Obama’s Right/Wrong Statements About Religion and Violence at the National Prayer Breakfast

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, in her first byline this morning for the Washington Post, writes about President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast where he addressed issues of religious liberty, free speech, and the ways that religion can often be used by those engaging in violence to others. I saw most of the speech this morning and was especially grateful for the mention of American Pastor Saeed Abedini and his imprisonment for his faith in Iran. He spoke of meeting with Pastor Saeed’s family and of the letter that Pastor Saeed sent him from prison where he said he was proud of being a prisoner for Christ and that there is power in unified prayer. It was there that CNN cut the feed and went back to Carol Costello summarizing the prior part of the speech and moving on to other news. But, I digress.

One area of interest to me involved President Obama’s statements on religious violence and how God does not promote terrorism or violence against the weak in the name of religion. I agree with this, but there are qualifiers to it, as there should be. He brought up Muslim violence in Iraq and Syria at the hands of ISIS and the recent attacks in Paris against Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. He denounced this as a distortion of Islam. Then, he stated that it was not just Islam that had this problem. He then brought up the Crusades and Inquisitions in the Middle Ages, and more recently, slavery and Jim Crow in the American South. He said that these were examples of how Christianity was distorted by those who wanted to engage in violence.

“We have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, profess 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.”

President Obama was absolutely right in this. Religion is often distorted and subverted, as the French philosopher Jacques Ellul stated, by those wanting to use it for their own advancement. President Obama pointed so something dark and sinister that was within all of us that created this phenonenom and he said that it was not reflective of religion itself, which could be used for great good in the world. I really appreciated this statement and it is one that should receive great attention.

Bailey goes on to report that, “Obama also denounced the historic role of religion in slavery and Jim Crow laws in the U.S., noting that it is not unique to one place or faith to distort faith. ‘We are summoned to push back against those who would distort our religion for their nihilistic ends,’ Obama said.”

This is also quite true. Religion played a huge role in supporting slavery and Jim Crow in the American South. But, what Obama gets wrong is in the simplicity of his statements. He references that there is something wrong in us that would use religion this way (YES!) but then says that WE need to push back against those who would use religion wrongly for THEIR nihilistic ends. The problem is in US, but WE need to fight against THEM. Obama is not a theologian or a preacher, but he played one today on TV. He sought to explain to us why religion is used to support evil, but then fell short of hitting the mark.

When one uses a religion to promote evil against others – take American Slavery and the way Christianity was used to support it, for example – does the problem lie in the religion or in the people using it? That is a legitimate question. Not all religions are the same, despite what secularists want us to believe. If they were, then they would all be, well, the same. And, they are clearly not. There are strong differences between Christianity and Islam, for example. And, between Islam and Hinduism. And between Sikhism and Buddhism. I have traveled to the native lands where these religions emanate from, and I can tell you, there are HUGE differences between the teachings and the types of people that these religions produce – in their cultures, value systems, and worldviews. Anthropologists and theologians and representatives of these religions have told us this for years now. We should listen.

The way that I see it, we have three options when we consider the way that religion is used to promote or disavow violence:


1. What does the Religion itself actually say about the issue? For this, you must go back to ancient texts, earliest adherents, and practices over a LONG period of time. Religion should not be judged by a snapshot and by the actions of few. Absolutely right! Anyone can do anything in the name of religion. Only dishonest critics use the actions of the worst to paint an entire religion in a negative light. But, what are the actual teachings? What do the leaders of the religion say about their own faith? What do they promote or denounce?


2. What are the deeper motivations of those who use their Religion to support their actions? This gets to the “why?” and to the evil that exists in men’s hearts, as President Obama alluded to. You can’t understand the role of religion in American Slavery if you start with Christianity as the driver. It did not come first. Rather, you have to start with economics and privilege and landowners and political power. Religion was then used as a cover for the greed, or aggrandizement (as Ellul called it) of men. Christianity was employed as a chaplain to give sanction to the economic and social situation employed by those with power (whites) against those without (Africans). The result was a subversion of Christianity in the American South to the larger desires of those who wielded power. The masses went along with it because they also wanted to be accepted and have access to that society and then they began to read the Bible through the lens provided by those who benefited from the arrangement. Racism was a manifestation of the deeper issue, which involved people trying to promote and defend their own way of life – and they used religion to do so. This still happens, of course, and is part of what is driving the actions of ISIS in Syria-Iraq. It also happens in more subtle forms. I cover this history in detail and show how this subversion happens in many different ways in my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus (NewSouth, 2014).


