President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast recently has been the subject of numerous deconstructions. I admit I haven’t read the entire speech, so I can’t comment on it exhaustively, but I’ve gained a bit of perspective from partial readings and comments of others.
Going in, one has to realize that these kinds of events usually result in speeches that are easily open to criticism from those who are deeply invested in the subject matter. We don’t expect most Presidents or other public figures to mount the podium and hold forth with deep theological clarity and expertise. To his credit, President Obama has attended numerous times during the past few years, and has spoken before (2009).
The National Prayer Breakfast dates from the Eisenhower years, and has hosted many interesting celebrities. Mark Hatfield, former Senator from Oregon, took President Nixon and Henry Kissinger–both in the audience–to task for their conduct of the Vietnam War in 1973. Mother Theresa spoke in 1990, Dr. Ben Carson twice (1997 and 2013), British Prime Minister Tony Blair (2009), and musician Bono in 2006. Usually there are several speakers at each event, which actually lasts most of the day. Darryl Waltrip, the Nascar driver, spoke this year in addition to the President.
Prayer Breakfast speeches are often a mish-mash of religious pieties and American civil faith. Bono’s was a kind of “we-are-the-world” farrago with his unique humor thrown in. There has to be a good bit of eye-rolling around the room, but most attendees. believers or otherwise, seem to enjoy the event. At the very least, it’s a good chance for aspiring religious leaders to shake hands with a President.
Much that Mr. Obama said yesterday fits the historical pattern in terms of anodyne generalities. It was his comments on the parallels between current Islamic atrocities and ancient Christian “sins” that have caused a stir. The President should have stayed with what he knows about, which seems to be a kind of progressive Christianity of soft liberationist hue. Instead, he only proved again, as if that’s necessary, what an ignorant and pompous ideologue he is.
“And lest we get on our high horse and think [Islamic terror] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” He also brought up slavery and Jim Crow to cinch the knot.
Therapeutic banality of the first order.
One wonders who writes this stuff. His attempts to be even-handed result in a moral equivalence that take no measure of context, historical accuracy, or agonistic construction. In speaking of the terrible recent events in the Middle East, he transitioned to deliver a series of platitudes to his audience, especially those from the evangelical side of the aisle.
In effect, he told his gathered guests, mostly Christians, that in terms of their psychological profiles, they are no different from jihadists.
But are we no different? The things we are seeing now seem indeed unique. Islamic barbarism is utterly different in kind, scope and effect from the Crusades even at their worst. Mr. Obama appears not to know that the Crusades were essentially defensive in nature. As to the Inquisition, Mr. Obama has plainly never read an accurate historical account of what the Inquisitions (they were plural) were.
The Inquisitions were an attempt by the church to remove the arbitrary persecution of heretical Christian and other groups and individuals from the hands of secular kings and princes. Sure, there were excesses, and torture and death of any magnitude is too much. But the figures, based on new sociological analyses, are these: In the 220 years of the Inquisition where records were kept (1480-1700), about ten deaths per year were meted out by the ecclesiastical courts. Torture was only rarely used. This was a violent age; recall that Henry VIII killed two of his wives, and routinely used boiling, beheading, burning and hanging to kill his miscreant subjects.
Even medieval jousting contests, the Superbowls of the day, resulted in gruesome injuries and deaths. Read the novel Ivanhoe for the details.
By late medieval and early Renaissance standards, the Inquisitions were really quite humane.
Let’s postulate that maybe 5,000 people were killed for heretical behavior, immorality or criminal activity by the Spanish “Inquisition.” Let’s even double that to 10,000. A lot of people, right? A needless loss of life? To be sure. A stain on the church? Sadly, yes.
But hardly a good week’s work for ISIS or Boko Haram. Furthermore, large-scale slaughter is nothing new for Islam. The horror stories of the fall of Constantinople to Ottoman Muslims in 1453–an event that happened roughly at the same time as the earlier, more impromptu years of the Inquisitions–shocked the Christian world by their level and scope of brutality. Whole churches were packed with Christians and set ablaze. Why do we never hear of those atrocities?
Mr. Obama’s comments about slavery also lack temporal context, are intellectually selective (biased), and appear blind to proportionality. Nobody in our culture believes any more in slavery or Jim Crow laws. Moreover, it was Christians who ultimately ended slavery in America and elsewhere. Today Indentured servanthood, a kind of slavery, is still widespread in one civilization: the Islamic. Former sins of free nations such as America, sins eradicated not from the outside but by the inner logic of the Christian belief system itself, are somehow equated with present-day sins of Islam, sins that seem ineradicably rooted in the very scriptures and cultures of that civilization.
In the end, Mr. Obama’s invidiousness stems from his ideology. He wants America to bear the preponderance of guilt in the modern world because this provides the basis for his transformational program. For progressivism in general, historical accuracy is a bourgeois value, to be used when convenient and dispensed with when necessary in the pursuit of utopia here on earth.
The President’s words initially lead one to conclude that he has an immature view of geopolitical reality. His foreign policy, insofar as he has articulated one, seems to consist of something like the pieties so common in the 1950s: “When you point out the faults of another remember that you have three fingers pointing back at you.”
But this conclusion would be a mistake. Barack Obama’s comments indicate a fully-orbed view of the world, a view in which not merely America, but western civilization and its Christian religion have been and remain a historical anomaly and a human tragedy. And the moment has come for the score to be evened. Mr. Obama has taken it on himself to humiliate what he sees as the greatest oppressive force ever known: America.
As others have noted, it is Mr. Obama who is on a high horse. In his own way, he is the Final Crusader, the Grand Inquisitor himself, the one who will make all things right.