Barack Obama’s Amazing Prayer Breakfast Speech

At the risk of once again getting in trouble for my commentary on what Barack Obama said at a National Prayer Breakfast, let me say a few things about what Barack Obama said about religion and violence at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast.

Here is the pertinent part of the speech:

Now, over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of challenges — certainly over the last six years.  But part of what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil. 
As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife.  We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done.  We see faith driving us to do right.
But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.  We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism  — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions. 
We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? 
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.  Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation. 
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.  In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe. 
And, first, we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth. 
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.
And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.  And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.
There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility.  They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both. 
But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment.  And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults — (applause) — and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks.  Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech.  Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.
So humility I think is needed.  And the second thing we need is to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments.  Between church and between state.  The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world — far more religious than most Western developed countries.  And one of the reasons is that our founders wisely embraced the separation of church and state.  Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all.  And the result is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion — so that when you listen to Darrell talk about his faith journey you know it’s real.  You know he’s not saying it because it helps him advance, or because somebody told him to.  It’s from the heart… 
That’s not the case in theocracies that restrict people’s choice of faith.  It’s not the case in authoritarian governments that elevate an individual leader or a political party above the people, or in some cases, above the concept of God Himself.  So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world, and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States.
Humility; a suspicion of government getting between us and our faiths, or trying to dictate our faiths, or elevate one faith over another.  And, finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths, and people who are still finding their way towards faith but have a sense of ethics and morality in them — that one law, that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated.  The Torah says “Love thy neighbor as yourself.”  In Islam, there is a Hadith that states: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”  The Holy Bible tells us to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Put on love.
Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, and bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred.  And this is the loving message of His Holiness, Pope Francis.  And like so many people around the world, I’ve been touched by his call to relieve suffering, and to show justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable; to walk with The Lord and ask “Who am I to judge?”  He challenges us to press on in what he calls our “march of living hope.”  And like millions of Americans, I am very much looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis to the United States later this year.  (Applause.)…
Each of us has a role in fulfilling our common, greater purpose — not merely to seek high position, but to plumb greater depths so that we may find the strength to love more fully.  And this is perhaps our greatest challenge — to see our own reflection in each other; to be our brother’s keepers and sister’s keepers, and to keep faith with one another.  As children of God, let’s make that our work, together
This is a great speech.  A moving speech.  A Christian speech. An American speech.  Obama’s statements about the relationship between religion, violence, slavery and racism are historically accurate.  His remarks about how history reminds us of our sinful condition should please any evangelical Calvinist.  I don’t think that there has been such an appeal to humility and mystery by a President of the United States since Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.  Obama’s defense of religious freedom reminds me of my earlier post today on Russell Moore’s defense of religious liberty.

Is radical Islam a threat? Of course. Must it be stopped?  Yes. Does Obama want to stop it?  I believe he does. When he tells Americans to get off their “high horses” and realize that sin has been present throughout human history, even American history, he reminds me a lot of Lincoln.  When Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural he knew that the Confederates had killed tens of thousands of Union men and women over the course of his first term as president.  Lincoln wanted the Confederacy punished for their crimes, but he also urged Americans to have “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”  

Lincoln turned to American history to remind his Northern listeners that both North and South were responsible for “the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil.”  He wanted the people of the North to recall their past sins before they began to cast judgment on the South.  It seems that Obama, by reminding Americans about the Crusades and slavery in his Prayer Breakfast remarks, was doing something similar.

20 thoughts on “Barack Obama’s Amazing Prayer Breakfast Speech

  1. Dr. Fea, if your words about “matching hatred with hatred” are aimed at my previous post, then I can't help but wonder if we have entered one of those “change over time” things as described in your book where “hate” is now defined not in its traditional sense, but just simply as “(strongly) disagreeing with someone”. I fail to see how describing a politician as more words than deed rises to the definition of “hatred”. Nor do I think pointing out the obvious flaws in the comparison makes a case for “hatred”.

    I do find the President's use of history to be a bit “Bartonesque”. **grin**

    For those that want to read more of a critique of the speech, I would recommend Dennis Prager's February 10th commentary on this topic:
    “…massive violence in the name of one’s religion today is indeed 'unique to some other place.' To state this is not to 'get on a high horse.' It is to tell the most important truth about the world in our time.

    Would the president have used the 'high horse' argument 30 years ago regarding Western condemnation of South African apartheid?