3. Have the actions of those subverting religion to their own ends actually altered the religion into something different than it once was? This question must be asked and considered. You don’t go through 300 years of Southern Christianity supporting and defending slavery and racism toward those of African ancestry without Christianity becoming a different thing than it once was. Unless there is real repentance, you do not promote violence and oppression for that long without the religion itself changing. So, what has it changed into? How is it now different than it once was? Perhaps the process of repentance and coming to grips with WHY it allowed itself to be subverted by forces of violence, corruption, and greed can actually be healing and help restore it to its original purpose. But, that can only happen if there is a strong understanding of what the religion actually is – and was – in its original form and a desire to be reformed. Christianity has the ability to reform itself ethically and sacramentally because of the Person and Work of Jesus. Jesus stands as the revelation of God in the gospels that error beats itself against and eventually is shattered upon. While there has been much error and false practice in the church and by its adherents, the Person of Jesus Christ continues to stand firm and clear as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus is the center of all calls for reform in Christianity by both adherents and critics. Without Jesus there is no Christianity and, there is no ability for reform. We can only see the errors of those who used Christianity for their own benefit in the past because we see the sacrificial love of Jesus who gave His life as a ransom for many. We see the error in stark relief because the truth shines so brightly.


This leads us to ask how Islam is being changed by those who seek to use it for their own gain. Are they acting in line with or in opposition to the teachings of Muhammed and the Koran? Are they leading the masses of Muslim adherents toward their violence, or are they being rejected by the masses? We see rejection of ISIS and Islamic Fundamentalism growing in the Middle East and around the world. That is great. But, on what basis? On the basis of secular humanist values? On the basis of Western denunciations? On the basis of Arab Heads of State fearing for their own power and future? The truth is, that unless Islam reforms from within by pointing to a clear core teaching/figure that they can compare the violence of Islamic Fundamentalism to and then renounce it, then the attempts to push back those who would distort Islam for their “nihlistic ends,” as President Obama said today, will come up empty. Islam must eject this cancer from itself. It won’t listen to Western politicians and liberal atheists telling it what it is. It will just hunker down.

The reason that Southern Christianity accepted and promoted Racism, Slavery, and Jim Crow for 300 years is because it did not have a strong enough vision of Jesus and the Cross and what Christ did. It appealed to a Theology of Glory and believed that God wanted to bless His followers with material abundance and life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It saw God as a means to an end of personal success and focused on personal salvation and advancement over sacrificial love and the Cross. It got its anthropology wrong and did not understand that ALL were created in God’s image and that because of the Cross, ALL were equal in God’s sight. It interpreted the Bible not by the Cross of Christ, but by the world it saw and from what benefitted and promoted its own place of power in that world. It brought the errors of European Christendom to America and just morphed it into a social/political/cultural power instead of being sanctioned by the Church/State. It did all of this to serve a god of its own making instead of the God who gave His only Son to set captives free. The reformation of Southern Christianity from this error is ongoing, but it WILL happen as long as its adherents cling to the Cross and their Crucified Savior.

Unless peaceful Islam has its own reforming standard within, then the scourge of Islamic Fundamentalism will continue to proliferate. This is the part that Obama gets wrong. He thinks that all religions are equal and that they are all inherently able of reforming and bringing out the good. There is much good in Islam. But, what is the clear the reforming standard that says that violence is wrong and that people should put down their swords and live peacefully with others – even those who disagree with them and persecute them? I am asking sincerely. I have seen the scriptures in the Koran that promote peace and the mercy of Allah. That is a place to start. But, are those verses strong enough to reform and eject the growing scourge of violence being perpetuated by those who seek to use Islam for their own benefit? Will those people find a growing home in Islam and alter even the parts of it that promote peace and whose adherents get along with those different from them?

We cannot just say that all religions promote peace. We must look for their core teachings that promote one thing or another and then enter into a dialogue with the adherents of each religion and compare the force of those arguments upon those who claim to follow that religion. If you were in Alabama in 1850 or 1900 even, and said that Jesus denounced racism and slavery and wanted black and white people to be equal and it was okay if they were married to each other and they went to church together, there is a good chance that you might be strung up from a tree and covered in tar and feathers. Or shot in the head. Or had your house/business burned down. The organizing principle of Jesus and His Cross was not strong enough to gain a hearing. Southern Christianity was untouchable at that point by the witness of Christ. Or, for those who DID accept Christ’s teachings, it was not strong enough to reform society and reject those who used the name of Jesus for their own benefit and advancement. Southern Christianity did not promote racial peace for 300 years, even though its founder was the “Prince of Peace.”

So, what of Islam? Are we just entering a dark period where Islam is used as a cover against the cultural, social, economic, and martial advance of the West where the religion morphs into something that spews violence and violent people? Or, was it that way from the beginning? Is there something wrong with Islam or with those who seek to use it? Or, is Islam changing to promote violence agains the Infidel? Unless that central force/truth can be identified in Islam that will be strong enough to reform it from within – or, unless a Truth can reform it from without, Islam will not just automatically reject the forces of violence eating at its core. That is the part that President Obama gets wrong. And, President George W. Bush got it wrong before him, as did Presidents Clinton and Bush before him. The result has been the death of hundreds of thousands, the expended treasure of trillions of dollars, the invasion and occupation of nations, and the continuation of war without end.

