February 06, 2015

On Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech

I wanted to write about this last night, but other commitments kept me away from my keyboard. But it seems to me that an additional twenty-four hours to think my way through the President’s appalling effort can only improve upon what I had in mind at the time.

Now let’s hit the highlights (or dare I say “lowlights”) of the speech.

The first came just moments into the speech – and involved a greeting to the Dalai Lama.

I want to offer a special welcome to a good friend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama -- who is a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion, who inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings. (Applause.) I’ve been pleased to welcome him to the White House on many occasions, and we’re grateful that he’s able to join us here today. (Applause.)

Yeah, about that. Surely you folks remember this.


The Dalai Lama, Nobel Laureate and spiritual leader of a major segment of the Buddhist faith, was ushered out of the White House through a door used by the cleaning staff and cooks, past a pile of garbage. That says all that needs to be said about the regard Obama has for this great man.

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge -- or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism -- terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.

We see 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, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

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?

But are these the twisting and distortion of Islam? For centuries Islam has nurtured such barbarism in its belly, and these deeds have always been cloaked in the approving words of religious leaders and the deeds of historical personages. Indeed, some of these practices date back to the time of Muhammad himself – was the so-called Prophet twisting and distorting the faith that he preached? Did he who Islam declares to be the very model of that which Allah demanded of his followers hijack Islam at its very founding?

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 Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

But let’s think about this. Great wrongs have been done in the name of the Christian faith – no one with even a passing understanding of history can deny that. But where the deeds of those who Obama is loathe to call “Muslim extremists” are of a kind with those of Muhammad and the earliest caliphs, the deeds Obama cites as proof that Christians are just as bad are contrary to the teachings and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.


What’s more, one might want to consider the context of some of those deeds committed centuries ago – the Crusades were, after all, a response to some five centuries of Islamic aggression against Christians and the Christian world. Similarly, the Spanish Inquisition (often exaggerated in scope due to the polemics of contemporary Protestant writers and historians who rely upon them) was also, in part, a response to some seven centuries of Islamic occupation of portions of the Iberian Peninsula following Muslim wars of aggression. In the end, neither can be viewed as giving glory to God – but when one contextualizes these two blots on Christian history one sees that they came about due to the same sort of deeds committed in the name of Islam that Obama wishes to attribute to anything but Islam today. And I say that as one who traces my lineage back to conversos whose exile from Spain was due to the Inquisition.

And while some used the Bible to justify slavery and Jim Crow, they were just as strongly opposed by other Christians proclaiming those evil deeds to be an offense in the sight of God. But for Obama to acknowledge those details would be to undermine his effort to whitewash Islam.

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. And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

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.

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth -- our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

Talk of humility from Obama? Really?


I don’t think so. It is akin to talk of chastity from a prostitute.

And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion -- any religion -- for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom -- freedom of religion -- the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.

Freedom to practice our faith? This from the man whose administration argued that the government has the authority to determine when a religious group may hire and fire ministers, whose signature legislation seeks to make nuns pay for abortions, and who allies himself with those who seek to force those whose faith rejects gay marriage to participate in them as contractors. I don’t think Obama has any clue as to what it really means to have the right to practice one’s faith.

There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility. They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both.

But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment. And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults -- (applause) -- and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks. Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech. Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.

So what Obama is insisting is that the only legitimate use of free speech is to implement his words to the UN in 2012 – “The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam.” After all, I don’t recall ever hearing him condemn his political allies who attack and defame Catholics and Evangelicals for being true to their religious faith. Heck, this is the guy who mocked Americans for clinging to their religion rather than flocking to his “Hope and Change” crusade. Time and time again Obama has stood shoulder to shoulder with those who insult and defame and condemn the faith of his fellow Americans. Apparently his solicitude extends only to those of the Muslim faith.

So humility I think is needed. And the second thing we need is to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments. Between church and between state. The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world -- far more religious than most Western developed countries. And one of the reasons is that our founders wisely embraced the separation of church and state. Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all. And the result is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion -- so that when you listen to Darrell talk about his faith journey you know it's real. You know he’s not saying it because it helps him advance, or because somebody told him to. It's from the heart.

Well, Obama is partly right – our government doesn’t sponsor religion, but it sure does pressure Americans to conform to one vision of faith, one that involves practice of one’s religion only in your home or church and not letting that faith impact one’s life outside of those two places. Obama doesn’t really believe in Americans being free to practice their religion freely – because at every turn he has been opposed to Christians practicing their faith in ways that are not his way or opposing his policies because they believe the Gospel calls for something different than what the President wants.

But when one looks at Obama’s words, one cannot help but be struck by the contrast between the platitudes he mumbled and the message he actually intended. This is not a speech about religious freedom and religious tolerance. It is instead a defense of a single religion and a condemnation of another – and it is the faith that seeks to avoid violence and the sword that is chastised. After all, it isn’t “Hail Mary, full of grace” that is shouted by suicide bombers and it isn’t “Our Father who art in heaven” that is proclaimed by those beheading and burning captives in the name of their faith. Christian wars of religion are a thing of the distant past – which is why Obama could be sure that uttering such criticisms of Christianity before a mostly Christian crowd would earn him nothing more than harsh words instead of a fatwa marking him for death.

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