WASHINGTON – There is no doubt that President Barack Obama’s remarks about Christianity at the National Prayer Breakfast last week were historically accurate. But they were also – let’s face it – glib, facile and patronizing.
I must immediately dissociate myself from the bombastic critics, mostly Republicans, who have accused Obama of grievously insulting Christians by noting that “terrible deeds” have been committed “in the name of Christ.” Obviously, this is true. Anyone who believes otherwise needs to crack a history book.
My objection is that Obama – in drawing parallels between past atrocities perpetrated in the name of Christianity and current ones by terrorists acting in the name of Islam – constructed an all-too-pat narrative that lets everyone off the hook, including himself. The admonition not to “get on our high horse” about jihadist terror as a “unique” phenomenon rings hollow, coming from a leader who routinely sends missile-firing drones to blow suspected militants to bits.
For the record, Obama’s history lesson was also incomplete.
“In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ,” the president said. Indeed, slave owners claimed to find justification for their hideous crimes in the Bible, citing passages in both the Old and New Testaments that appear to authorize slavery and describe how human chattel should be treated.
But it is also true that the abolitionist movement grew out of Christian belief and the Christian church. William Wilberforce, the great British activist who spurred the abolition of slavery throughout the empire – and greatly inspired abolitionists in the United States – was a born-again Christian. Long before the Civil War, the religious and moral argument had been won by the anti-slavery side. Perpetuating the horror was, for slave owners, essentially an economic imperative.
Likewise, the architects of Jim Crow segregation sought absolution by citing various biblical passages. But it is fair to say that the civil rights movement never could have triumphed without the Christian churches, both in the South and the North, which served as organizational nodes. The institution led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Obama also noted that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” No argument there.
It should be noted, however, that the Spanish Inquisition took place 500 years ago and the First Crusade nearly 1,000 years ago. The world has changed a bit since then, as has the state of human knowledge. We understand, for example, that deadly epidemics are caused by germs – not by the failure to burn enough witches or slay enough infidels.
By reaching so far back into history, Obama seemed to echo those who argue that today’s turmoil and terrorism are taking place because Islam has not yet had a Reformation or the Muslim world an Enlightenment. I won’t put words in the president’s mouth. But I will say that whatever he meant, to compare the depredations of the Islamic State with those of the Crusaders is patronizing in the extreme.
Why? Because Muslims are not slow learners who can only be held to a medieval moral standard. Everyone in the world can be expected to know that it is wrong to burn a helpless human being alive, as Islamic State murderers did to a captive Jordanian pilot in video released last week. The fact that Joan of Arc met a similar fate in 1431 does not somehow make it improper to “get on our high horse” about unspeakable acts being committed in our time, which makes them our responsibility.
Broad historical context is less relevant than the proximate causes of terror. Western nations – acting not in the name of Christianity but mostly out of thirst for oil – installed or supported authoritarian rulers throughout the Middle East. Those autocrats left religion as the only possible outlet for political expression. That impulse has been exploited, and is still being exploited, by cynical jihadist leaders whose true aim is power, not salvation.
Obama took office hoping to be the president who orchestrated a reconciliation between the West and the Muslim world. His rhetoric has continued in that vein, but his actions have tended toward realpolitik: In Egypt, he supported the generals. In Syria, he refused to put any real muscle behind his call for Bashar Assad to go.
But Obama should realize that who was right or wrong in the Crusades is beside the point. We’ve moved on.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.