E.J. Dionne on Political Idolatry

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Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast

This morning I was on a local radio show in the Boston area.  When the host asked me what I thought about Christians getting involved in politics, I said, as I have before, that Christians who want to enter political life must be very careful about letting political ideology (of either party) co-opt their faith.

E.J. Dionne makes a similar point today at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

If you wonder why young people are leaving organized religion in droves, look no further than last week’s National Prayer Breakfast.

Many who care about religion and its fate have condemned President Trump’s vindictive, self-involved, God-as-an-afterthought speech at the annual gathering. By contrast, his backers were happy to say “Amen” as they prepared to exploit religion in one more election.

My Post colleague Michael Gerson, a beacon of moral clarity in the conservative evangelical world, noted that Trump’s address was a tribute to his “remarkable ability to corrupt, distort and discredit every institution he touches.”

Gerson is right, but I confess that there has always been something troubling about the prayer breakfast. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the faith of many of its organizers. There have been moments when politicians, including presidents, have used the occasion to promote humility in the face of God’s judgment and call each other to fellowship across their political differences.

Nonetheless, the whole exercise seems idolatrous. The gatherings encourage the suspicion that many politicians are there not because of God but because of their own political imperatives. They want to tell the world how religious they are and check the faith box on the advice of their political advisers. You worry that this is as much about preening as praying.

And, as historian Kevin Kruse pointed out in his book “One Nation Under God,” the prayer breakfast was a component of a public elevation of religion in the 1950s designed at least in part to serve the cause of conservative politics.

Read the rest here.

Donald Trump’s Revenge Tour: Religion Edition

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Vengeance is mine, says Donald Trump.

Earlier this week, the Senate acquitted the president in the third impeachment trial in American history.  The GOP Senators who acquitted him will now get a chance to see an unchecked and unfettered president get his revenge.

Maine Senator Susan Collins, who voted for acquittal, said that Trump has “learned his lesson” through the impeachment trial.  She now regrets that she said that.

As I wrote this week at USA Today, Trump’s revenge tour began on Thursday when he used the National Prayer Breakfast to attack the religious convictions Mitt Romney and Nancy Pelosi.

Here is what I wrote:

No one following American politics over the last several days could have missed Trump’s not-so-veiled attack on Utah’s Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator who voted this week to remove him from office.

In a moving and emotional floor speech Wednesday, just before the impeachment trial ended, Romney said his Mormon faith played an important role in his decision to vote against Trump’s acquittal. But Trump was having none of it: “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” he said.

Trump also revisited his earlier Twitter attacks on Pelosi, who has said on more than one occasion that she prays for the president: “Nor do I like people who say ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so.”  He added, “So many people have been hurt.  And we can’t let that go on.”

Think about those last two sentences: “So many people have been hurt. And we can’t let that go on.”

In the first sentence, Trump (again) plays the victim.  He still believes the impeachment was a “witch hunt.”  He does not think he has done anything wrong. He remains confident in his “perfect call.”  He is convinced that Mitt Romney and Nancy Pelosi have “hurt” him and his family.

Notice that Trump bears absolutely no responsibility for anything.  Some GOP Senators agree with him.  Other GOP Senators do not agree with him, but still voted to acquit.

Whatever “hurt” that Trump, his family, and his associates have “suffered” during this impeachment ordeal is largely of their own making.

Let’s now take the second sentence in this statement.  What does Trump mean by “we can’t let that go on?”  Well, we got a glimpse later in the day on Thursday when he spoke to his followers in the White House.

Here is Trump on his opponents, including Pelosi:

We did a prayer breakfast this morning, and I thought that was really good. In fact, that was so good it might wipe this out. But by the time we finish this, we’ll wipe that one out, those statements. I had Nancy Pelosi sitting four seats away, and I’m saying things that a lot of people wouldn’t have said, but I meant every word, okay?

