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What Obama really said at the Prayer Breakfast

The furor over the President's Crusades reference obscured an important message on religion and the risks of triumphalism

I admit I was disappointed when I heard the first reports of President Obama’s speech last week at the National Prayer Breakfast.

In drawing parallels between Christian sins of the past and Islamic atrocities of the present, Obama seemed to be going out of his way to neutralize Islam’s critics.

It’s a tune he has played before, and which, while based in calls for tolerance, can make him sound either naive or disingenuous when it comes to identifying the perpetrators and causes of so much terrorism. I agreed with Andrea Mitchell of NBC, who said on Meet the Press:

The week after a pilot is burned alive [by ISIL]…you don’t lean over backwards to be philosophical about the sins of the fathers. You have to deal with the issue that’s in front of you or don’t deal with it at all.

But then I read the full speech. And what emerges is not an apologia for radical Islam or a gratuitous slap at Christianity, but a sophisticated accounting of how faith communities can overcome the inevitable tendency toward triumphalism and coercion. The speech is a clear condemnation of radical Islam, but it also asks what Christians in the West can learn from their own past — a past that included the rampages of the Crusades and the obscenity of slavery, both defended in the name of religion — to help battle the religious distortions of today.

The reports on the speech focused on this paragraph from the speech:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. 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.

Deborah  Lipstadt,  professor of modern Jewish history at Emory University, was among those pouncing on that paragraph, saying, like Mitchell, that Obama “has bent over backwards to try to separate [Islamist terror] from Islam.” Added Lipstadt: “[W]hen you have too open a mind, your brains can fall out.”

Great line, but if you read the speech, you discover that those statements only came after Obama carefully spoke about the positive force of faith, especially Christianity, in the world. He acknowledged the presence of the Dalai Lama, calling him a “powerful example of what it means to practice compassion.” He praised two other breakfast guests, NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip and his wife Stevie, “for the incredible work that they’ve done together to build a ministry” that offers spiritual support for drivers. Later in the speech he singled out the work of Dr. Kent Brantly, who fought Ebola in Liberia as part of the Christian aid group Samaritan’s Purse, and Sister Mary Scullion, an advocate for the homeless in Philadelphia. “We see faith driving us to do right,” he says of these honorees.

At this point, Obama pivots to note that religion has another face. Here’s the paragraph that got less attention than the one about the Crusades:

We also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.

Obama has drawn a sharp contrast, between Buddhist compassion and Christian charity on the one hand, and the “death cult” of ISIL on the other. With that he arrives at the central question of his speech:

How do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religions for their own murderous ends?

His speech is above all a call for “humility.” He uses the term to mean acknowledging the terrible things that are done by believers when they insist that “we alone are in possession of the truth.” Armed with humility, he says, “we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.”

Other commentators, including David Brooks, suggested Obama’s focus on “humility” was a warning about Western overreach in battling radical Islam. Perhaps. But it seems clear in context that Obama was saying that if bad religion is the problem, then good religion — that is, religion steeped in loving-kindness, humility, and honesty about the past — is the answer.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once made a similar point in writing about this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. Wrote Sacks: “Memory and role-reversal are the most powerful resources we have to cure the darkness that can sometimes occlude the human soul.”

When Obama talks about the “terrible deeds” committed in the name of Jesus, he is not saying that “we’re no better than the Islamists.” Instead, he is warning his listeners that every religion carries seeds of its own extremism, and reminding them that Christianity in the West has gone through a process of atonement and moderation that has eluded radical Islam.

I sometimes wish that Obama sounded more like Winston Churchill and less like, say, Reinhold Niebuhr or even Abraham Joshua Heschel.

But this was a prayer breakfast, and his message was clear:

And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.

About the Author
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He was previously editor in chief and CEO of the New Jersey Jewish News and managing editor of the Forward newspaper.
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