At the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday President Obama spoke at length about the ways in which religion is so often hijacked in the name of violence and injustice. Most of the examples Obama cited were of actions committed by Muslims and in the name of Islam. But Obama paused, for just a few sentences, to remind his mostly Christian audience not to be too self-righteous.
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.
Conservative critics pounced.
Jim Gilmore, former governor of Virginia, claimed that the president’s comments were the most offensive he’d heard from a president in his life. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”
Conservative columnist Charlie Krauthammer declared himself “stunned” that the president could say something so “banal and offensive.”
Here we are from an act shocking barbarism, the burning alive of a prisoner of war, and Obama’s message is that we should remember the Crusades and the Inquisition. I mean, for him to say that all of us have sinned, all religions have transgressed — it was adolescent stuff. Everyone knows that. What’s important is what’s happening now. Christianity no longer goes on Crusades. It gave up the Inquisition a while ago. the Book of Joshua is knee deep in blood. That story is over too.
And none other than the usually clear-headed Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, claimed that Obama’s comments were “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.”
“The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.”
Really? The crusades and the Inquisition were met with the “overwhelming” moral opposition of Christians? Slavery and Jim Crow were condemned by an “overwhelming” consensus among southern Christians? As an intelligent Southern Baptist, Moore knows better.
Krauthammer claims that Obama’s comments were “adolescent stuff,” but it is Krauthammer’s misrepresentation of Obama’s speech that is juvenile in its politicized self-righteousness. Krauthammer implies that Obama’s reflective comments about Christianity constituted the main message of his speech, when in reality the president was simply offering a passing word of humility about his own religion in the context of a larger point about the legitimate and illegitimate uses of religion. It was a speech overflowing with positive references toward Christianity and its teachings of love, even as it sought to identify areas of common moral ground among diverse religions.
Is it politically incorrect for conservatives humbly to acknowledge the sins of the Christian tradition in public?
Is it really true, as Gilmore claims, that “every believing Christian in the United States” is too proud to be reminded of great sins committed in the name of Christ?
If so, orthodox Christianity would be in far worse trouble than I ever imagined.
This sort of self-righteous indignation, thankfully, does not represent all Christians. Many of us do recognize the crusades, the religious persecution of heretics (vigorously defended by prominent Catholic and Protestant theologians in past centuries), and the racial oppression and violence committed toward African Americans (also justified by Christian pastors and theologians in the memory of many still alive today) to be serious distortions of Christianity that have had tragic consequences for the credibility of the gospel.
What is more, President Obama was right to remind us that many devout Muslims reject radical and violent interpretations of their faith, as those of us with Muslim friends and neighbors understand. Perhaps it should not be so offensive to Christians, in the midst of their justified anger at the injustice of Muslim terrorists, to remind themselves of their own religious sins and of the fact that they too stand only by grace.
Rather than cherry-pick the president’s comments to score political points, it would be better to highlight the words that are more representative of the overall tone of the speech:
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….
If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
I pray that we will. And as we journey together on this “march of living hope,” I pray that, in His name, we will run and not be weary, and walk and not be faint, and we’ll heed those words and “put on love.”
– President Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast, February 5, 2015
In the Daily Caller on Wednesday Brian Lee wrestles with the question of whether he should have opened the House of Representatives with prayer last week. This is not a case of it being easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Lee admits that he was always a bit torn, and that there are arguments both for and against what he did. Generic civil religion, he points out, is worse than problematic for Christians.
Lee, however, did not offer a generic prayer of civil religion last week. He helpfully explains the way he understands what he did as follows:
A church is a particular worshiping community, a creedal body, because it prays to a particular God. When I pray publicly in church, I therefore pray in the first person plural. That is, I pray in common and on behalf of every member of that community…
To whatever degree “Christian” may describe America, we are quite obviously not a creedal nation. Membership in Congress is explicitly not subject to a religious test; it is in this sense an anti-creedal body. It is therefore impossible for me to pray before Congress as I pray in church, on behalf of the assembled body, for Congress does not have an agreed-upon God. However, while I may not be able to pray on behalf of people who don’t share my faith, I can certainly pray for them. In this way, I occasionally pray for sick unbelievers when I’m invited to visit them in the hospital.
Christians must not presume false unity within a pluralistic group by praying in the first person plural on their behalf. If we do pray in such settings, we must pray as individuals, to a particular God, for the group. And indeed, this seems to me most consistent with the pluralistic character of our polity, that we retain our religious distinctiveness even as we enter the public square, instead of pretending as though there is none.
I think Lee gets this just right. But he goes on to note that this perspective gives rise to a poignant problem.
Should the House tolerate prayers like mine, offered in the name of Christ? Only, it seems to me, if it is also willing to accept prayers written in the name of Allah, Buddha, Gaia, or Zeus. My guess is this pluralistic version of Pascal’s wager would enjoy a lot less popular support than generic prayers to a nameless God, and the practice would soon pass away entirely.
Are most Christians OK with the U.S. House of Representatives asking practitioners of other religions to open House functions with prayer? In a sense this was not Lee’s problem when he was asked to lead the House in prayer. That’s why he stands by what he did. As he puts it,
Why then did I accept? God is near to those who call on him in faith. If someone asks a Christian to pray for them — especially a Christian minister — and you can do so in truth, with the love of Christ, and without violating your conscience, you accept.
As my father always said, if he was asked to preach in a mosque he would do it, as long as he was free to preach the gospel. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether a democratic nation, our nation, should request prayers not only from Christians, but from Muslims, Buddhists, or others. If we are OK with this, as Lee seems perhaps to be, how do we justify allowing a political body that represents us to promote what we regard as idolatry? If we are not OK with this, it seems that we should either be consistent and call for the establishment of the Christian religion, or we should oppose such prayers entirely.
What do you think?