Also this:

So I always say they’re lousy politicians, but they do two things. They’re vicious and mean. Vicious. Adam Schiff is a vicious, horrible person. Nancy Pelosi is a horrible person. And she wanted to impeach a long time ago when she said, I pray for the president. She doesn’t pray. She may pray but she prays for the opposite. But I doubt she prays at all. These are vicious people.

And here is Trump, at the same event, on Mitt Romney:

Then you have some who used religion as a crutch. They never used it before. An article written today. Never heard him use it before. But today, you know, it’s one of those things. It’s a failed presidential candidate, so things can happen when you fail so badly running for president.

Expect more of this, especially because the court evangelicals are now defending Trump’s attacks on the Christian faith of Pelosi and Romney.

Trump has even managed to convince one court evangelical, Robert Jeffress, that he is indeed a victim.  Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, said that Trump’s attack on Pelosi’s prayer life was “completely right.” He recently told the Associated Press  that “when you have been under nonstop attack for the last three years from people who want to destroy you and your family, it’s a little hard to hear them say, ‘I want to pray for you.'”

Jeffress also said that Romney’s vote against acquittal “seems more based on self-promotion than religious beliefs.”  It is worth pausing here to note that Jeffress once said that Romney was a member of a cult.  So maybe he truly believes that Romney’s religious convictions are not legitimate.

Here is what Jeffress tweeted last night:

The “biblical answer?” Seriously?

Jeffress should stop twisting the Bible & giving oxygen to Trump’s victim complex as way of advancing the political fortunes of this immoral president. And Fox News is irresponsible for putting this man on television as a representative of Christianity.

I watched Jeffress’s appearance on Lou Dobbs–the one he teased in the tweet above.  As it turns out, he did not get a chance to offer the “biblical answer” on prayer that he promised.  Instead, he said that anyone who opposes Trump is “evil” and described the impeachment ordeal as a battle between “good” and evil.”  Click on the tweet to watch:

Franklin Graham must have also enjoyed Trump’s comments at the National Prayer Breakfast.  He retweeted the speech.

Get ready.  This is going to be an ugly campaign.  Trump will continue to use evangelical Christianity as a political weapon and the court evangelicals will continue to provide cover.

Michael Gerson Rips Trump and the National Prayer Breakfast: It Was “Unholy”

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I just offered my opinion on Trump’s National Prayer Breakfast speech at USA TODAY.  Michael Gerson weighed-in today at Washington Post.  Here is a taste of his piece, “Trump’s politicization of the National Prayer Breakfast is unholy and immoral“:

…Trump has again shown a talent for exposing the sad moral compromises of his followers, especially his evangelical Christian followers. Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress and Eric Metaxas don’t have it easy after an event such as this one. Not only do they need to defend Trump’s use of a prayer breakfast as a campaign rally. Not only are they required to defend his offensive questioning of religious motivations. They must also somehow justify his discomfort with a central teaching of the Sermon on the Mount and his use of a prayer meeting to attack and defame his enemies. These evangelical Christian leaders will, of course, find some way to bless Trump’s sacrilege. But he makes their job ever harder and their moral surrender ever more obvious.

…Trump’s unholy outburst (and the White House event that followed) shows we are reaching a very dangerous moment in our national life. The president is seized by rage and resentment — not heard on some scratchy Watergate tape, but in public, for all to see and hear. He now feels unchecked and uncheckable. And he has a position of tremendous power. This is what happens when a sociopath gets away with something. He or she is not sobered but emboldened. It took mere hours for Republican senators who predicted a wiser, chastened president to eat their words. The senators are, in part, responsible for the abuses of power to come.

Read the entire piece here.

Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress Backs Trump’s National Prayer Meeting Debacle

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In case you haven’t heard what Donald Trump did at the National Prayer Breakfast, I tried to summarize it here.

It was only a matter of time before Trump’s ardent evangelical supporters–the court evangelicals–defended the president’s remarks.  First Baptist Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress recently told Associated Press writer David Crary that Trump’s speech was “completely right.”  Here is a taste:

One of Trump’s leading allies in the conservative Christian evangelical community, the Rev. Robert Jeffress of the Southern Baptist megachurch First Baptist Dallas, embraced the president’s remarks.

