Of Presidents and Prayer Breakfasts
When President Obama made this statement at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday (or, if we're being facetious, read it from his TelePrompTer) he hit a nerve.
He hit several of them, in fact, striking them in symphony like a master harpist plucks the strings of their instrument. He might have even done it on purpose, intentionally raising the ire of his most vocal and vehement critics and haters (two separate groups) so he could exult in the cacophony of critiques, protests, and belligerent rebuttals like an accomplished conductor basks in the harmonic melodies made by the instrumentalists that follow him so closely.
Particularly, the president seemed to compare certain historical episodes of Western Christianity with current atrocities perpetrated by ISIS and those like them. And in making this comparison he took the image of conservative evangelical's most hated enemy and pinned it on their suit lapel as they sat slurping their breakfast cereal.
Cold as ice that man.
The internet-dwelling evangelicals of the conservative ilk generally responded with indignation over the comparison, citing the chronological distance between the present and the events in question as evidence of the comparison's invalidity. Others saw it as a smokescreen using guilt from the past to distract from present problems and the administration's reluctance to address them. Even more seized upon Obama's invocation of the Crusades as an attempt to connect current aggression by certain Islamic groups with Western Christian aggression from Medieval times.
What was largely missed in the partisan, political hubbub that followed were the President’s actual words. In their rush to defend the validity of the Crusades as a necessary and just war few took notice of the fact that the President didn’t take sides for or against them but merely noted that much evil was done in them. Likewise he made no direct comparison between the Crusades of ol’ and the ISIS jihad of the here-and-now, (Scroll back up if you don’t believe me, I’ll wait) instead he noted the very real historical trend of evil men using religion as justification of their evil.
As the speech continues it does plunge head-first into the seemingly standard practice of gathering all the world religions together for a group hug and spontaneous selfie, but the section attacked most rabidly is the one in which the President dares to compare the sordid deeds of Christianity past with current violence by Islamic terrorists. Down deep, the President seemed to say, beneath our religious identities and social customs, there is a problem that all men share.
The problem of evil.
It haunts us all, from within and without. Brutal violence and unthinkable horrors assault our senses via every known medium and we cope with it by calling our enemies “savages,” “beasts,” or “extremists” in an attempt to emphasize the vast gulf that must exist between them and us. We are like them, but do not wish to be, so we distance ourselves through the power of demonization and heightened language. But deep down we know that depravity of man is a universal reality. And even as we empathize with the victims and cheer for those who fight and resist this great evil, we can neither ignore nor escape the reality that our enemies are not unearthly monsters, but fellow humans.
Perhaps this is why many evangelicals responded so poorly and so aggressively. Not because they actually feel the need to defend the Crusades or ignore their own religious history and not because the President did what many do and referred to Christianity as “one of many” instead of “one apart.” Maybe it was because he interfered with our ability to dehumanize our enemy and to see him as something other than (or less than) human. For the briefest of moments he held up what we thought was a portrait of our enemy only to discover it was a mirror and the savage that it showed was us.