Crusading on High Horses

February 09, 2015

As President Barack Obama took the podium at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, many conservatives appeared to be praying he would say something they could attack. This is the standard dance we've seen over the last several years. If Obama mentions God or faith, some conservative Christians quickly charge in to attack him as heretical. And if Obama doesn't mention God or faith, the same conservative Christians quickly charge in to attack him as heretical. He's literally in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

It should be no surprise, then, that Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast sparked controversy. It was predestined. No matter what he said, there would be some faux news story about it. As I warned in my book on religious rhetoric in presidential campaigns (that showed Obama talked about God much more than his Republican opponents), we hurt Christianity when we use as a partisan tool to attack others.

Sadly, the controversy this time places conservatives in the awkward and heretical position of defending violence in the name of God. While talking about the violence of ISIS, Obama correctly noted the group distorts the teachings of Islam and thus we shouldn't judge the religion as inherently violent or evil. To make this point clear, he noted past examples of Christians being violent.

"And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place," Obama stated, "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."

Cue outrage in three ... two ... boom!

Before the final "amen" for the event could even be uttered, criticism started. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, attacked Obama's remarks as “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.”

"The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians,” Moore added,

As a former seminary professor and child of the South, Moore should know his history better than that. The Crusades, Inquisition, slavery, and Jim Crow "were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity" but they were not "met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians" at the time those evil deeds were committed. In fact, there is likely a greater amount of Muslim opinion against ISIS's deeds than there were of southern Christians against slavery and Jim Crow.

Another Southern Baptist, former Arkansas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, even claimed on Fox News that Christians didn't really back Jim Crow or racism. The past isn't prologue, it's apparently an unread appendix. 

Other conservatives went so far as to suggest Obama was attacking Christian history to defend ISIS. They clearly weren't even listening. Obama denounced the violence of ISIS. He merely refused to denounce all of Islam. If ISIS can accurately be used to indict Islam, then Christianity is condemned by the Crusades, Inquisition, slavery, Jim Crow, and (sadly) more.

Obama's critics mainly focused on his reference to the Crusades since that was so long ago. It seems too ancient to be related. He really didn't need to go back that far. Jim Crow gets us much more recent and relevant. ISIS burned one man but white supremacists - often carrying crosses - burned thousands of blacks just decades ago. But Obama could've gone even closer to home.

It was politicians professing to be Christians who started the Iraq War - with leaders in Moore and Huckabee's denomination casting it as a holy war - and that immoral, preemptive strike helped lead to the rise of ISIS. It was a president professing to be a Christian who authorized illegal and immoral torture, which included a torturer dressing up like a priest to perform a mock baptism of a prisoner. And it is a president professing to be a Christian who uses drones to illegally kill children and U.S. citizens. But let us not condemn Christianity due to the violence of George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

Ultimately, the current debate has nothing to do with the Crusades. It's merely about trying to score political points against Obama. But in the midst of the partisanship, we are seeing poor history and poor theology by Obama's critics.

Former Virginia governor (and failed Republican presidential candidate) Jim Gilmore claimed, "He has offended every believing Christian in the United States."

Well, he didn't offend me. What offends me is the effort to politicize faith for partisan gain. And what offends me is the rhetoric downplaying violence committed by Christians.

The problem with the criticism of Obama is that we're downplaying past violence as merely an aberration. Moore and Huckabee inaccurately dismissed the examples as things most Christians denounced. If we fool ourselves into thinking that, we won't learn how to prevent future violence done in the name of Christ. How is it that most Southern Baptists thought the Bible justified slavery or taught that blacks were less valuable than whites? If we pretend it didn't happen, we won't learn from the sins of the past. We must face our faith's past with brutal honesty.