“I think the president was completely right in what he said,” Jeffress said. “It’s not politically correct, but he didn’t get to be president by being politically correct.”

Jeffress, who said he dined with Trump and Prayer Breakfast organizers at the White House on Wednesday, said the criticism of Pelosi was justified.

“When you have been under nonstop attack for the last three years from people who want to destroy you and your family, it’s a little hard to hear them say, ‘I want to pray for you,’ ” he said. “It’s hypocritical.”

As for Romney, Jeffress contended that the senator’s decision to vote for Trump’s removal “seems more based on self-promotion than religious beliefs.”

Read the entire piece here.

My Piece on Trump’s Prayer Breakfast Speech is Now Up at *USA TODAY*

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The editors at USA Today asked me to reflect on Trump’s performance at today’s National Prayer Breakfast.  Here is a taste of my piece:

Prayer is a spiritual discipline. In the Christian tradition, spiritual disciplines take the focus off us and put it on God and others. They are practices that relieve us of our narcissism.

The National Prayer Breakfast is a bipartisan event. It brings politicians and religious leaders together to seek common ground through a shared faith.

While the breakfast is not without its problems, as we saw in the recent Netflix documentary “The Family,” it is the closest Washington comes each year to laying aside political bickering and seeking something akin to what Jesus called for in the Gospel of John, chapter 17 when he prayed that his followers would be “brought to complete unity.”

But President Donald Trump showed at the Thursday morning breakfast that he lacks the spiritual compass and moral understanding to rise to such an occasion.

Read the rest here.

Some Quick Reflections on Trump’s Prayer Breakfast Speech

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G.K. Chesterton once said that America “is a nation with the soul of a church.”  Trump’s prayer breakfast speech this morning was as good as it could be in a nation with the soul of the church.  The speech was infused with the usual themes of civil religion:  “In God We Trust,” “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “Praise to be to God” on the Washington Monument,” and plenty of references to the Providence of God.  When you combine Christian theology with nationalism it can breed the worst forms of idolatry.  At the same time, American presidents have been doing this for a long time.  Check out Kevin Kruse’s excellent book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.

Some of my anti-Trump friends will trash the speech.  Fair enough.  But there was nothing about this speech that was unusual or unique to Donald Trump.  A version of this speech could have been delivered by FDR, Ike, JFK, Reagan, or Obama.  It was a straight-forward appeal to American civil religion.

A few quick observations:

  • I am glad that there was no reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger this year.
  • I was unsure if the reference to “we are God’s handiwork” was a reference to individuals or the United States
  • Irony:  Trump said prayer helps families to thrive even as he is tearing families apart with his immigration policies.
  • At the end of the speech Trump said we should follow the founders.  It implies that they were Christians or at least people who cared about peace and justice.  This is not entirely true.  The founders were morally complex people.  We should probably not invoke them in a prayer breakfast.

Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast

Watch it here:

At the 11:25 mark he thanks Senate Chaplain Barry Black and says “I am appointing you for another year, what the hell.”

12:32: Trump starts talking about how bad “The Apprentice” is now that Arnold Schwarzenegger is hosting.  He asks to pray for Arnold and the show’s ratings.

14:21:  He he thanks the American people for their “words of worship” for him.

16:00:  Asks for prayer for the military.  Good.  Although as he keeps going he seems to connect religion with American ideals.  Of course the Founding Fathers did this all the time.

17:17: “American is a nation of believers.  In towns all across our land it’s plain to see what we easily forget…the quality of our lives is not defined by our material success, but by our spiritual success.”  Amen.  I just wonder if Trump really believes what he is saying here.

19:45:  Trump quotes Jefferson on religious liberty and then rips into the Johnson Amendment.

20:41: Trump says religious liberty is under threat in the world and the nation.  “The world is in trouble and we are going to straighten it out.”  Interesting statement in light of his recent Muslim ban.

22:00: Trump couches his fight against terrorism in the language of religious freedom.

