Such is the daggers-drawn state of political discourse in Washington these days that President Obama could go to the National Prayer Breakfast, call the Islamic State a “brutal, vicious death cult” — and still end up being assailed by conservatives.
Obama’s offense? He dared to note that Islam is not the only religion to have been perverted to justify violence and atrocity.
His remarks don’t need to be put into context to communicate their inoffensiveness, but I will, anyway, because the full quotation underscores that point:
“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, profess 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 Yazidis, 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.”
And then, the offending words: “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.”
By my count, 124 words about Islamic extremism, 52 about Christian parallels.
You might think of these references as, well, Christian humility — “let he who is without sin,” and all that.
You might think of them as historically accurate. (Please, readers, spare me the e-mails about the Crusades as defensive warfare or the Inquisition as a mechanism for preventing unjust executions. If you don’t acknowledge that these episodes involved atrocities committed under the banner of religion, there’s not much to discuss.)
You might think of them as presidential boilerplate. After all, Obama himself has made this point before — for example, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2009, noting that Islamic extremists “are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded.”
And not only Obama. Listen to Bill Clinton at the 1999 prayer breakfast: “People have claimed repeatedly that it was God’s will that they prevail in conflict. Christians have done it at least since the time of the Crusades. . . . No faith is blameless in saying that they have taken up arms against others of other faiths, other races because it was God’s will that they do so.”
Often I weary of Obama’s tendency toward self-pity. It was on display, in fact, at the prayer breakfast. After NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip recounted how critics had described him as “brash, ruthless, pushy, cocky, conceited, aloof, boastful, arrogant and just downright annoying,” Obama ad-libbed: “I was thinking, well, you’re a piker. I mean, if you really want a list, come talk to me.” Seriously, Mr. President, you signed up for this.
Still, the response to Obama’s prayer breakfast comments is wearying as well. His opponents constantly strain to find offense in the anodyne.
Thus, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore’s (R) over-the-top reaction to Obama’s remarks as “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.” Obama, Gilmore thundered, “has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”
But wait, that’s not all. More Gilmore: “This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” Okay, if you’re one of the hordes of 2016 presidential hopefuls, maybe you’ve got to ramp up the rhetoric to have your voice heard, but really, this goes too far.
Gilmore wasn’t alone. “Obama Insults Christians,” blared the Catholic League; its president, Bill Donohue, termed Obama’s comments “an attempt to deflect guilt from Muslim madmen.” Twitter erupted. Ditto Rush Limbaugh.
This reaction was as predictable as it was disheartening. Conservatives have ample grounds to assail Obama on his handling of the war on terror and his belated response to the rise of the Islamic State.
Instead, they seem inexorably drawn to overstate, to detect insult to Americans and animus toward the United States where none exists. This reaction says more about Obama’s critics, and their inability to accept his legitimacy, than it does about the president.