On Thursday, President Obama addressed the National Prayer Breakfast, as has been his custom during his presidency. This year, his remarks drew the ire of conservatives and religious conservatives; as an example, Bloomberg News headlined an article with the verb “Troll” to describe the president’s remarks. What was so controversial? The president acknowledged a settled historical fact — Christianity, like other faiths, has a long and bloody history of religious violence and inhuamnity justified by faith that is contrary to the values it professes. On the right, this provoked a loud and sustained whine, from “they weren’t really Christians” (Franklin Graham, I think) and “that was Catholics, not Protestants” (Erick Erickson) to defenses of the Crusades (Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg).
My reaction to the reaction is one of bafflement. As I said, it’s a settled historical fact the Christians shed a lot of blood over the centuries for religious reasons. Christians did what they genuinely believed their god told them to do, from brutally stamping out heresy in the early centuries to atrocities such as the Fourth Crusade and the Albigensian Crusade in the Middle Ages. And Protestantism isn’t immune; it has the Thirty Years War on its hands, and Americans venerate the Pilgrims and Puritans, factions who were every bit as willing to torture and execute those they viewed as heretics as the early Christians. Yes, Graham, the Bible was used to justify slavery. Yes, Erickson, Protestants executed Quakers like Mary Dyer. Yes, Coulter and Goldberg, Muslims were not the only targets in the Crusades; Christians waged war against fellow, though different-thinking, Christians in the Crusades as well.
I’m not trying to dump on Christianity this morning, that’s not my point. My point is that an honest appraisal of the religion’s history shows that Christianity is what the President said, a religion that preaches good that, in the past, was capable of great violence done in the name of its god. The president’s point was that we see the same thing happening elsewhere in the world today; people doing evil things in the name of their god, and we must remember they are the exception, not the rule. By painting ISIS as the face of Islam, we are tarnishing the religion by taking its most extreme elements as the norm. In other words, Christians who are throwing stones at Islam over ISIS are forgetting — or worse, wilfully misremembering — their own history.
Paul Waldman, for The American Prospect, explores why conservatives were especially incensed by the president’s remarks and why some, like Erick Erickson, sputtered rage that the President claims to be a Christian. (Contra Bill Maher, I don’t believe the President is a closeted atheist. I think he’s very liberal in his Christianity, intellectual and universalist.) Obama’s Christianity has room for doubt and questioning, and that seems to be the thing his critics this week cannot abide. Obama’s faith can acknowledge and embrace the messy truth of the past. His critics’ cannot; they’re forced to deny history or attempt to justify it.
Finally, I also agree with Waldman that presidents shouldn’t attend the National Prayer Breakfast. Despite its name, it’s not an official function. It’s an event put in by a Christian fundamentalist outfit. Its name implies that it’s inclusive. The reality is that the National Prayer Breakfast is anything but.