For evangelical Christians, who vigorously defend interpreting Bible verses in their context, there is a curious lack of contextual hearing when it comes to President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.
News and social media sites erupted in commentary based on a few remarks from President Obama. The most controversial comments are as follows:
“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.”
I’ve clustered the common objections to these remarks into six basic categories. This is not given as an exhaustive list, but it is representative of how a failure to understand the President’s remarks in context lead to preventible misconceptions. Before you go on, it is imperative to read the full transcript here.
Six Common Objections
1) The Crusades and the Inquisition happened hundreds of years ago. Why didn’t the President bring up a contemporary example?
He did. He talked about slavery and Jim Crow in the very same paragraph (see block quote above).
2) President Obama is historically inaccurate about the link between the Crusades and Christianity.
That the Crusades were religious wars is undeniable. “[Pope] Urban made Deus Vult [God wills it.] the battle-cry of the Crusades, and suggested that each warrior wear the sign of the cross upon his clothing.” (Dowley, 277) . While the Crusades were in part a response to the expansion of Islam by violent force, nearly 200 years of warring were not free of sinful motives and actions. Historian Justo Gonzalez puts it this way:
“Tragically romanticized by man, the Crusades have the distinction of being one of the most blatant of the many instances in which Christianity, ruled in part by its own zeal has contradicted is very essence—on this score, only the Inquisition can be compared with it.” (Gonzalez, 345).
Gonzalez goes on to detail the events of the first Crusade wherein soldiers fought other Christians for their crops on the way to the Middle East and how Crusaders raped women, threw infants against the walls and set fire to a synagogue with many Jews trapped inside.
3) President Obama minimized the horror of ISIS by comparing its acts to those of the Crusades, the Inquisition, American slavery and Jim Crow.
The President condemned ISIS. He calls it a “brutal, vicious death cult.” And he mentions the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery and Jim Crow not to arouse compassion for terrorists, but to prevent us from condemning all Muslims for the actions of a murderous few. President Obama said, “So this [violence] 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.”
4) Islam is inherently violent and Christianity is not.
The point about Islam teaching violent war (jihad) as part of its core could be (and is) vigorously debated. The point about Christianity is vigorously debated (mostly by references to the Old Testament). But the President wasn’t making a point about the various theologies of different religions. He was making a point that Islam is not the only religion that has seen its adherents commit acts of violence and terror in the name of their faith.
5) Comparing ISIS and Cross Burning is a False Comparison
As with the previous point, many have debated the inherent violence of both Islam and Christianity. This, however, is not the President’s point in mentioning the two religions. He is not trying to say that the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, and Jim Crow were just as cruel as what ISIS has done, nor that all those involved shared the same motivations. His point, based on the context, is to demonstrate that religion, whether Islam or Christianity, can sometimes be “used as a weapon”.
6) Obama is a Muslim.
He is not. Note his several quotations from the Bible. These do not in themselves indicate that he is Christian, but to say he is Muslim, when he consistently calls himself a Christian, is simply erroneous.
A Real Issue: Religious Relativism
In explaining the above comments, I am not saying that I agree with President Obama on what he said or how he said it. I merely want us to have a discussion about what he actually said. Based on what he said, a real issue for Christians, if we must find one, should be his religious relativism. He made several statements to indicate not only that people have the right to practice a religion of their choosing but that all religions are equally valid.
Here are a few statements that could be interpreted as a subtle affirmation of religious relativity:
1. “I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt…that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.”
2. “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.”
3. Only one joking reference to Jesus Christ in the entire message: I suspect that more than once, Darrell [Waltrip] has had the same thought as many of us have in our own lives — Jesus, take the wheel.”
All Christians should have a certain “hermeneutical humility” to recognize that while Scripture is infallible, we are not. But this is different from what the President seems to be implying which is that all religions are equally truthful and valid. If that is what President Obama means then Jesus Himself opposes the President. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In this matter, President Obama could learn from the remarks of NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip. Listen to his testimony, especially at the 17:00 minute mark.
Giving President Obama the most charitable hearing possible, we can see that he tried stem the bigotry against a people group, in this case Muslims, by reminding his listeners that every major religion has terrorists who use faith to justify their murderous acts. One may disagree with the President, but at least disagree with what he said, not with a few sentences divorced from their context.
1. Dowley, Tim. ed. Introduction to the History of Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. 2002.
2. Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 2010.