The manufactured outrage surrounding President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast last week offered an interesting case study in political nonsense. The misplaced outrage snowballed over the course of a few days before reaching a point of Peak Nonsense over the weekend.
To briefly recap, Obama noted in his remarks that while many faith communities around the world are “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.” The president explained that no faith tradition is immune and every religion, including Obama and his fellow Christians, has chapters its adherents are not proud of.
Everything he said had the benefit of being true, but Republicans, conservative activists, and a few too many Beltway pundits reached for the fainting couch, twisting the president’s remarks into something they’re not. Which led to Over-the-Top Reaction #1:
Louisiana Republican Rep. John Fleming said President Obama’s speech to the National Prayer Breakfast last week in which he drew a historical comparison between atrocities committed by Islamic State fighters and past “terrible deeds in the name of Christ” were “unpresidential” and actually defended ISIS.
Followed by Over-the-Top Reaction #2:
Forget the Inquisition or the Crusades, religious fanatics only kill in the name of Islam – at least according to Fox News’ Eric Bolling. […]Bolling claimed the president’s “egregious” comments would “follow him for the rest of his presidency and legacy,” and pushed back on the idea that people murder in the names of other religions. “Reports say radical Muslim jihadists killed thousands of people in the past few months alone,” Bolling said. “And yet when you take Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, whatever, their combined killings in the name of religion – well, that would be zero.”
Neither Fleming nor Bolling were kidding. This wasn’t satire intended to make conservatives look foolish; the recordings of both of men make clear they were entirely sincere.
First, when looking at the complaints from the Louisiana Republican, there’s simply no way someone who speaks English and listens to the president’s remarks could think he “made a case to defend radical Islam,” as Fleming claimed. It’s unclear if the congressman actually knows what Obama said or relied on incoherent complaints from others, but the transcript of Obama’s speech is readily available. By any reasonable standard, it’s absurd for anyone, least of all an elected federal lawmaker, to make such a foolish, baseless accusation.
As for the Fox News host, it was unclear from context if Bolling believes Christians have never killed “in the name of religion” or if Christians haven’t killed in “in the name of religion” over the course of “the past few months.”
Either way, however, Bolling is demonstrably wrong. If he meant the former, I’d encourage the Fox host to look up the Crusades, the Inquisition, and any of several witch trials. If he meant the latter, Google News may come in handy: “Law enforcement officials believed that Texas resident Larry McQuilliams, who was gunned down by police in November while trying to burn down a Mexican consulate, was planning a broader attack against churches and government buildings. Investigators searching McQuilliams’ van found a copy of the 1990 book ‘Vigilantes of Christendom,’ which is linked to a Christian sect called the Phineas Priesthood that holds racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.”
Stepping back and looking at the larger context, the freak-out seems based largely on the mistaken assumption that acknowledging historical truths is, at its core, insulting – to note instances of Christian violence, the argument goes, is necessarily to be “anti-Christian.”
Sound judgment and critical-thinking skills suggest otherwise. People, movements, countries, faith traditions, parties, and communities grow over time. We evolve. We reflect on where we went wrong and adjust our course accordingly. Appreciating the past, even when unpleasant, is a sign of maturity, not evidence of denigration.
In my heart of hearts, I suspect those whining in response to the Prayer Breakfast speech know all of this, and they’re just looking for something new to complain about. It’s simply hard to believe those who claim to be outraged were genuinely offended since there was nothing in the remarks to be genuinely offended by.
But if the president’s critics expect to be taken at all seriously, they can start by avoiding the kind of silliness espoused by Fleming and Bolling. Indeed, if Obama’s remarks were really as controversial as his detractors claim, the right wouldn’t have to make stuff up to score some cheap points.
Postscript: As we talked about on Friday, let’s not forget 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. It was, we were assured at the time, one of those terrible scandals that would haunt Obama … until everyone forgot about it a week later.
In other words, we can probably expect a similar freak-out next year, no matter what Obama says.