Feature photo via White House Twitter
Speaking at his seventh National Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning, President Obama raised eyebrows and provoked the ire of Conservative pundits and politicians when he compared the bloodshed caused by groups like ISIS to the terrors committed by followers of Christianity dating back to the Crusades. During the annual event, which has drawn speeches from every sitting president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Obama condemned ISIS as a “vicious death cult” while pointing out that Islam, as a whole, cannot be held responsible for the atrocities carried out by the terrorist organization. “There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith,” he said.
The president pointed to the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, to the recent Taliban massacre at a school in Pakistan, to the different faith systems attacking each other in India, to the religious wars in the Central African Republic and Nigeria — and then he pointed to Christianity.
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.
It’s not his first time President Obama expressed these concerns. At the National Prayer Breakfast in 2009, he said:
Today, as I see presidents and dignitaries here from every corner of the globe, it strikes me that this is one of the rare occasions that still brings much of the world together in a moment of peace and goodwill. I raise this history because far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another – as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance. Wars have been waged. Innocents have been slaughtered. For centuries, entire religions have been persecuted, all in the name of perceived righteousness.
But it is the first time he has used the platform to address Christianity’s human rights violations, specifically.
The response from the Right was swift and furious, with many Republican pundits suggesting that the president was trying to deflect blame from ISIS for their acts of terror. Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who has sent exploratory committees to both Iowa and New Hampshire to feel out a presidential run in 2016, said, “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.” Bill Donohue, the president of The Catholic League, said the speech was “insulting” and “pernicious.” Conservative news organizations have called the speech everything from “horse pucky” to “an indictment of the entire Christian faith” to “a bigoted, anti-Christian rant.”
But over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the blow-up on the Right is really about conservatives’ unwillingness to acknowledge that the Bible was used as the “moral justification” for the very real “250-year reign of mass torture, industrialized murder, and normalized rape” that was slavery in the United States. Tactics, Coates points out, that ISIS very familiar with.
On the whole, President Obama’s speech was a prayer for humility, a reminder that the country’s founder were firm believers in the separation of church and state, and call to treat others the way we want to be treated.
“Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, and bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred,” the president said.