Faith-fueled forces of hatred: Obama's religion speech was troubling -- but not for the reasons the right alleges

It's not that religion gets twisted and misused for evil. The cruelty is embedded in the very texts

Published February 15, 2015 3:30PM (EST)

Barack Obama, speaking in front of the San Pedro Claver church in Cartagena, Colombia, April 15, 2012.          (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Photo montage by Salon)
Barack Obama, speaking in front of the San Pedro Claver church in Cartagena, Colombia, April 15, 2012. (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Photo montage by Salon)

Every February at the Washington Hilton we witness a seemingly innocuous yet in fact troubling event that furthers hidebound traditions poisonous to our politics and inimical to our progress: the Congressionally hosted National Prayer Breakfast. Since 1953, presidents and other politicians (both domestic and foreign) have attended it, along with our nation’s “faith leaders,” among them the bloated, insufferably self-satisfied preacher of Neanderthalic mores, the late Jerry Falwell, and the aging (not fast enough) ultra-reactionary evangelical media potentate Pat Robertson.

After the keynote speaker leaves the podium, the president, as a rule, delivers an address – usually pious pablum hardly worth listening to. This year was different: President Obama’s words stirred Republicans to ire: They contended that he, in an excursus apparently of his own composition, drew a false equivalency between the atrocities committed by ISIS and the outrages perpetrated in Christianity’s name, starting with the Crusades and running all the way up to slavery and Jim Crow in the United States.

I’ll discuss what upset the Republicans in a moment. Progressives, it turns out, actually have more reason for rancor. Start with Obama’s attendance itself. No functionary, least of all the Democratic president of a country with a government proudly founded on the separation between Church and State, should show up at such an affair in an official capacity. Doing so lends credence to faiths that, by any humane standard, long ago discredited themselves and should certainly not be legitimized with Washingtonian pomp and reverence.

Worse, the Prayer Breakfast’s past keynote speakers have included a roster of obscurantist scoundrels, among them Mother Teresa (once denounced by Christopher Hitchens as a “thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf” for the multifarious, entirely non-beatific controversies bespattering her long career); the evolution-denying, gay-marriage naysayer Dr. Ben Carson, who may seek the Republican nomination for 2016; and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the sanctimonious “poodle” enabler of Bush’s Iraq War. Actually, not all breakfasters are scoundrels: the Dalai Lama was there this time, and even Jordan’s King Abdullah has visited, thus reminding us that the plague of religion in American public life can be exotic and multi-confessionary.

What, some might ask, could be wrong with prayer? By common definition, prayer entails someone sitting for a quiet moment and beseeching his or her Lord for intervention in matters of grave import – that it rain on the crops or souls be saved, that gays be “healed” or atheists “see the light,” and so on. In objective terms, however, the supplicant is demanding improbable favors from an imaginary despot, and most likely doing so with lowered head and genuflections and other toadying gestures of obeisance -- behavior that without faith’s halo would be classified as symptoms of mental derangement. (And all the more so if the petitioner claims to receive answers to the muttered incantations.) This debasing ritual, fruitless and foolish though it may be, is at least usually peaceful, but in some cases (notably in certain corners of the Middle East), rioting and rampaging follow, especially on Friday afternoons, when imams may deliver sermons exciting crowds to fury and frenzy. What’s not to like?

So, Obama spoke at the Prayer Breakfast, which was bad enough, but what’s worse, not after some visiting head of state or other luminary, but a NASCAR driver, Darrell Waltrip. Subsequent to salutations offering “all praise and honor to God,” Obama paid homage to this driver, wondering if “Darrell has had the same thought as many of us have in our own lives -- Jesus, take the wheel. . . . Although I hope that you kept your hands on the wheel when you were thinking that.” (Was this tacit recognition of religion’s inutility?) He voiced gratitude that the assembled could “come together in humility before the Almighty and to be reminded of what it is that we share as children of God.” He confessed that he had “sought His guidance not just in my own life but in the life of our nation.”

Soon after, Obama launched into what so riled conservatives -- musings about faith being, as he put it, “twisted and misused in the name of evil.” His words deserve close scrutiny. I’ll quote at length:

From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism -- terrorizing religious minorities like the Yazidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.

“Betraying” Islam? Really? The Charlie Hebdo assassins were executing the death penalty against “violators” of injunctions inscribed in the Quran and the Hadith that forbid the depiction and mocking of the Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, Al Qaeda and ISIS, to which the killers may have been linked, find sanction in these texts for beheadings, the enslavement of women and much else. To justifiably claim that any of these jihadis are “betraying” Islam, we have to ignore the meaning of words in such injunctions and interpret them to suit our tastes. Unfortunately, neither the Charlie Hebdo assassins nor the butchers of ISIS choose to do this.

Obama continued:

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

The chief impetus for all this bloodshed and mayhem is, obviously, religion – the commonality Obama conveniently skirted. Had religion not existed, had it waned by our time, all this violence would just not have happened. If some of these people would have found other reasons to fight, the religious aspect of the conflicts renders them intractable, even insoluble.

Conservatives were vexed by what Obama said next: “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. . . . So this is not unique to one group or one religion.”