24:00: Trump now lays out his plan for immigration restriction and couches it in religious liberty.

28:00:  Trump praising the decision to add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Thoughts on Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech

On Thursday morning Barack Obama delivered his last National Prayer Breakfast speech as President of the United States.

He spoke out of his own deep religious convictions and connected the Bible and prayer to American values.

His speech (or should we call it a sermon?) came from 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

It is hard not to acknowledge Obama’s debt in this speech to writer Marilynne Robinson and her September 2015 New York Review of Books piece on fear.  Robinson is one of Obama’s favorite authors. The President even spent some time last year interviewing her in Des Moines, Iowa.

I appreciate Obama’s use of history in this speech.  Americans have been through difficult times before.  When we see things with a longer view we realize that Americans have been reacting to change, tragedy, and an assortment of difficult situations for a long time.  In some small way we might be comforted by our connections with the human beings–the Americans–who have gone before us.

Obama used 2 Timothy 1:7 to rehash a common interpretation of the Christian Right and political conservatism generally.  It goes something like this: in times of rapid change people respond in extreme ways that are motivated by fear.

There is truth in this interpretation.  If American history is any indication, nativism, racism, and other forms of discrimination have emerged when people respond in fear to the winds of change.

Future American religious historians will not miss the irony of it all.  When they study this generation they will find people living in fear who embrace a Christian faith that teaches them that they have nothing to fear. As Obama alluded to in his speech, Christ triumphed over death through the resurrection.  Because of this, Christians believe, they too will one day triumph over death. It is a fitting message as we approach the season of Lent.

Obama was very specific about the changes taking place in American society that might elicit fear.  He mentioned terrorism, homelessness, incoming refugees, and eroding shorelines.  When Obama says that Jesus is “pointing us towards what matters,” he means that Christians should not only be unafraid of these developments, but should faithfully work to do something about these problems.

Of course abortion, same-sex marriage, and other conservative moral concerns are apparently not things that “matter.”  These issues are the leftover remnants of a now- antiquated Christian tradition–the kind of tradition that progress, by its very definition, must overcome.

When conservatives in the United States talk about Christianity’s role in public life, they often look backward in order to move forward.  Theirs is an approach to Christianity rooted in historic doctrines and time-honored theological and moral truths.  Obama’s forward-looking faith represents a progressive brand of Christianity centered more on activism and social change than on theology or confessions of faith.

My intention here is not to endorse one approach to Christianity over the other.  That would not make any sense because they are two sides of the same coin.  I will, however, suggest that these differences might be yet another way in which the Christian faith in America has been politicized.

If we learned anything from the visit of Pope Francis last Fall, it is that Christianity does not fit well with any American political party or ideology.  Yet we just can’t help placing it in the Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative boxes that we have constructed for ourselves.

The Way of Improvement Leads Home Obama Prayer Breakfast Post At Religion News Service

The Religion News Service picked up an edited version of The Way of Improvement Leads Home post on Obama’s Prayer Breakfast remarks.  Here is a taste:


MECHANICSBURG, Pa. (RNS) President Obama’s political opponents are outraged over hisremarks at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast comparing Islamic violence to historic Christian violence.​ Jim Gilmore, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, called the remarks “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.”
But anyone who is angry with Obama’s speech must also express the same wrath toward one of the greatest presidential speeches in American history, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered 150 years ago next month.
Read the rest here.

Addendum:  Just learned The Washington Post picked up this piece.

Is Barack Obama Professor in Chief?

This stuff on Obama’s Prayer Breakfast seems to be having a very long shelf life.  (I will be publishing a version of my earlier blog post at another website. It should be out soon–stay tuned).

Now Damon Linker has weighed in over at The Week.  Here is a taste of his piece: “The Problem with Barack Obama Playing the Professor in Chief.”

The problem with the president’s comments isn’t that they were wrong. As Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have powerfully argued, they were indisputably correct.

