Part of the problem with President Obama’s recent National Prayer Breakfast speech, as Michael Rubin has pointed out, is that it provides a simplistic and incomplete understanding of the Crusades. (You might also read this First Things review, “Inventing the Crusades,” by Thomas F. Madden.)
But the president’s remarks also demonstrate a simplistic and incomplete understanding of Christianity. By that I mean when Mr. Obama, in warning Christians not to get on their “high horse” when talking about the problems in Islam, said, “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
True enough–but it’s also true that slavery and segregation were overthrown by those who justified their actions in the name of Christ. And if the president insists on making comparisons between Christianity and Islam, then it needs to be said that while Christianity has struggled with religious intolerance in its past, it has almost everywhere made its inner peace with religious tolerance and pluralism. On the other hand, true religious freedom has been quite rare in Muslim-majority communities throughout history. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It doesn’t mean that most Muslims embrace the version of Islam being practiced by ISIS. And it certainly doesn’t mean that individual Muslims can’t assimilate themselves in America. Millions do, and they are wonderful contributors to our nation.
But it does mean that in the here and now, the problems we see are emanating not from within Christianity but from within Islam. Even Islamic leaders, like Egypt’s General Sisi, admit as much. Yet the president of the United States, alas, does not. He continues to act as if he’s an Islamic scholar, declaring what is and what is not “true” Islam. Mr. Obama is clearly no theologian, so it’s best he drop the pretense. His core argument–that Islamism has nothing at all to do with Islam–is utterly detached from reality. Let’s just say it’s not happenstance that the Islamic State is not called the Reformed Presbyterian State. “Allahu Akbar” isn’t Yiddish.
Then there’s the matter of timing. The president went to the National Prayer Breakfast to call attention to the long-ago sins of Christianity in the aftermath of a particularly savage and brutal killing by the Islamic State, in which they doused a Jordanian pilot in flammable liquid and put him in a cage before burning him to death. Beheadings, it appears, are passé for jihadists. Decapitation isn’t vivid enough for them. Yet Barack Obama, being Barack Obama, decided it’s his job to insist on moral equivalence–or, to be more precise, to insist on immoral equivalence.
I do believe that if President Obama and his administration weren’t so clueless in his understanding of Islamism–remember that the Ft. Hood massacre was referred to as “workplace violence” and jihadist attacks were examples of “man-caused disasters”–and if he wasn’t so reticent in his fight against it, Mr. Obama’s slip-shod detours into the history of the Crusades and the Inquisition might have been more tolerable. As it is, the president was clearly using his speech to the National Prayer Breakfast not only to justify his own imaginary world, but to try to put those who are speaking the truth about militant Islam on the defensive. If that’s what Mr. Obama was hoping to achieve–well, he achieved the opposite. For goodness’s sake, even NBC’s Andrea Mitchell is criticizing him. Memo to Barack Obama: When you’ve lost Andrea Mitchell, you’re losing the debate.
One final observation: President Obama likes to portray himself as a man who is unusually self-reflective and self-critical. The contrary is the case. As Ross Douthat points out, Mr. Obama is a partisan and a progressive who takes to “highlighting crimes that he doesn’t feel particularly implicated in (how much theological guilt does our liberal Protestant president really feel about the Inquisition?) and the sins of groups he disagrees with anyway (Republican Cold Warriors, the religious right, white conservative Southerners).” That is to say, Obama is engaging in a dishonest and cynical game in which he relishes putting himself above his country or his professed faith and then likes to peddle that as humility.
A friend wrote me and said that if Mr. Obama wanted to have performed a real act of humility and self-criticism during his National Prayer Breakfast speech, he could have said something like this:
Lest we get on our high horse, let’s be more honest about where we have allowed ourselves to be misled in the name of religion. I myself worshipped for years in a church that distorted the Gospel of Christ in the name of a racialist message of hatred and intolerance towards my brothers and sisters of other races. It was not until I started campaigning for President that I realized just how misguided Reverent Wright was, and how far he had distorted religion to serve his political purposes.
That statement would have been far more honest, far more self-reflective, and far less cynical. Which may explain why there was no chance Mr. Obama would utter these words.
It’s long past time Mr. Obama get off his high horse. Vanity is difficult to take in anyone–but it’s especially difficult to take in a person of such staggering incompetence and intellectual shallowness.