Get Real: Obama's Prayer Breakfast Speech Never Really Trampled on Christian or American Values

By acknowledging regrettable chapters in his own religion's past, the U.S. president implicitly calls on members of other faiths to do the same: confront those who appropriate religion for power and control, like ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Qaida.

Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen
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President Barack Obama bows his head towards the Dalai Lama during the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Thurs., Feb. 5, 2015.
President Barack Obama bows his head towards the Dalai Lama during the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Thurs., Feb. 5, 2015.Credit: AP
Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen

It seems a day can’t go by without a Republican personality or conservative pundit howling about what he or she perceives as some grotesquely objectionable utterance by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Last week, the condemnation-of-the-week came from former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore. Following Obama’s remarks at the annual prayer breakfast, held on February 5, Gilmore railed: “The president’s comments this morning are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. 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.”

My goodness! With what awful words did the president utter to unleash this firestorm?

After cracking a few NASCAR jokes and citing examples of faith inspiring people to lift up one another at the morning event, Obama examined the darker side of “faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge – or worse, sometimes used as a weapon.” The litany of violators included, not surprisingly, ISIS, who the president described as a “brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism.” Wondering how to reconcile the profoundly good and the sometimes horrendous acts religion can inspire, he said:

"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."

For this, the floodgates of opprobrium opened.

But the point Obama made is really nothing new. Exactly six years ago, at the first National Prayer Breakfast of his presidency, he sounded much the same theme: “far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another – as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance. Wars have been waged. Innocents have been slaughtered. For centuries, entire religions have been persecuted, all in the name of perceived righteousness.”

What was different this time? Obama named as among the perpetrators those who’ve justified atrocities by invoking Christianity, America’s predominant faith. Given ISIS’s and Boko Haram’s graphically heinous and all-too-contemporary barbarity, committed in the name of Islam, Obama’s recalling some of the darker chapters in Christianity’s story proved too much for some. But it is hardly debatable that Crusaders, Inquisitors, slave masters, and, more recently, white supremacists – as in, for example, Alabama Governor George Wallace’s 1963 inaugural speech, “Segregation Now Segregation Forever” – have justified their cruelty and acts of domination as fulfilling the word of the Christian God.

Contrary to his critics’ claims, Obama isn’t betraying Christianity or America or their values. Instead, he’s modeling behavior that ought to be emulated. By acknowledging regrettable chapters in his own religion’s both distant and recent past, he implicitly calls on leaders and followers of other faiths to do the same: face and confront those who appropriate religious doctrines and beliefs to serve a brutal quest for power and control. Today – in the face of ISIS and Boko Haram and Al-Qaida – Muslim leaders, and the many millions of Muslim faithful, must do this. But they’re not alone in that obligation.

This past Thursday, Obama echoed another theme that’s long pervaded his thinking on where all of us – from faith and non-faith traditions alike – must find our moral compass. At the Prayer Breakfast in 2009, he avowed: “whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to 'love thy neighbor as thyself.' The Torah commands, 'That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.' In Islam, there is a hadith that reads 'None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.' And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists.”

He continued: “It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.” Six years later, at this year’s breakfast, Obama’s take-home message was the same: “we should treat one another as we would wish to be treated.”

Hopefully, Governor Gilmore and his friends won’t view those words as grounds for impeachment.

Michael Felsen is an attorney and served as president of Boston Workmen’s Circle from 2007-2013. He also serves as a trustee of the Interreligious Center for Public Life in Newton, Massachusetts.

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