The problem is that Barack Obama is the president of the United States and not its professor in chief. It isn’t the president’s role to stand apart from and above the nation he leads, issuing supposedly even-handed, dispassionate, scholarly, objective, or prophetic moral judgments about the sins of America and Western civilization. This is especially true when those judgments are rendered in the context of a comparison with the butchers of ISIS — a bloodthirsty Islamist syndicate the president has accurately described as a “network of death” and pledged to destroy by force of arms.  

What Obama’s comments demonstrate is that he lacks a sufficient appreciation of the crucial difference between politics and morality.

Broadly speaking, morality is universalistic in scope and implication, whereas politics is about how a particular group of people governs itself. Morality is cosmopolitan; politics is tribal. Morality applies to all people equally. Politics operates according to a narrower logic — a logic of laws, customs, habits, and mores that bind together one community at a specific time and place. Morality dissolves boundaries. Politics is about how this group of people lives here, as distinct from those groups over there.

Now this certainly overstates the difference between the two realms. In the real world, they overlap in all kinds of ways — and it is one of the great achievements of liberal government to have tamed some of the narrow-minded excesses of politics by more strictly applying moral criteria to the political realm than was common for much of human history before the modern period.

If the president truly believes that ISIS poses a dire threat to the United States — one requiring a military response that puts the lives of American soldiers at risk, costs billions of dollars, and leads to the death of hundreds or thousands of people on the other side of the conflict — then it makes no sense at all for him simultaneously to encourage Americans to adopt a stance of moral ambiguity toward that threat.

Does Obama want us to kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths of ISIS? Or does he want us to reflect dispassionately on the myriad ways that they’re really not that different from the grandfather of my friend from Mississippi?…

A wise president understands that his role is categorically different from that of a journalist, a scholar, a moralist, or a theologian. It’s not a president’s job to gaze down dispassionately on the nation, rendering moral judgments from the Beyond. His job is to defend our side. Yes, with intelligence and humility. But the time for intelligence and humility is in crafting our policies, not in talking about them after the fact. When the president speaks as he did at the Prayer Breakfast, he sounds like a man who believes that executing his own sometimes ruthless policies is too narrow-minded, too partial — a word, too political — for a man as worldly and cosmopolitan as he.

I can’t argue with most of what Linker says here.  I think he is right. Most Americans want a president of decisive action, not a president-moral philosopher.  But let’s go back to Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.  Why do so many of us celebrate this speech.  Lincoln was being a president-theologian in that speech and it has gone down as one of the greatest speeches ever delivered by an American president.  It seems that Americans want both–strong executive action to defend the interests of the United States and someone who can root such executive action in a robust moral philosophy.  Perhaps the problem with Obama is that his moral philosophy is too indecisive, complex, and nuances when compared to the way his predecessor, George W. Bush, employed his  moral philosophy.

Just some preliminary thoughts here.  I need to think about this some more.

Ross Douthat and Mark Silk: Differing Opinions on Obama at the Prayer Breakfast, Niebuhr, and Eisenhower

I am in self-imposed exile today–working on my American Bible Society book.  But this whole Obama Prayer Breakfast stuff (see my original piece here) keeps drawing me away from my writing and back to the blog.


Did you see Ross Douthat’s column in Sunday’s New York Times

I like some it.  He acknowledges, for example, that Obama’s “disenchanted view of America’s role in the world contains more wisdom than his Republican critics acknowledge.”

I also think Douthat is correct when he suggests that history is complex:

The first problem is that presidents are not historians or theologians, and in political rhetoric it’s hard to escape from oversimplication. You can introduce the Crusades to complicate a lazy “Islam violent, Christianity peaceful” binary, but then a lot of Christians are going to hear an implied equivalence between the Islamic State’s reign of terror and the incredibly complicated multicentury story of medieval Christendom’s conflict with Islam … and so all you’ve really done is put a pointless fight about Christian history on the table. To be persuasive, a reckoning with history’s complexities has to actually reckon with them, and a tossed-off Godfrey of Bouillon reference just pits a new straw man against the one you think you’re knocking down.

