A few days ago, at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama asked people of all faiths to reflect on the perils of religious arrogance. He began with terrorists who “professed to stand up for Islam.” But he cautioned his fellow Christians:
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. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.
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.
This message of humility has infuriated the GOP. Several past and current Republican presidential candidates—Rick Santorum, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Jim Gilmore—have attacked the speech. So have dozens of conservative commentators. They reject the suggestion that Christianity has anything to apologize for. Many go further. They claim that Islam sanctions violence, that Islam is our enemy, or that Christianity is the only true faith. In issuing these declarations, Obama’s critics validate the propaganda of ISIS and al-Qaida. They’re not just pandering to the Christian right. They’re aiding the Islamic right.
Conservatives are correct that we’re in a global struggle over Islamic violence. But the struggle isn’t between Islam and Christianity. It’s between people who want religious war and people who don’t. Al-Qaida and ISIS can’t conquer the world with 19 hijackers or 20,000 fighters. They need the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. That’s why Osama Bin Laden always framed the conflict between al-Qaida and its targets as a war between Islam and “Crusaders.” It’s why George W. Bush always stressed that Islam wasn’t our adversary. And it’s why today’s conservatives, with their anti-Muslim rhetoric and their excuses for the Crusades, are doing the enemy’s work.
Here’s what conservative politicians, activists, and pundits have said about Obama’s speech:
1. The Crusades were justified. “All the Crusades met the criteria of just wars,” says a quote circulated by the Catholic League, conservative news sites, and Tea Party forums. Bill Donohue, the league’s president, asserts: “The Crusades were a defensive Christian reaction against Muslim madmen.” Giuliani, Jonah Goldberg, and Joe Scarborough agree. E.W. Jackson, the 2013 Republican nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia, defends the Crusades as “a response to Islamic aggression.” Erick Erickson, the editor-in-chief of RedState.com, says they were merely “a response to Islamic invasion.”
As for the awkward gap between the Muslim aggression and the so-called defensive reaction—about four centuries—today’s apologists plead that the Crusades were a “delayed response.” Donohue blames the whole thing on Muslims: “They’re the ones who created the war.” In fact, according to the apologists, the Crusaders were liberators. They were trying “to free the holy places of Christendom.”
2. The Inquisition wasn’t that bad. Donohue says the body count was only 1,394. Goldberg says there were different versions of the term “inquisition,” some milder or more enlightened than others. (You could say the same about “jihad”—but conservatives don’t.) Erickson says the Inquisition was “a Catholic thing,” so it shouldn’t be used to lecture “us Protestants.” (Not that this gets in the way of holding Shia responsible for Sunni crimes.) Donohue says the Inquisition was an abuse of religion by kings, and “the Catholic Church had almost nothing to do with it.”
3. Jim Crow is ancient history. The Fox News position on Obama’s remarks—that Christianity’s sins ended many centuries ago—has a bit of trouble with Christian defenses of slavery and segregation. No problem: Just backdate the falsifying evidence. According to Rush Limbaugh, “Jim Crow’s not around today. A thousand years ago, yeah. But not today.” Huckabee chides Obama for talking “as if it was Christians who were responsible for racism in America.”
4. Islam is the enemy. Donohue says, “We have a problem with Islam. OK? Not just with Islamists. We have a problem with Islamic people.” Limbaugh agrees: “Sharia law is the present-day threat to individual and civil liberties all over the world. Sharia is not a narrow cult. Sharia law is Islam.” Huckabee protests, “Everything [Obama] does is against what Christians stand for. And he’s against the Jews in Israel. The one group of people that can know they have his undying, unfailing support would be the Muslim community.” Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host, has a message for Obama: “Stop defending Islam. Start protecting Americans.” Jackson has the same message: “The American people would like for once to know that you’re willing to defend Christianity and defend America, instead of defending Islam.”
5. Islam commands violence. Muslims have long debated whether their scripture sanctions brutality. Bush, Obama, and most Muslims say it doesn’t. But today’s Republicans agree with ISIS that it does. “The Islamic State uses brutal violence that is not antithetical to Islam,” says Santorum. Giuliani goes further: “When we see Muslim atrocities today, there are words in the Quran … that support some of what they’re doing,” such as “beheading” and “killing in the name of the faith.” Franklin Graham, the president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, says “true followers of Mohammed emulate Mohammed,” who “killed many innocent people.”
6. Christianity is the only true faith. In his keynote speech at the prayer breakfast, NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip told the attendees that “if you don’t know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior” and “you’re just a pretty good guy or a pretty good gal, you’re going to go to hell.” Waltrip also speculated that God “was working for me” when the two drivers ahead of him collided during a race, allowing him to win. Not one of the politicians or pundits who denounced Obama’s remarks has objected to Waltrip’s. Terry Jeffrey, editor of the conservative news service CNSNews.com, accuses Obama of “telling us that Christianity and Islam are equivalent.” Glenn Beck says Obama’s mention of Christian sins shows the president is “practically a foreigner.” Erickson, the RedState editor, goes further:
Barack Obama is not, in any meaningful way, a Christian. … Christ said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6) … To have truth, we must have Christ. To suggest that everyone can have some version of God and some version of truth is worldly babbling, not Christianity. … So I wish the President would stop professing himself to be a Christian if he is not going to proclaim Christ as truth and the only way to salvation.
That’s pretty close to what Islamic extremists say about Islamic moderates. There’s only one true faith—ours—and anyone who says otherwise isn’t a real Muslim. In this respect, the debate within Christianity mirrors the debate within Islam. On one side are Bush, Obama, and the millions of Christians and Muslims who reject religious conflict. On the other side are Santorum, Giuliani, Fox News, ISIS, and al-Qaida.
Obama is right. At its best, religion is about humility. It starts with a faith in something greater than yourself. Part of that faith is understanding that you’re not great enough to understand who God is. All you know is that he isn’t you.
When you start to think that you know God’s mind, that he speaks only to you, that you alone are in possession of the truth, that’s when you become dangerous. And being a Christian won’t save you.