    Of course not. Because contempt for Western evils is noble, while contempt for non-Western, especially Islamic, evils is 'to get on a high horse.'”

    I remember many Americans getting on their “moral high horses” over South African apartheid back in the '80s. What would the original “Lethal Weapon” movie have been without it? However, I don't recall anyone rebuking them for forgetting that it was barely more than a generation previous that racial acts of oppression were part of the law of the land in America.

    Imagine the reaction if Reagan had chastised Americans and cautioned against them against getting on their “moral high horses” over South Africa. The activists of that issue probably would have been calling for him to be given a “Winnie Mandela necklace”.


  2. Jimmy, no trivializing of the crusades, just stating the fact that they were a response to Islamic invasions of southern Europe and the Holy Land.

    Frank Turek observes in a recent commentary: “But contrary to the president’s assertions…Islam is not being “hijacked”—it is being obeyed. The terrorists are following the teachings of the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad…But whether or not the military objectives of the Crusades were justified is irrelevant to my point. My point is that the kind of atrocities committed on the Crusades — like killing Jews — were clearly contrary to Christ’s teaching, but they were just as clearly commanded by the Qur’an and Muhammad himself. “

    People may have done evil in the name of Christ during the crusades, but those deeds were still against the teachings of Christ. You can't say what ISIS does is against the teachings of Mohammed or Islam. ISIS is just following what their founder did and taught. Plenty of texts can be given in support: Sura 9:29 – “Fight those who do not believe in Allah…until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.” I don't find anything about forcefully subjugating non-Christians or taxing them in any of Jesus' or NT teachings. Do you? Apparently Obama thinks there's some equivalency here.

    Mohammed was said to have beheaded hundreds of Jewish captives and sold people into slavery. If ISIS does this, or burns alive a guy in a cage, they can look to their leader for justification because he did similar evils. If crusaders engaged in any such acts, they have no example from the life of Jesus to justify it.

    If the appeal to Christians is to approach history with a sense of humility, it implies there were things we did in our past that are inconsistent with our Christian teachings. No argument there, but what is ISIS doing that is not compatible with what Mohammed taught or did? Sure, “moderate” Muslims may not adopt or follow the more extreme tents of Islam, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. If you catalog the “extremists” of the Christian faith, you gets such “oddities” as foot-washing, anointings of the sick with oil, the quiver-fulls, women not wearing pants, purity pledges, women covering their heads and maybe even a snake handler or two. Curiously, you can't find any beheadings, removal of limbs or stonings.

    The contraction here is that IF Christians lived up to the most radical ideals of their faith and Jesus' teachings, the world would be a better place – grace and love would abound. If Muslims live up to the most radical ideals of their faith…well, ISIS is putting it on display – submission or die.


  3. Tom Van Dyke,

    You are correct to say this is a “false equivalency. Cowardice and sophistry.” History, as John says in his masterful book “Why Study History” is a foreign country. Obama is not a historian and doesn't realize that to compare the Crusades to what Violent Islam is committing today is a moral inequivalent.

    Jimmy, your dropping of the “historians” link Tim Stanley is irrelevant to this thread. No one is questioning if Obama is a Christian as Stanley's article is about, but about the proper use of history. The use (or in this case by Obama the abuse) of history in this speech is illegitimate.

    Obama gets the Crusades wrong in comparing it to the violence of ISIS. This is what historian Stephanie Lawson describes as anachronistic history as John Fea quotes in his aforementioned book. Anachronistic history is the “unwarranted continuities between the past” and the present. This is a false equivalency.

    The article by medieval historian Thomas Madden is an excellent read by an excellent historian.


  4. Interesting that yesterday's “verse of the day” was sitting in my inbox right after I read this post/thread…

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your
    neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray
    for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in
    heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain
    on the just and on the unjust.”
    Matthew 5:43-45


  5. I don't really understand why everyone is arguing about the Crusades. Even if they were horrible, does that mean that we can't call what is going on right now evil? Does that mean that what is going on with ISIS is less evil? I think that we should be able to call evil what it is, which is evil. And I think that we should focus on what is going on right now, in this century, which is people are being beheaded and being set on fire, and what is going to be done about.


  6. You pose an interesting framing question, Tim Schoettle. There's a fascinating debate about the merits of judgmentalism (in a secular politically Left context) in the current issue of Dissent. Michael Walzer and Andrew March debate how the Left should respond to Islamism.

