A couple sentences in President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, typically a benignly feel-good event, ignited great controversy.
Citing ISIS horrors, Obama added:
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.
The reference ignited charges that Obama was comparing Christianity to ISIS, and responses that Obama critics were whitewashing the Crusades and maybe even white racism.
In the latter spirit, an Atlantic columnist berated the “foolish, historically illiterate” reaction to Obama’s prayer speech:
Pointing out that Americans have done, on their own soil, in the name of their own God, something similar to what ISIS is doing now does not make ISIS any less barbaric, or any more correct. That is unless you view the entire discussion as a kind of religious one-upmanship, in which the goal is to prove that Christianity is “the awesomest.”
Some Obama critics have complained about incongruently comparing today’s ISIS barbarities with European or American practices of centuries ago. Others have defended the Crusades as strategically legitimate against sweeping Islamic conquests, prompting heated reactions by others about the Crusaders’ massacres.
The reactions largely depend on overall attitudes about Western Civilization, which multiculturalists portray as imperialistic, exploitative and avaricious, personified in Crusader bloodshed and slavery. Christianity is chiefly the willing handmaiden of a millennium of Western crimes, according to the multiculturalist critique, with America the modern personification of the West.
This anti-Western critique, typically non-Christian in cosmology, imagines the world as not intrinsically sinful but largely good yet victimized by pervasively systemic injustice perpetuated by the wealthy and the powerful, mostly rooted historically in the Christian-influenced West.
Traditionalists who defend the West in contrast have a more Christian sourced view of the world as universally fallen, where conquest, butchery, slavery, and exploitation are the ongoing normalcy across millennia. Judaism and Christianity introduced a redemptive message of human dignity that transmitted through Western culture but of course never morally purified much less perfected Western societies.
Slavery was universally practiced for thousands of years but it was the Christian-influenced West that ultimately expunged it. Torturing and burning heretics was orchestrated by Western and Christian authorities until the Christian conscience of the West eventually abolished tormenting dissenters. It was the Christian-inspired West that uniquely decided that all persons possess a divinely bestowed moral equality that eventually was codified in law, after countless, centuries-long struggles.
Throughout much of his speech, Obama echoed a Christian-influenced Western cosmology, urging freedom of conscience and religion, and urging release of an imprisoned Christian pastor in Iran. He also cited Christian understanding of innate human depravity when he noted: “There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.” Certainly no traditional Christian could disagree.
The chief problem of Obama’s remarks about Christian failure was not so much specific historical factuality but emphasis and timing. Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, aptly expressed the concern when she told Baptist Press that his comments “seem to say that he is more worried about possible feelings of Islamophobia from American Christians than the grotesquely brutal religious cleansing against their brethren that is actually taking place by jihadists in various countries.”
Obama’s ongoing effort to defend Islam from undue prejudice arguably has some strategic merit in maintaining alliances with regimes and peoples of Muslim-majority nations. But the ongoing exertions to defend what he insists is honorable Islam from a reputedly small violent minority that merely exploits Islam vastly understates the extent to which tens of millions of Muslims globally do support jihadism based on substantive theology.
These defenses of honorable Islam also imply that Muslims are chronic targets of Western injustices and prejudice, per Islamophobia. Such verbiage maybe needed to assuage allied Muslim nations. But if overly hyped, this rhetoric fuels Muslim victimhood, vastly understates historically unprecedented standards of Western religious freedom that protect Muslims far more than do any majority Muslim societies, and even potentially further credentials jihadists who demonize the West as persecutors of Islam.
The Atlantic critique of Obama’s critics interestingly declared that “Christianity did not ‘cause’ slavery, anymore than Christianity ‘caused’ the civil-rights movement.” But in fact Christianity did literally invent the civil rights cause and its understandings of human dignity that mandate legal equality.
Christian understanding of universal human sin requiring redemption and constant moral regeneration overthrew many of the West’s own barbarisms and injustices of the past, even as it challenges today’s moral failures. Does Islam have any similar internal capacity for self-critique that will facilitate legal equality for all in majority Muslim societies of the future? Obama’s speech and its defenders don’t answer that question.