The Witness

What President Obama Did (and Did Not) Say at the National Prayer Breakfast

Jemar Tisby

barack-obama-national-prayer-breakfast-reuters-e1423162305725For evangelical Christians, who vigorously defend interpreting Bible verses in their context, there is a curious lack of contextual hearing when it comes to President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.

News and social media sites erupted in commentary based on a few remarks from President Obama. The most controversial comments are as follows:

“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.”

I’ve clustered the common objections to these remarks into six basic categories. This is not given as an exhaustive list, but it is representative of how a failure to understand the President’s remarks in context lead to preventible misconceptions. Before you go on, it is imperative to read the full transcript here.

Six Common Objections
1) The Crusades and the Inquisition happened hundreds of years ago. Why didn’t the President bring up a contemporary example?
He did. He talked about slavery and Jim Crow in the very same paragraph (see block quote above).

2) President Obama is historically inaccurate about the link between the Crusades and Christianity.
That the Crusades were religious wars is undeniable. “[Pope] Urban made Deus Vult [God wills it.] the battle-cry of the Crusades, and suggested that each warrior wear the sign of the cross upon his clothing.”  (Dowley, 277) [1]. While the Crusades were in part a response to the expansion of Islam by violent force, nearly 200 years of warring were not free of sinful motives and actions. Historian Justo Gonzalez puts it this way:

“Tragically romanticized by man, the Crusades have the distinction of being one of the most blatant of the many instances in which Christianity, ruled in part by its own zeal has contradicted is very essence—on this score, only the Inquisition can be compared with it.” (Gonzalez, 345).[2]

Gonzalez goes on to detail the events of the first Crusade wherein soldiers fought other Christians for their crops on the way to the Middle East and how Crusaders raped women, threw infants against the walls and set fire to a synagogue with many Jews trapped inside.

3) President Obama minimized the horror of ISIS by comparing its acts to those of the Crusades, the Inquisition, American slavery and Jim Crow.
The President condemned ISIS. He calls it a “brutal, vicious death cult.” And he mentions the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery and Jim Crow not to arouse compassion for terrorists, but to prevent us from condemning all Muslims for the actions of a murderous few. President Obama said, “So this [violence] 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.”

4) Islam is inherently violent and Christianity is not.
The point about Islam teaching violent war (jihad) as part of its core could be (and is) vigorously debated. The point about Christianity is vigorously debated (mostly by references to the Old Testament). But the President wasn’t making a point about the various theologies of different religions. He was making a point that Islam is not the only religion that has seen its adherents commit acts of violence and terror in the name of their faith.

5) Comparing ISIS and Cross Burning is a False Comparison
As with the previous point, many have debated the inherent violence of both Islam and Christianity. This, however, is not the President’s point in mentioning the two religions. He is not trying to say that the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, and Jim Crow were just as cruel as what ISIS has done, nor that all those involved shared the same motivations. His point, based on the context, is to demonstrate that religion, whether Islam or Christianity, can sometimes be “used as a weapon”.

6) Obama is a Muslim.
He is not. Note his several quotations from the Bible. These do not in themselves indicate that he is Christian, but to say he is Muslim, when he consistently calls himself a Christian, is simply erroneous.

A Real Issue: Religious Relativism
In explaining the above comments, I am not saying that I agree with President Obama on what he said or how he said it. I merely want us to have a discussion about what he actually said. Based on what he said, a real issue for Christians, if we must find one, should be his religious relativism. He made several statements to indicate not only that people have the right to practice a religion of their choosing but that all religions are equally valid.

Here are a few statements that could be interpreted as a subtle affirmation of religious relativity:

1. “I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt…that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.”
2. “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.”
3. Only one joking reference to Jesus Christ in the entire message: I suspect that more than once, Darrell [Waltrip] has had the same thought as many of us have in our own lives — Jesus, take the wheel.”

All Christians should have a certain “hermeneutical humility” to recognize that while Scripture is infallible, we are not. But this is different from what the President seems to be implying which is that all religions are equally truthful and valid. If that is what President Obama means then Jesus Himself opposes the President. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In this matter, President Obama could learn from the remarks of NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip. Listen to his testimony, especially at the 17:00 minute mark.