But after his short lesson in complexity, Douthat ignores it in his remarks about Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address:

Here a counterexample is useful: The most Niebuhrian presidential speech in modern American history was probably Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he warned against the dangers of “the military-industrial complex” and “a scientific-technological elite.” It was powerful precisely because Eisenhower was criticizing his own party’s perennial temptations, acknowledging some of his own policies’ potential downsides (he had just created NASA and Darpa) and drawing on moral authority forged by his own military career.

I think Douthat is probably correct about Obama’s over-simplification of the Islam-Crusades comparison.  (Interesting, everyone is talking about the Crusades–what about Obama’s slavery analogy?)  And I don’t blame Douthat for failing to nuance the Eisenhower material.  As a someone who often writes in short spaces, I realize that the complexity of history rarely conforms to the genres in which it is presented in a digital age. That is why books are still important to the advancement of good history in the world. 

Keeping in mind all of these limitations, I now give you a taste of Mark Silk’s response to Douthat’s op-ed.  Silk is a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut and he blogs at Religion News Service:

Reinhold Niebuhr, the great political theologian of the last century, liked to warn against the failure to see the mote in our own eye — urging that, as Douthat puts it, “Americans in particular need to put aside illusions about our own alleged perfection.” Obama, however, was not really being self-critical when he called attention to Christianity’s less admirable past.
Which leads Douthat to contrast Obama’s remarks unfavorably with what he claims was “probably” the most Niebuhrian presidential speech in modern American history — Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, which famously warned against “the military-industrial complex” and “a scientific-technological elite.” Writes Douthat, “It was powerful precisely because Eisenhower was criticizing his own party’s perennial temptations, acknowledging some of his own policies’ potential downsides (he had just created NASA and Darpa) and drawing on moral authority forged by his own military career.”
That’s got it exactly wrong. Through the 1960s, the Republican Party’s perennial temptation was not war-making but its opposite. The party’s Whig progenitor opposed the Mexican War of the 1840s, and isolationism had its home in the GOP through the first half of the 20th century. In the just completed presidential campaign, JFK had been the hawk, attacking the Eisenhower Administration for allowing a (bogus) “missile gap” to develop between the U.S. and Soviet Russia and generally spending too little on defense.
Three days after Eisenhower’s farewell, Kennedy famously declared in his inaugural address,”Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Less famously, he went on to say, “We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”
Talk about making the case for the military-industrial complex! Contra Douthat, Eisenhower was not being self-critical in his farewell address but warning against the incoming Democrats.
Read Silk’s entire piece here.  I am not an Eisenhower scholar, but I always understood Eisenhower’s speech to be more dove than it was hawk.

E.J. Dionne Weighs In on the Obama Prayer Breakfast Speech

Thanks for all of your comments on my post about Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. I know that not all of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home agree with my take on the speech, but I do appreciate all the Facebook shares and retweets. We may have a revised version of the post out as an op-ed sometime next week. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post has weighed in on Obama’s Prayer Breakfast remarks.  Here is a taste:

…He (Obama) never suspected that he was in the midst of one of those hard tasks. Who knew that denouncing religious extremism and calling on people of all faiths to guard against “a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith” would prove to be so controversial? If a president dares to say anything critical about what Christians may have done at any point in history, he is destined to be attacked for engaging in “moral equivalence” and accused of downplaying present dangers.

