President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, and as always happens, conservatives were terribly offended and outraged at his remarks. Why? It's because Obama doesn't share their political and religious fundamentalism. Let's look at the passage that had them up in arms this time:
So 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 religious for their own murderous ends?
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. Michelle and I returned from India—an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity— but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs—acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate that nation.
So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.
You may read that and say that it's obvious—of course awful things have been done in the name of many religions, and when Obama mentions the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the religious justifications given for slavery, he's talking about old history. You'd have to be nuts to find in that some kind of insult to Christians or to America.
Or you'd have to be a Republican. "The president's comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime," said former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore. "He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share." Jonah Goldberg courageously stepped up to defend the Crusades (really). The Washington Times headlined a "news" story on the event, "Obama equates Islamic terrorism with 'terrible deeds' committed by Christians." Erick Erickson did not disappoint, writing a post titled, "Barack Obama Is Not a Christian In Any Meaningful Way."
And on that last note, here's the part I think really pissed them off:
And, first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt—not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn't speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn't care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.
Ed Kilgore argues that this is this is revealing of the divide between the liberal Protestantism that Obama holds to and the more fundamentalist, evangelical brand of faith so common among those on the political right. To fundamentalists, Ed writes, "doubt is the opposite of faith; self-righteousness is an essential witness to the truth of faith; and tolerance or acknowledgment of the sins of one's own community is unilateral disarmament in the spiritual warfare involved in converting the whole world."
That was certainly Erickson's argument. Doubt, he plainly believes, is for those who are already headed for eternal hellfire, because "Christ himself is truth. When we possess Christ, we possess truth ... So I wish the President would stop professing himself to be a Christian if he is not going to proclaim Christ as truth and the only way to salvation."
To see where this religious fundamentalism dovetails with right-wing political fundamentalism, you need only read the first paragraphs of Juliet Eilperin's account of the event in The Washington Post:
President Obama has never been one to go easy on America.
As a new president, he dismissed the idea of American exceptionalism, noting that Greeks think their country is special, too. He labeled the Bush-era interrogation practices, euphemistically called "harsh" for years, as torture. America, he has suggested, has much to answer given its history in Latin America and the Middle East.
His latest challenge came Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast. At a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.
Eilperin is a fine reporter, but this part of her article could have been penned by Sean Hannity or Cal Thomas. I can't believe that six years later this myth still has to be corrected, but Obama did not "dismiss the idea of American exceptionalism" as a new president. In the remarks she's referencing, which it really appears she didn't actually read, Obama responded to a question by saying, "I believe in American exceptionalism." Read those five words again if it wasn't clear. He did note that the British and Greeks probably believe their countries are exceptional, too, but he then went on to describe all the ways in which America's history and place in today's world make it unique.
And the idea that calling the Bush administration's policy of torture by the name "torture" and not by some euphemism somehow constitutes being hard on America is, quite frankly, insane. Would Eilperin say in a story about health care that because Republicans criticize the Obama administration's health care policies that they're being hard on America? Of course not.
Part of the problem here has to do with the National Prayer Breakfast itself. Everyone in government and the media treats it as though it's an official government event, and one meant for Americans of all faiths to take a pause from the political arguments of the day and contemplate deeper truths. Obama was certainly talking as if he thinks of it that way. But in truth, the breakfast is sponsored by a private group of Christian fundamentalists who have no interest in inter-faith understanding. Most of the people who are there seem to understand that the event is about proclaiming Jesus as the one true savior, even if they're happy to invite the Dalai Lama to attend (who knows, maybe he'll hear the truth and come around).
This comes at a time when many on the right believe that there is not just a "clash of civilizations" going on, but an actual religious war between Christianity and Islam. As the Catholic League's Bill Donohue said after Obama's speech, "We have a problem with Islam. Not just with Islamists, but a problem with Islam." The idea that ISIS or any other group of Islamic extremists perverts Islam is the last thing they want to hear.
This kind of religious fundamentalism usually goes hand-in-hand with a political fundamentalism that says that political figures must constantly assert not only that America is exceptional—which Obama has done dozens of times in speeches and comments over the course of his presidency—but that America has never done anything wrong. Obama's willingness to admit that the country has made mistakes in the past positively infuriates conservatives. If pressed they'll admit that, sure, slavery was bad—but you shouldn't just bring it up!
And of course, it's fine for them to criticize government policies they don't like, because when they do that they're only making a narrow argument about the other party's actions, but when Obama does something like condemn the torture policies of his predecessor's administration, he's attacking America.
I'd certainly prefer it if Obama never went to another one of these. He could say that though presidents have gone in the past, the event has become highly sectarian, and since he's the president of all Americans, he'd prefer to hold his own inter-faith breakfast at the White House, one geared more toward understanding and less toward proclamations of the one true faith. Of course, conservatives would be apoplectic if he did that, saying that it just shows how he hates Jesus and hates America. Which is exactly what they say anyway. So why not?