Islam, slavery, terrorism, tolerance, Wahhabism
That the storm of controversy stirred by President Obama’s recent annual National Prayer Breakfast remarks about Islam and Christianity was entirely predictable doesn’t mean that it was unimportant. Quite the contrary – the by-now-formulaic exchanges between the president’s supporters and opponents show the frightening ease with which history’s lessons can be twisted through a combination of ignorance and ideological distortions.
At the heart of the ruckus have been Mr. Obama’s warning, “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” Therefore, the president concluded, “this is not unique to one group or one religion” – especially Islam.
But what both sides have missed – along with Mr. Obama himself – is that this description of Christianity’s historical record coddles that faith as troublingly as he has coddled Islam in the case of its radicals’ atrocities across the globe.
For just as the abominations committed by jihadists are not simply carried out “in the name of Islam” but faithfully reflect some of its major strains’ brutal intolerance and misogynism, the Crusades and the inquisition were not simply isolated outrages perpetrated by isolated fanatics or groups of zealots. They were campaigns of holy war and persecution launched and directed by the Catholic Church itself.
In fact, as noted by one of Obama’s defenders, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, much more recent U.S. Christian support for slavery and segregation was the position of many clerics – not just racist parishioners. My post here last month about radical Islam denialism, moreover, noted that organized Christianity’s record has been deeply shameful in many respects in both halves of Europe and in Russia through the Nazi era as well. Further, if you want to go far back enough, my own Jewish faith was hardly preaching live-and-let-live in Old Testament days.
Of course, these Mosaic religions are responsible for much that is good and noble and compassionate in or world, too. Clerics and theologians and philosophers and the like have been examining the agonizingly complex relationship between the light and dark sides of these and other religions for millennia, without arriving at widely shared conclusions. They doubtless will and should continue their inquiries long into the future – even though completely satisfying answers will likely remain elusive.
But here’s where we approach ground where some of President Obama’s critics have the upper hand. Although Americans understandably have always looked to their leaders to varying degrees for moral guidance, preaching and philosophizing is not their main job – or even close. Their paramount priorities are defending and enhancing the safety and well-being of the American people.
In recent decades, American security has faced major threats from terrorists who have enjoyed strong ideological and financial support from important branches of Islam, including the Wahhabi sect whose members include the Saudi monarchy. As I’ve written before, the president’s stated reasons for not explicitly fingering Islam’s responsibility for this threat are defensible tactically – though I disagree with them. What’s not defensible is for Mr. Obama’s determination to absolve any Islamic factions of any responsibility for endangering America and allies to grow so strong that it degenerates into moral equivalence in the here and now. As a result, amid a struggle whose crucial ideological/propaganda dimension the president claims to recognize, he has actually handed the terrorists invaluable talking points.
The President is slated to speak at two more National Prayer Breakfasts before he leaves office. Assuming the terrorists are not defeated by then, if he can’t limit himself to a few bland homilies, the U.S. security interests he’s pledged to defend demand that he decline the honor. He can pontificate all he wants once he’s a private citizen again.