Giving President Obama the most charitable hearing possible, we can see that he tried stem the bigotry against a people group, in this case Muslims, by reminding his listeners that every major religion has terrorists who use faith to justify their murderous acts. One may disagree with the President, but at least disagree with what he said, not with a few sentences divorced from their context.

1. Dowley, Tim. ed. Introduction to the History of Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. 2002.
2. Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 2010.

6 thoughts on “What President Obama Did (and Did Not) Say at the National Prayer Breakfast

  1. FontsDownloadFree

    Parsing the President’s words is not constructive; talking about the matter is. Who cares what he actually said?

  2. Joseph Randall

    This is really helpful:

  3. John

    I think what the author is trying to do is prevent the usual political and cultural Punch and Judy show that is so prevalent these days. A prominent figure on one side makes a statement, it is parceled and packaged into sound bites and then the other side descends in ire. It sometimes feels like umbrage is the true currency of the land these days.

    We should probably try to take the president’s comments in context. He probably did not want to be there. His administration seems quite pleased at the current direction of American culture. A direction that puts religious freedom and absolute standards behind self determination. He may even have felt the whole event was antiquated and unnecessary. Another commenter here stated he wished the event would be canceled in the future. Mr. Obama probably wishes the same thing. His remarks where probably tailored to attempt to navigate some middle ground politically.

    If we are serious about God’s sovereignty. then we need to come to terms with the fact that the president may “be the leader we deserve, not the leader we need”. (Pardon my paraphrase of a quote from a popular movie). I think much of the frustration on this particular point arises from Mr. Obama’s reluctance to call ISIS what it is. It is an attempt to create a theocratic state. We as Christians might be slow and measured in our critique if a group tried to create a modern Christian theocratic state. However, once they started killing for their cause, we would then decry them and call for action to stop them. The president has been very limited in his response to this effort, both in words and actions.

    Moral and philosophical relativism always looks down on absolutism. From its own perspective, relativism says, “I am a finite being therefore I can’t judge right and wrong for other being, and by extension, they can’t do so for me”. Absolutism replies with, “your wrong”. There is even an undertone of this in the account of Paul on Mars Hill. The philosophers listened until he started about the resurrection from the dead (i.e. a recognition of righteousness) then they loudly disagreed.

  4. William F. Leonhart III

    I agree with the two commenters above. President Obama already has a bully pulpit, and he has used it repeatedly to attempt to bully Christians into thinking that we are the cause of terrorism around the world. It’s tiresome. He doesn’t need defenders. He just needs to stop. I wish someone would just discontinue the whole “National Prayer Breakfast” thing. President Obama may not be a Muslim, but he certainly is no Christian, and we don’t need his moral superiority shoved down our throats.

  5. Carlos

    As are all Presidents, Obama is ever the politician. I know that he is trying to stem the hate & bigotry that erupts from all of the acts of violence being committed by Muslims but he is either ignorant or willfully ignorant concerning what Muslims believe.

    I have lived in two Muslim countries and have spent an extensive amount of time researching Islam and I can tell you that it’s roots are violent in nature. There is a lot that the average American does not understand about the supposed “religion of peace”. I won’t go into detail about it but would suggest reading Robert Spencer’s books on the subject as well as James White. You can gain a lot of insight from those books.

  6. Eric Adams

    Would that our President was so eager to defend Christianity as he is to try to scold it. It was his timing that was inexcusable.

    It’s your defense of the President that nearly caused me to unsubscribe to your RSS feed. My first thought after considering posting a somewhat negative response to your post was to think “he’ll just think I’m a white racist bigot”.

    We are severely messed up in this country.

    I’m tired of having the Crusades thrown up in my face by folks who refuse to acknowledge Islam’s role in its very origins. I’m also viscerally repulsed to have my faith reprimanded and compared to the absolute atrocities being perpetrated by devoted followers of Muhammad. If you can’t discern the understated disdain of this President towards anything Christian-related, please at least stop defending the man.

    I don’t understand the point of this point, other than to defend this President…I am taking it on face value that I am misinterpreting your motives here. I am white,and I am conservative…perhaps I’m just not “getting it” here.

    I’m going to post a couple of links to articles that take a different view of this event. Please correct me if I’m wrong in my perception of what this post is trying to accomplish.

    Thank you for your time.

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