    I doubt you'll be surprised to hear that I'm more persuaded by Walzer. And to my ears, Obama sounds more like March and the scholars he references (Edward Said, etc.)


  7. Well, if dropping in comments by historians is the name of the game, then let's drop some in that refute some of the ones already mentioned.

    The bottom line is that President Obama pointed out Christian hypocrisy which of course is rejected by Christian hypocrites. You can put up link after link, but you can't refute the hypocrisy the right wing in America engages in dealing with President Obama.


  8. I enjoyed the post and the responses. In thinking about the difference between Jim LaGrand's interpretation and Fea's I can't help but raise the following question: Which danger is more real today: The danger of being too judgmental or the danger of not being judgmental enough? Fea liked Obama's speech in part because it cautioned us against being too judgmental. We need humility and to remember that our judgments might be mistaken. But as LaGrand points out Lincoln was judgmental, and appropriately so. It's probably a truism to say that today we are both too judgmental and not judgmental enough. We seem to be selectively judgmental and our selectiveness needs to be grounded in wisdom and love rather than pettiness or partisanship.


  9. And while we're at it:

    “Part of the problem here is that the president knows little, perhaps nothing, about the Crusades or the Inquisition. He is not alone in that, of course. Medieval historians have long lamented the gulf between fact and popular perceptions when it comes to these events. The Crusades were not brutal wars of colonial oppression or zealous attempts to spread Christianity by the sword. The First Crusade was called in 1095 by Pope Urban II in response to desperate appeals from the Christians of the Middle East, who had lately been conquered and continued to be persecuted by the Turks. And these were only the latest in more than four centuries of attacks on Christian peoples by Muslim powers. At some point Christianity as a faith and as a culture had to defend itself or else be subsumed by Islam. The work of the Crusader, who put his life at risk and underwent enormous expense, was to save Christian people and restore Christian lands.

    This was no perversion of Christianity. Christ had commanded his followers to be like the Good Samaritan, hurrying to bind up the wounds of their brother who had been robbed and beaten. This was the same Christ who said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” That is how Crusaders honestly saw themselves following their Christian faith.

    As for the Inquisition, it was instituted in 1184 by Pope Lucius III to deal with a specific problem. Medieval European kingdoms held heresy to be a capital crime against the state. (The Church had no capital offenses.) That meant that people were arrested and tried in state courts on religious charges and, when found guilty, executed. The purpose of the Inquisition was to place Church courts using Roman laws of evidence between the accused and the state. The Inquisition not only discerned whether the accused was a heretic, but also provided a means for him or her to repent and escape the fires of the stake.

    The Inquisition actually saved uncounted thousands whom the state courts would have roasted. Indeed, the witch crazes that ravaged Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries occurred only in those areas in which there was no well-developed Inquisition.

    Of course, many Christians, like the president, may still consider the Crusades and the Inquisition to be a distortion of their faith. Yet they should at least accept that others can honestly disagree.

    Protestants and Catholics follow different versions of Christianity, but we would strongly reject a president who tried to tell us which was right. By the same token, the president has even less authority to discern true from distorted Islam. ISIS is barbaric, but there is no denying that its adherents believe they are true followers of Islam.

    And they can point to medieval Muslim rulers who were just as bloody. The Egyptian leader Baybars, for example, captured the Christian city of Antioch in 1268 and massacred its entire population. Even Saladin, who is generally well regarded today, estimated that he had killed or executed 40,000 European Christians after the Battle of Hattin in 1187.

    Were these men, who were universally hailed as champions of Islam, perverters of the faith? And, if so, is it the president’s job to decide that?

    In general, world leaders would do better to focus on their own age, which they tend to understand better. Judging the purity of modern terrorists’ Islamic faith will not make them less dangerous. Let’s leave the Middle Ages out of it.”

    —Thomas F. Madden is professor of medieval history and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University. He is the author of The Concise History of the Crusades.


  10. Those with an interest in history might want to review this objection

    to the president's remarks, and its reliance on “common knowledge” about Christianity's [actually, Catholicism's] sins.

    That they can be facilely equated in kind or degree with the current crisis in the Muslim world is at least questionable.

