By now, you’ve probably seen the headlines and the emails from your wacky uncle who watches Fox News all day. President Obama, as he’s done every year, spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, enraging his conservative critics for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense.
The president made the case that while we see faith communities around the world “inspiring people to lift up one another,” we also see “faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge – or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.” After noting horrific acts of terror, sectarian violence, and religious division – “sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe” – the president added:
“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…. 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.”
All of this happens to be 100% true. No faith tradition has a monopoly on virtue or peace; none of the world’s major religions can look back in history and not find chapters they now regret.
So why in the world is the right claiming to be outraged?
Conservative media lashed out at President Obama for mentioning the Crusades and Inquisition at the National Prayer Breakfast after condemning the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) as a “death cult” that distorts Islam.
Republicans are apparently a little hysterical, with one Fox News host claiming that “essentially” the president argued “Christians were just as bad as ISIS.” Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R), desperately trying to get attention as a presidential candidate, called Obama’s remarks “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.”
I’m going to assume that the president’s critics aren’t really outraged, but instead are playing a cynical little game in the name of partisan theater. It must be the latest in an endless series of manufactured outrages, because the alternative – that the right is genuinely disgusted – is literally hard to believe.
The portion of Obama’s remarks that has drawn so much scrutiny isn’t ambiguous – while people have used religion to advance righteousness and justice, horrible acts have been made in God’s name, no one group should be too quick to condemn another while wrestling with their own misdeeds. Is this accurate? Of course it is. Is it offensive? Only to theists who believe their faith tradition has always been without flaw (or perhaps those who’ve convinced themselves the Crusades and the Inquisition were noble causes, worthy of defense.)
It prompted Ta-Nehisi Coates to note the “foolish” and “historically illiterate” responses from the right to the president’s remarks.
It’s worth pausing to appreciate that conservative whining about Obama and the National Prayer Breakfast is annoyingly common. In 2013, the president said that as a Christian, his approach to government “coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) condemned the speech on the Senate floor and then-Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) stormed out of the breakfast in protest.
One assumes that the right will once again be reaching for the fainting couch this time next year, whatever it is Obama happens to say at the time. There’s no reason for the rest of us, however, to take such hollow complaints seriously.