President Barack Obama inadvertently sparked both a theological and historical debate while speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, inciting a wave of criticism from conservatives for asserting that Islam is not, in fact, the only religion to struggle with issues of violence.
Addressing a bevy of faith leaders that included the Dalai Llama, Obama spoke at length about the wrongs of militant terrorist groups like ISIS, who he said abuse the Islamic faith for their own goals. However, he also warned against the temptation to cast Islam as a uniquely violent religion, imploring Christians and others to look at their own history before passing judgement.
“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,” Obama said. “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
The President’s comments are, of course, accurate, and he went on to explain that his point was ultimately about maintaining religious humility. But his embrace of historical fact infuriated some conservatives, many of whom equated his reference to things such as the Crusades to an attack on Christianity. E.W. Jackson, a former candidate for Lt. Governor in Virginia and a devotee of much-maligned “prosperity gospel” theology, bashed the President on the FOX and Friends television show, saying, “Mr. President, we’re not on our high horse. What we’re on is high alert. And the American people would like to know, for once, that you’re willing to defend Christianity and defend America instead of defending Islam.”
Well-known conservative pundits also weighed in. Rush Limbaugh dedicated an entire segment of his show to the comments, and Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said, “The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.” Naturally, the conservative Twitterverse also exploded with tweets deriding Obama’s remarks, and conservative media watchdog Matt Philbin snarked, “So Obama’s not interested in fighting radical Islam today because of stuff Christians did in the 11th Century.”
Even Jim Gilmore, former Republican governor of Virginia, blasted Obama, saying, “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”
Jackson and Limbaugh’s dubious claims to Christianity notwithstanding, the two main assertions underlying most of these arguments are both absurd and, arguably, unChristian. The first — that violence committed in the name of Christ is somehow exempt from criticism because it happened in the past — ignores history and reality. Like it or not, horrendous torture happened during the Inquisition and the era of slavery, both of which were justified using biblical scripture. And the argument that the Crusades — which resulted in the deaths of untold thousands — were only in response to Muslim provocation is highly contested among historians.
More importantly, while these events are long past, these critics are apparently tone deaf to the numerous modern examples of violence perpetrated by people claiming to represent Christ. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a self-professed Christian, launched a horrific assault in Oslo, Norway to defend “Christian Europe,” using an arsenal of weapons to kill 77 people — most of whom were teenagers. In November of last year, suspected Christian terrorist Larry McQuilliams mounted a full-scale attack on Austin, Texas, firing off more than 100 shots in the city before embarking on a botched attempt to burn down the Mexican Consulate. And in central Africa, the Lord’s Resistance Army (which, similar to ISIS, seeks to establish a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments) forcibly recruits child soldiers, terrorizes local villages, and is thought to be responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people in Uganda and the displacement of 1.7 million in the greater region, according to the United Nations.
One wonders if Jackson and others would be so willing to “defend” Christianity’s apparently sinless history to the faces of those 60,000 to 100,000 child soldiers, youngsters who were ripped from their homes, tortured brutally, and forced by the LRA to run needlessly into battle — all ostensibly in the name of Christ.
In addition, the second argument directed at Obama’s statements — that violence in the name of Christ was always met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians — is only true when examined through the lens of several centuries of history. Few senior members of the Catholic church would defend the Crusades today, but they were waged with broad support in their time, and the institution of slavery took centuries to dismantle.
Granted, there is a credible argument about whether or not the deplorable actions of these movements and individuals invalidate their claim to Christianity. Just as millions of Muslims around the world have decried the actions of ISIS as unIslamic — and why five Muslims have won the Nobel Peace Prize since 2000 in their faith-rooted pursuit of peace — so too do Christians get to demand that a true Christian is someone who pursues peace and justice, not violence. Religion matters most when believers hold each other accountable and actualize their faith in their daily lives, and that includes the right to disavow those who pervert religion for bloodthirsty reasons. This is the legacy of those who opposed the hateful theology of racists and slaveowners with a message of spiritual equality, such as the prayerful abolitionists and civil rights pastors. After all, such is the example of Jesus Christ, who responded to treachery and violence enacted against him by his own disciples with radical forgiveness and peace.
But Gilmore, Jackson, and others aren’t trying to forgive people who enact atrocities in the name of Christ, nor are they attempting to apply hard-learned lessons from the difficult parts of Christianity’s past to the present. Instead, they’re effectively refusing to acknowledge that such things even exist. No, the current wave of violence perpetrated by Christians is not the “same” as that undertaken by jihadists, but pretending it never happens ultimately reduces faith to a political talking point, and violates a central teaching of the Christian faith: the Bible, if nothing else, implores Christians to take sin seriously, and to repeatedly confront those who commit sins in the name of Christ. To do otherwise is to fall into self-righteousness, a worship of the church — instead of Christ — that borders on idolatry.
Ironically, insisting on this blatantly inaccurate image of Christianity might also hamper the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups, as the overbearing rhetoric of Jackson and others only bolsters the message of extremists. Countering ISIS’s savage self-righteousness with inaccurate theological hubris falls into their own characterization of the West as unapologetically self-indulgent, and could easily be turned into a recruiting tool.
It is perhaps in preparation for exactly this kind of situation that Christian scripture implores believers to acknowledge their own faults early and often, because it is only after completing the hard, faithful work of self-examination that one can effectively address the failings of others.