President Obama's remarks, last week, at the annual National Prayer Breakfast were theologically sound and politically smart. In spite of this, his comments set off a storm of criticism from conservative critics who took him to task for both his theology and his politics. While I cannot read their hearts, their rhetoric was so predictable and so harsh, that I suspect some were prompted by a mixture of blind ideology and anti-Muslim animus, coupled with a tinge of racism. More to the point, the President's critics are just plain wrong- theologically and politically.
What President Obama said was so profound, it bears repeating:
"...[we] see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge-or, even worse, sometimes as a weapon...We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism...claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.
"Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and 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. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency, that can pervert and distort our faith...
"...we should [therefore] start with some basic humility...Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth...[And] we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty."
The President was unwavering in his condemnation of ISIL, while at the same time recognizing that at the root of their evil ideology is the sin of blind certainty, through which this group, and those like it, attempt to validate their actions by, in effect, imposing their will on God. The antidote is humility, coupled with an understanding of our own failings-lest we, too, fall into the trap of arrogant certainty.
Theologically, all of this is quite sound. But latter-day Pharisees were outraged at the President's call for humility and his acknowledgment of the times we have failed to live up to the ideals of our faith.
In response, one Republican leader termed Obama's remarks "the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime...He has offended every believing Christian in the United States...Mr. Obama does not believe in America and the values we all share." A Southern Baptist leader termed the President's words "an unfortunate attempt at wrong-headed moral comparison" suggesting that instead of meddling in theology what the president should do is provide "a moral framework...and a clear strategy for defeating ISIS". He continued: "The evil actions he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameter of Christianity and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians".
These criticisms were but a rehash of the GOP's talking points that were used after President Obama's Cairo speech. Then, too, he was accused of creating what his detractors called "a false moral equivalency between our enemies and us" and "insulting America", with not too subtle reminders that he "was not like us".
The President has not been without his defenders, especially those who supported his theological view. But as much as I appreciated his understanding of importance of grounding our faith in humility, the President is not "theologian in chief". He is, above all, a political leader whose role is to defend the national interest of the United States. And it is on this basis, and not on theological grounds, that I found the way President Obama framed his remarks to be not only wholly supportable, but vitally important.
The mention of the Crusades and the Inquisition was not an historical "throwaway line". Nor was it directed solely at an American audience that feels no responsibility for these ancient actions. Since these events define part of Islam's encounter with Western Christianity, acknowledging them is an important way to begin the discussion with Muslims. Just as in earlier speeches when the president noted other times when we have failed to live up to our ideals-as in our use of torture, or Guantanamo, or the crimes of Abu Ghraib-it is a way of saying to Muslims "I am hearing you, now listen to me". This is diplomacy, at its best.
Preaching at Muslims about their failings and countering this with the pretense of our perfection is not a way to begin or have a conversation or to create alliances. If we listen carefully to the discourse taking place in the Muslim world, we learn that they scoff at our claims of "upholding our values". They ask, "exactly which values do you mean": backing Israel's displacement and oppression of Palestinians; the war on Iraq; the abuses of prisoners; supporting violators of human rights when it serves your "national interests"?
If we want to have an honest discussion of how we work together to address a common threat-in this case, the danger posed by ISIL-is it not best that we begin by removing the obstacles to that discussion? For those who don't get that simple point, it's called good politics or sound diplomacy.
On the other hand, if we surrender to the President's critics, we can act like the Pharisees arrogantly feigning perfection. We can sit atop the pedestal we build for ourselves damning others, while praising ourselves. We've tried that before and found that when we did we were speaking to no one but ourselves. We may have felt self-validated, but we were very alone in a world our actions had made more dangerous.
Dr. James J. Zogby is The President of Arab American Institutes.
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