So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?It's not hard to find commentators calling out Our President for such a foolish statement. Let me recommend remarks by Victor Davis Hanson, who has probably forgotten more ancient and medieval history than the man who will not release his college records ever learned.
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. 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. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate that nation.
So this 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. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance.
The problem with all such high-horse declarations by Obama is his continual omission of historical context and, in this case, his conflation of the frequent with the rare. The Crusades began in 1095, almost a millennium ago; the Inquisition in 1478, now over 500 years past. When the president says “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” he should remember that all religions at the time committed terrible deeds that shock the modern sense of morality — given the savage wars between Christendom and Islam, and the religious purifications and civil discord common to all the religious factional strife that played out, violently, in accord with the ethos of the times.Precisely. No Moslem slave-traders, no African slave trade. And thanks to the efforts of Righteous Christians such as Henry Ward Beecher, with a little help from Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, and William Sherman, there are no cotton planters to buy the latest captives from Boko Haram.
Slavery was outlawed in the U.S. in 1865. Jim Crow ended officially a half-century ago. Indentured servitude, however, continues, almost exclusively among some Islamic groups in the Middle East and Africa. The caste system and ethnic and religious tribalism that institutionalized discrimination and second-class status, quite akin to Jim Crow, persist in places in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. I doubt today whether a Jew of any nationality would be allowed to immigrate and buy real estate in too many corners of the Islamic Middle East. Outside of the West, women and homosexuals are often treated no differently than in the Seventh Century.
In fact, Christian countries were the first to legally end the age-old human sin of the slave trade, and the first to outlaw slavery’s continuance. The president, is fond of historical sloppiness and moral equivalence (cf. the Cairo Speech). But what is the point of citing sins of 1,000, 500, 150, or 50 years ago, without acknowledging 1) that such pathologies still continue today outside the West, especially in the world of Islam, and 2) that Christianity had a unique role in ending these wrongs?
So the question for the president is, why does such medieval violence persist to a much greater degree among so many Islamic extremists in the present world than among most zealots of other religions? (This is an empirical statement. Cf., for instance, the nature of recent global terror attacks in resources such as the Global Terrorism Database). And why search the distant past for examples of moral equivalence, unless the present does not offer suitable data?
Likewise, thanks to the efforts of Righteous Christians, and more than a few people of all faiths, we go in forty years from the assassination of Reverend King to the election of Barack Obama.
The best Our President can do:
And, first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt -- not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.Not wrong. Also, not inspiring. And by the way: Charlie Hebdo, The Onion, Mad: knock it off.
Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth -- our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. 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. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.
And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion -- any religion -- for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom -- freedom of religion -- the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.
There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility. They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both.
But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment. And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults -- (applause) -- and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks. Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech. Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.