    Thomas F. Madden, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University, says that

    “During the Middle Ages you could not find a Christian in Europe who did not believe that the Crusades were an act of highest good. Even the Muslims respected the ideals of the Crusades and the piety of the men who fought them. But that all changed with the Protestant Reformation. For Martin Luther . . . argued that to fight the Muslims was to fight Christ himself, for it was he who had sent the Turks to punish Christendom for its faithlessness. . . . It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that the current view of the Crusades was born.”

    And of course the “Black Legend,” the Protestant revision of the history of the Inquisition to show Catholicism in the worst possible light.


    “In recent years the Inquisition has been subject to greater investigation. In preparation for the Jubilee in 2000, Pope John Paul II wanted to find out just what happened during the time of the Inquisition’s (the institution’s) existence. In 1998 the Vatican opened the archives of the Holy Office (the modern successor to the Inquisition) to a team of 30 scholars from around the world. Now at last the scholars have made their report, an 800-page tome that was unveiled at a press conference in Rome on Tuesday. Its most startling conclusion is that the Inquisition was not so bad after all. Torture was rare and only about 1 percent of those brought before the Spanish Inquisition were actually executed. As one headline read “Vatican Downsizes Inquisition.”

    The amazed gasps and cynical sneers that have greeted this report are just further evidence of the lamentable gulf that exists between professional historians and the general public. The truth is that, although this report makes use of previously unavailable material, it merely echoes what numerous scholars have previously learned from other European archives…”


  11. Well put Jim. I can't argue with you here, but Obama's words are refreshing to me when the default position for many on this issue is matching hatred with hatred.


  12. I'm not hearing the same Lincolnian music you are in Obama, John. Different ears, I guess. Lincoln is rightly remembered for counseling humility, but he wasn't a Johnny One-Note about this, either. What angered many of his opponents was the opposite tendency–what they viewed as his rigid moralism derived from his home-made natural law thinking. This especially frustrated his debate opponent, Stephen Douglas. After several hours debating Lincoln, the Little Giant grew tired of his opponent's talk about slavery as moral cancer. So he tried using the Bible to shut down Lincoln's judgmentalism. “Better for him to adopt the doctrine of 'judge not lest ye shall be judged,'” he said smartly. Lincoln was unconvinced, needless to say. Yes, judgmentalism needs to be tempered by an acknowledgment about human imperfection. But it's not out-of-bounds in addressing things like chattel slavery or the mass slaughter of innocent civilians.


  13. The trivializing of the Crusades in order to negate the impact of President Obama's speech is amusing. Just think, in slightly less than two you will be whining about a different Democrat as President.


  14. That deafening silence is yawns, Jimmy. The man is a master of teleprompter reading. He may even do it better than Reagan. In regards to leadership, not so much. At least Reagan followed up the threat of evil in his day with actions that eventually contributed to the fall of the “evil empire”. (Oh, and let's not forget the apoplectic response to that phrase by the lefties, either, before we get into the reaction of the right.) Barack Hussein Obama hasn't done squat to address the evil of his day. I'm sure in his autobiography he will find some way to blame Bush.

    Obama did leave out some context that is part of Dr. Fea's call to think historically. Last time I checked, the jihadists were beheading and torching people in 2015. The Crusades were 800 HUNDRED years ago and were a response to Islamic invasions as far as Italy and Spain. You know, sorta like airstrikes to keep the spread of ISIS's “islam” in check. Seems to me many folks conveniently forget that little bit of history. The Crusades just didn't pop up out of nowhere because a bunch of European Christians got bored with medieval life and decided they needed to go out and persecute someone.

    But back to the speech. As Thomas Sowell once observed about Obama: “There is nothing more real than a man’s character and values. The track record of what he has actually done is far more real than anything he says, however elegantly he says it.”

    The man's all talk, no action. Let's jut watch and see if he gives ISIS a “line in the sand” like he did Assad in Syria, only to have it crossed without repercussions.

    To borrow one of Cuba Gooding's lines in [i]Jerry McGuire[/i]: “SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!” I just don't plan on holding my breath.


  15. You left out the most Lincolnian passage: “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 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. (That last bit, of course, is from the prophets, via John Winthrop.)


  16. I think this may very well go down as one of the great speeches in American history. There will be some resistance to it from certain quarters, but the truth within the speech is right on target. I've seen some opposition to what he said, but when those people are pressed for specific points within the speech they object to, they cannot answer with one because it seems they have not listened to the speech or read the transcript.

    I also point out that Pope Francis has said pretty much the same thing. The deafening silence speaks volumes.


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