Straightaway, remember that both the Old Testament and the New sanction and even sanctify slavery, as well as proffer helpful advice to slave masters. The Catholic Church embarked on the Holy Inquisition not to do inexplicable violence “in the name of Christ,” but to rid its “flock” of unclean “sheep” – most notably “secret Muslims” and Jews, heretics and witches. Skull crushers and the auto-da-fé, breast rippers and thumbscrews (and much, much more, including Spanish Donkeys and Judas Cradles) all formed part of the godly torturers’ ghastly repertoire, which aimed to prompt innocents to “confess” their “crimes.” Which without religion would not have been crimes at all.

Obama went on to blame all this on “a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.” But slaughter and mutilation occur as natural, almost inevitable phenomena among those believers – and they have been no trifling minority – who take literally their canon’s commands to conduct themselves savagely. After all, if, as a wannabe martyr, you think you’re carrying out the demands of “the Almighty,” with everlasting hellfire or the threescore and twelve virgins of paradise as the stakes, what will you not do?

We should not ascribe vile behavior to misreadings of the canon. It does not help us to suppose that its all-too-human authors penned words like “behead” and “enslave” expecting that they would be metaphorically interpreted. (You can perhaps imagine the absurdity of one of the benighted scribes, resurrected before a Religion 101 class, declaring, “By ‘smite off the infidels’ heads’ I really meant ‘give the unbelievers a stiff talking-to.’”)  After all, they were writing in barbarous ages. The inevitable conclusion: Most folk of the faiths in question behave decently only to the extent that they “pervert and distort” – that is, ignore – the more macabre dictates of their sacred credos.

Obama then offered what he called “a few principles that can guide us” through the dark and tangled woods into which religion has lured us. He proposed “basic humility” and even, ridiculously, “doubt” as the “starting point of faith” – nonstarters, in fact, given that both clash with the arrogant absolutism imbuing the three Abrahamic religions (especially Islam and Christianity). He warned us to resist those who “distort our religion for their own nihilistic ends,” when in fact Christianity (most famously, in the Book of Revelation) and Islam glorify and exult in Judgment Day – the culmination of an eschatology that is nothing less than nihilism sub specie aeternitatis.

Obama might have stopped there. Instead, after some bland excogitations on rights to freedom of speech and religion, he declared:

“. . . 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 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."

Here Obama obliquely incriminates the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for the satire of the Prophet Muhammad that led to their deaths. This is outrageous. It is not up to the president or any other government official to pronounce on the artists’ motives. In drawing their images, they were not so much acting “in the name of free speech” as exercising their lawful right to free speech. This in no way constitutes an “attack” on anyone. Obama’s use of the word implies that they deserved what they got. Such clever verbiage really signals one thing: capitulation. Easier to pay false homage to the ideals of multiculturalism than to state the politically inconvenient truth: Islamists murdered cartoonists for their cartoons.

And neither President Obama nor anyone else in the government should dare tell us that we are “obligated to use our free speech” to denounce anyone for insulting religion. The First Amendment contains no proviso regarding insults, let alone excluding them from its protection; that would eviscerate the very right the amendment proclaims. To be free, speech must be free to offend. Even less are we required to show solidarity with “religious communities” of any stripe, no matter what the issue. Rather, we should stand for rationalism and the values of the Enlightenment, not bolster pernicious, backward-looking belief systems out of misbegotten notions of “tolerance.”

Should we, as Obama exhorts us to, stand “shoulder-to-shoulder . . . with religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks?” I read this as a wholesale misinterpretation of what Charlie Hebdo’s courageous artists were doing: “targeting,” only with their crayons, not Muslims as people, but the tenets of Islam with which they disagreed and found worthy of satire. Hallowed ideologies, which is all religions are, do not deserve respect. People do.

Issuing from the president of the United States, such words are offenses against secularism, and de facto support to those who would restrict speech on grounds of faith. (Obama’s stance does not really come as a surprise. In 2012, he declared before the United Nations that “The Future Must Not Belong to Those Who Slander the Prophet of Islam.”)

I kept thinking, “he’s got to stop.” But he went further, summarizing the message uttered by Pope Francis (he who recently warned us all not to insult religion), and urging us to:

“seek to be instruments of peace . . . bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred. . . . As children of God, let’s work to end injustice -- injustice of poverty and hunger. . . . let’s stand up for the dignity and value of every woman, and man, and child.”

There resides a sad irony in these words. The best first step toward a future of light and love would be for rationalists to freely espouse their nonbelief and object to locutions that further irrationality. We might start, for example, by stating that we are not “children of God” but of the fact of evolution. (Ask any biologist if evolution is “just a theory.”) Poverty and hunger have generally been the concomitants of the God creeds that have done so much to retard human progress. Realizing the “dignity and value of every woman, and man, and child” is impossible while cringing, cowering and murmuring superstitious gobbledygook in the hope that an invisible -- let’s just say forthrightly, inexistent -- being will take pity on us and toss us a scrap.

President Obama, your faith is your business. You have every right to practice it, talk of it and advocate it. But please understand: Speaking as you did at the National Prayer Breakfast, with the eyes of the country and the world upon you, does nothing more than lend credence to faith-fueled forces of reaction, both at home and abroad. With ISIS on the rampage in Iraq and Syria, Islamist violence striking the heart of Europe, and, of course, evangelicals funding much of your political opposition in the United States, the secular, Enlightenment-era civilization from which we all, believers and nonbelievers, benefit, is under threat.

We’re on a slippery slope. To get off it, we can start by doing one thing: telling the truth.


By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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