Obama could not have been clearer in his condemnation of the Islamic State, “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yazidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”
Yet he also urged Christians not to “get on our high horse” and to “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
He added: “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” This last point, about a much more recent time, should be seared into our historical memories. Christian churches split over slavery and were deeply divided over segregation. It’s a fact that should make all Christians think very carefully about how we righteously use scripture to justify our current political commitments.
Obama’s observation was, at one level, entirely anodyne: that “we’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.” Can anyone argue with that? Religion has, indeed, inspired extraordinary acts of generosity and called forth powerful movements on behalf of justice and freedom. But monstrous crimes have also been justified through the invocation of faith and committed in its name.
As someone who is sympathetic to faith and to believers, I have always liked the observation of the historian Richard Wightman Fox: “Religion allows people to grapple with the human mysteries that neither science nor politics can address. But it also provides a force that science and politics can call on in their effort to understand and transform the social world.”
At the same time, most religious people agree with the theologian ­Reinhold Niebuhr that we should all share “a sense of contrition about the common human frailties.”
But I guess a president isn’t allowed to have complicated views about religion. Within hours of Obama’s speech, I heard him attacked by a few secularists who thought he soft-pedaled the theological roots of violence. But most of the assaults came from conservatives. One right-wing Web site concluded: “Obama basically equates ISIS with Christianity.” Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore called Obama’s comments “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.”
Good grief. Do Obama’s critics think that Christians reduce their credibility by acknowledging their imperfections? Is it disrespectful of Christ to admit that Christians regularly fall short of His teachings? That would make St. Augustine a heretic….

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.

Richard Kauffman at the National Prayer Breakfast

Richard Kauffman is the book review editor at The Christian Century and a friend of this blog. Kauffman recently attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. and reflected on his experience at the CC website. 

You may recall that we had something to say about Dr. Ben Carson’s speech during this event.  Kauffman did too, but he also focused on Barack Obama’s speech, delivered after Carson (indirectly) criticized the President on a number of fronts.  Here is a taste of Kauffman’s piece:

The President, regardless of party affiliation, is always expected to attend and give a speech. President Obama got the last word, speech-wise. His demeanor was noticeably low key. His lack of a spirited presentation reminded me somewhat of his disastrous first debate with Mitt Romney last fall in Denver. A friend I attended with said the president’s apparent lack of energy could just be an indication that he too is cynical about this event.
I found a couple aspects of Obama’s speech to be noteworthy. He acknowledged his own Christian faith, while respectfully pointing out that there are good Americans of other faiths and others of no faith. He may just be remembered as the first U.S. president to appreciate religious pluralism. And his speech ended with a call for humility in politics—what I would call the most underrated virtue in public life. “Those of us with the most power and influence need to be the most humble,” the president said.
At one point, Obama made what sounded like an off-the-cuff comment about how people come together for this occasion to pray, then go back to their offices and jobs and it’s business as usual. It came off as part lament, part rebuke. Other than the scriptures read near the outset, it was the most truthful thing I heard at the prayer breakfast.

This Week’s "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "Some Thoughts on Dr. Ben Carson’s Prayer Breakfast Speech"

Political conservatives are singing the praises of Dr. Ben Carson’s speech last week at the National Prayer Breakfast.  Carson, a Johns Hopkins University pediatric surgeon and an evangelical Christian, used the speech to attack political correctness and Obamacare.  Oh, and did I mention that the President of the United States was seated a few feet to his right during the entire speech?

Watch the speech here.

Over at his blog “Clear, Expert, and Entertaining Connections,” Regent College (Vancouver, BC–not Virginia Beach) theology professor John Stackhouse is not happy with Carson or his speech: 

Some of our American cousins are a-twitter (so to speak) over the speech given by surgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson at the National Prayer Breakfast before the President and 3000 other dignitaries. It will get whatever critique it deserves on its political merits from others, no doubt, and that’s the point of this brief theological musing: It was a political speech, not anything remotely resembling a theologically informed talk, let alone an actual sermon.

Yes, Carson began with four Scripture verses—to which he did not then refer throughout the rest of his 27-minute address. Yes, he mentioned God or Jesus a few times—much as President George W. Bush did, namely, as the source of his public policy ideas (notably the flat tax as directly deriving from the principle of the Old Testament tithe, a hermeneutical move no one who has passed an elementary course in Biblical interpretation would ever make), the rationale for his rhetorical choice to tell what he called “parables” (most speakers don’t feel obliged to invoke divine sanction for employing illustrations), and, indeed, his “role model.” Of course, we heard about “one nation under God.” And with that we got mostly the “gospel” of self-help.

I have to agree with Stackhouse…. 

Read the rest here.