President Obama’s comments against extremism in religion at Washington’s annual Prayer Breakfast in February stirred up a hornet’s nest of the usual suspects from the right-wing hate machine. The President’s follow-up analysis later in the month at the three day conference on extremism at the White House provided a refutation of the complainers that was magisterial. Here’s why.
President Obama’s initial observation that religion has been used as an excuse for terror contained examples not only from Islam but also from Christian history: the Crusades, the Inquisition and slavery with Jim Crow in America. The complainers’ vitriol, it seems, was directed not against the undeniable truth that “religion has been used an excuse for terror,” but against the comparisons of Islam and Christianity. The complaints fall into three categories.
The first set of objections are from simpletons. For instance, the Fox and Friends morning trio said that when Obama made these comparisons, he excused ISIS’s terror, supposedly because Christians had started terror centuries ago. For those who understand the English language, rather than excuse both types, the President had condemned both types. Clearly, the simpleton approach gets things backwards and then blames Obama for doing what he didn’t do. Nastier was the condemnation from Mike Huckabee who equated Obama’s example of Christianity’s failures with hatred of Christians. This delusionary conclusion from a presidential wanna-be asserts the contrary to fact supposition that the Christian religion is unaffected by the real world. For Huckabee’s acolytes, Christianity drops from heaven hermetically sealed in a sort of metaphysical plastic bag, one that miraculously exempts this religion from cause-and-effect. The simpleton attitude is prevalent in this crowd’s fundamentalist rejection of science in matters like climate change and evolution. Reprehensibly, the simpletons do not complain when ISIL kills tens of thousands of Muslims: condemnation is summoned only when the victims are Christians or Westerners. Apparently, the God worshiped by the simpletons plays favorites.
The second set of objections were more nuanced: I would call them “historicist.” Jon Meacham, a reputable scholar, suggested that while IN THE PAST Christianity had such defects, today’s Christian faith has “evolved” beyond such mistakes. Historicists correctly point out that religion stirred the abolitionists as well as the slave owners at the time of the US Civil War. Although these historical perspectives are welcome, the problem lies with a sometimes implicit cynicism that Islam lacks similar evolutionary development.
The historicists also argue that evolutionary development produces “good Christian theology” and an inferior brand. Enter Ross Douthat, conservative voice of the New York Times, who calls Obama “Niebuhrian,” a fancy term employed to suggest 1) that Douthat is smarter than his readers and 2) that the President sets up “straw men” (like the Crusaders) to justify his anti-American and self-serving conceits. These historicists’ arguments about religion are more nuanced than those of the simpletons, but they continue to smuggle in the bias that “our” Christian religion can never lapse backwards into hate and distortions. Given the rise of the apocalyptic hatred of modernity from today’s political right-wing, this premise surely underestimates the capacity for political extremism to stalk us zombie-like from the graveyard.
I call the third category, “picayune elitist.” Bill Donohue of the Catholic League argues that the Crusades were “defensive wars.” Violent warfare for Christians against Islam is “holy,” he proclaims, because it constituted justifiable redress of Muslim aggressions. In this same category are the quibblers about the precise meaning of “radical Islam” and “Islamic jihadists,” such as the polysyllabic George Will and the acerbic Charles Krauthammer. These two are mercenary “intellectuals” for the network that is never fair nor balanced. They make their millions by appearing on the TV screen with platitudinous pronouncements which treat government policy as a Scrabble game won by whomever puts the most letters in a word. I think their endless dictionary referencing often grinds down to trivializing prattle; and I am certain that at no time do their pretensions rise to the intellectual probity of our President Obama.
The issue of religion and extremism is complex in genesis, but easy in definition. To bestow the mantle of “Islamic” on ISIS and Al-Qaeda, President Obama said, is to bestow on them a religious legitimacy. Nothing could be more to their advantage that to have the United States proclaim with Bill O’Reilly that it is (once again) engaged in a “holy war” against Islam. “No!” said the President. ISIL is made up of thugs and criminals: they are disqualified from a mission as messengers of divine election. All of this is too complex for the picayune elitists, who are paid handsomely to play word games and who strive to sound important as they whine on against our first Black president.
On the report card from this retired professor, President Obama has refuted the simpletons, the cynical historicists and the picayune elitists. He gets an A+: they flunk. But allow me a footnote. The point of comparison with ISIL should fall on the Crusader Kingdoms. These were artificial states erected during a 91 year occupation of the Holy Land. Although the population was overwhelmingly Muslim, rule was exclusively in the hands of invaders from France. Lacking legitimate claim over the people, these Crusaders maltreated their subjects by violence and slaughter. ISIL has being doing this for about a year: the Crusaders did it for nearly a century.
Similarly, repudiation of the Inquisition is misplaced by emphasis on its torture to secure “confessions.” Ironically, many of those who defend torture committed by the CIA suddenly find a double standard to attack ISIL for doing the same thing. The Inquisition only arrested baptized Catholics, I note, but they did so on the premise that once baptized, Jews and Muslims should be prevented from returning to their original religions. Ironically, this is exactly what ISIL professes with its extreme brand of Salafism that is heresy to most Muslims.
Alas, once the Obama-haters run of excuses to hide behind silly arguments, they resort to name-calling and paranoid denunciations. How else explain the jaded phenomenon named “Rudolph Giuliani?” Instead of recognizing the superior intellect of President Obama -- or at least admitting his grasp of complex history is superior, the ex-mayor has taken refuge in dark side of racist rants. He has claimed that Obama doesn’t love America the way “you and I” love America. More sinister, says the mayor who admires Vladmir Putin, is that Obama is “possibly anti-colonialist.” Yes, Rudy, and so were George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. So, whose side are YOU on?