Hear No Evil, See No Evil | THE POLITICUS

Hear No Evil, See No Evil

Obama at 2015 Pray Breakfast

The firestorm President Obama provoked among religious conservatives who found his unifying speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5th to be "divisive," is just another example of the confounding  stalemate that's split the country over the past six years.

On one side is a perpetually earnest and community organizing President who, once again this month, tried to mend fences by recalling Christ's injunction that only those without sin have the right to cast the first stone.

On the other side is the always-offended right wing who were appalled  that Obama would seek to put a stop to their coming Holy War and were outraged Obama refused to blame "radical Islam" for recent ISIS atrocities while at the same time prevailing upon his largely Christian audience to acknowledge the darker chapters in their own religion's past.

With his prayer breakfast speech, the President hoped to bridge the widening gap between Christians and Muslims by declaring that neither side had a monopoly on morality, nor were either side's hands spotlessly clean when it came to those historic atrocities many would like us to forget.

In his speech, Obama did describe the ISIS Islamic State as "a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism."

But he also urged his fellow Christians not to "get on our high horse" or pretend the manifest evils ISIS has committed are "unique to some other place."  

Citing the Crusades and the Inquisition, Obama said "terrible deeds" were committed in "the name of Christ." That was also true of the United States, where slavery and Jim Crow-era injustices were justified in ways that took the Lord's name in vain.

And so, across the globe said Obama, "we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith -- their faith."

None of this is unique to one group or one religion, said Obama. There is a tendency in all of us to use our faith for narrow, selfish purposes.

When Obama extended the olive branch to urge a reconciliation between different faiths, Ed Kilgore says the President was speaking on behalf of millions of mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics "who do not subscribe to biblical inerrancy, spiritual exclusivity, or the sense that Christians are a besieged or even persecuted community marked by conservative cultural commitments that separate them from a wicked world."

And that is what conservatives who listened to the President's speech could not abide. These conservatives were furious when the President tried to remind them that Muslims were not alone in harboring "sinful tendencies that can pervert and distort our faith," said Kilgore.

There is no doubt that influential voices in the Christian community seek "to reinforce the idea of an irrepressible conflict between Christianity and Islam," says Kilgore. It was equally obvious the President's aim in delivering his prayer breakfast address was to offer a rebuttal to those conservatives now demanding that he "identify terrorism with Islam."

More broadly, Obama hoped to heal the bitter wounds of the escalating religious Holy War by reminding his audience that "the starting point of faith is doubt" and that from doubt comes the liberating -- and saving - grace of humility.

The President urged his Christian listeners not to be "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."

Yet, how typical. How like these religious fanatics to see Obama's obvious and earnest attempt at inter-faith bridge-building as being "divisive" instead.

The general tenor of the conservative commentary on Obama's remarks, said Kilgore, was that the President was being defiant or "provocative." One conservative critic even went so far as to accuse Obama of "verbal rape."

Fox News analyst and conservative blogger, Erick Erickson, said Obama gave a speech "reeking with contempt for faith in general and Christianity in particular."

Erickson insisted that suggesting different people are entitled to different versions of God and God's truth, as Obama did, "is worldly babbling, not Christianity" and marks the President as a blasphemer who "is not, in any meaningful way, a Christian."

Jim Gilmore said the President's comments "are the most offensive I've ever heard a President make in my lifetime."

Virginia's former Republican Governor said Obama "has offended every believing Christian in the United States" with remarks that, Gilmore thinks, expose the President as someone who "does not believe in America or the values we all share."

The drum beat goes on. Rush Limbaugh said Obama has insulted the "whole gamut of Christians."  Bill Donohue of the far right Catholic League said the President's remarks were "insulting" and "pernicious" and only intended to "deflect guilt from Muslim madmen."

But at the end of the day, "believing Christians" are far more indictable with their accusations the President "insulted" or "offended" their faith than is Obama with his history lessons and injunctions against throwing stones in glass houses.  

The truth sometimes hurts.  And so the only thing that really matters is whether the history the President recites, along with its long list of abominations done on behalf of the Christian God, is accurate and "true."

Yet, when rightt wing Christians malign the President for "offending" or "insulting" "Christianity," they are expressing that all too familiar groupthink we find among people who use the word "Christian" not as a shorthand for a particular set of ideas and ideals whose record we can measure in real time, but rather as a call sign to identify and unite members of a tribe for whom any criticism at all is taken as an unpardonable sign of disrespect.

It's this primitive clannishness that makes Christian fundamentalism more of a mindset than a religious belief, especially in its political applications.  

Christianists, as Andrew Sullivan calls political Christians, take the sense of doubt and humility Obama implored us to exhibit in our daily interactions with others, and forge it into an aggressive and self-righteous "rejection of civility and of mutual respect."

Their anti-social cruelties are justified "as an act of obedience to a God" whose revealed "will" -- through scripture, teaching or tradition -- "is so clear that only selfishness and rebellion could explain the persistence of doubt," says Kilgore.

This "aggressive and repressive self-righteousness," as Kilgore calls it, is why Christian fundamentalism has so often found itself mired in hypocrisy and "endless scandals of faith," often in tandem with efforts to define such culturally conservative causes as slavery, nationalism and patriarchy as being extensions of God's will.

In his prayer breakfast speech, the President borrowed heavily from the teachings of the great liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who once said the human mind was a weak instrument for dispensing morality and justice because it was so easily "enslaved and prostituted by human passions."

It's possible, said Niebuhr, for an individual to be moral because individual human beings are endowed by our Creator "with a measure of sympathy and consideration" for our own kind.

Provided we are able to purge "egoistic elements" from ourselves, we may even from time to time prefer the advantages of others to our own. And it is this instinctive empathy for others that makes us fit for society, says Niebuhr.

The problem begins once we're organized, says Niebuhr, for the natural compassion you find in "moral man" is "difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups."

That is because in every human group "there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals who compose the group reveal in their personal relationships."

It would not be strictly accurate to say conservatives "disagreed" with the President's prayer breakfast address. For in a very real sense they did not hear him at all. The President challenged each of us to step outside ourselves and to walk a mile in another person's shoes.  For some, that is an impossible ask.

The President had his history right. Barbaric atrocities, like those being perpetrated today by ISIS, have been committed in the past in Christ's name as well as Mohammed's. Acknowledging and accepting these inconvenient truths is the first step toward the cultivation within ourselves of a helpful and healing humility.

But to right wing Christians, Obama committed an unpardonable outrage and slur because all they heard was a President of dubious religious and even national origins insulting their tribe.

And for all their fine talk about individual freedom and free will, the only thing that matters to right wing conservatives is the solidarity of the group and their blind loyalty to it.