You can not reform from outside those who do not want to be reformed. You only drive the nail deeper.

If President Obama wants to learn and teach a lesson from the legacy of slavery and racism in the American South and the role that religion played in it, that is the one that he should learn. It was only when Black Christian preachers began to stand up nonviolently led by their own use of Scripture and appeal to the teachings of Jesus, His call to love all men, and the deeper truths of the American experience rooted in Scripture such as “All men are created equal” that the hearts of Americans began to change. It was only in a country that was working off of the decidedly Christian ideal that all people have certain unalienable rights endowed by their Creator that the heresy of racism was confronted when Dr. King and others stood and declared, “I Am a Man.” Dr. King appealed to Scripture and Christian conscience in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. As Dr. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), “Jim Crow Was Drowned in a Baptistry” because African American Christians appealed to the Truth that White Christians believed and could read in their Bibles but were not practicing consistently. When White Christians listened, repented, and returned to the truths of their own faith involving how other human beings should be treated, reform was possible. It is still ongoing today.

Without that core reform impulse WITHIN Islam, the Islamic Extremists will only gain more and more traction. Secularists believe that they can can reform Islam by calling for Western ideals such as Democracy and Freedom to be adopted. But, they have been proven wrong with every election in the Middle East. They do not understand the religion that they are dealing with.

So, we should listen to the Muslim Theologians. Here are some questions:

What are they pointing TO as the antidote to Islamic Extremism?

How do they interpret their OWN scriptures when it comes to violence and extremism?

How do Sunni and Shiite interpret the Koran on these issues?

How does Saudi Wahhabism speak into this situation?

What is really being said in and through the Palestinian crisis?

How do Muslims see the land that Islam occupies and has once occupied?

How do Muslims see the issue of authority and human rights as understood by the West?

How does Islam really see non-Muslims?

Who speaks for Islam and what are they saying to their own followers and to their rival sects?

What do Western Muslim leaders have to say and how are they and their answers considered by Muslim leaders in other parts of the world?

I do not have the answers to these questions. I admit that I DO NOT KNOW. And, I am NOT saying that Islam necessarily promotes violence. For more than a BILLION Muslims who are peaceful, it clearly DOES NOT. But, if it does not actively and forcefully promote a strong ANTIDOTE to the violence from within, then perhaps those wanting to use Islam violently will have access to subvert more and more of the religion for their own gain – just like what happened in the American South in regard to Racism and Slavery. If we are not asking Muslim leaders these questions and are simply saying that all religions are the same and they are peaceful until they are hijacked by extremists, then how can we understand what is really happening? How can we understand where the solution is to come from?

President Obama is right in saying that religion can be wrongly used by those who appeal to violence to oppress others. And, he is right to reference the role of wrongly used Christianity in American slavery and Jim Crow. But, unless he seeks to understand HOW we got to that point and HOW we got out of it and then ask the same questions of Islam, then his assessment of the actual problem and prescription for the solution will be wrong. Muslim leaders themselves won’t even agree with it. And, we will continue to expend blood and treasure against a rock that we ourselves will be shattered upon.


One Response to Obama’s Right/Wrong Statements About Religion and Violence at the National Prayer Breakfast

  1. Helpful thoughts, Alan.
    For me, one aspect of this discussion that is important to keep in mind is that it is not the job of the President to make apologetic arguments in favor of one religious tradition or against another. Not only is it not his job; as chief of state of a nation that is founded on the principle of freedom of religion, and, by extension, a more or less even playing field for all religious traditions, it is something he must studiously avoid doing. He is not supposed to be the pastor-in-chief. And he is not supposed to be the religious apologist-in-chief either.
    As individual Christians and as the church collectively, on the other hand, this is something we are called to do. We must not only proclaim unashamedly the truth of the Christian gospel, but also boldly expose the lies underlying all false religious alternatives, such as Islam, whether in its more radical and violent iterations or its more moderate and peaceful ones. We must also remain vigilant, as you well point out, to recognize and expose the false distortions of the gospel that from time to time creep into our own tradition as Christians.
    What the President is expected to do is to defend the values laid out in the US Constitution, including the rights to life and liberty for those of all religious traditions. It gets a little complicated, however, when the values supporting the efforts of those attempting to violate these rights around the world are propped up by religious and ideological propositions, such as in the case of ISIS. In such a case, the need to expose inherently violent values may trump the need to remain absolutely neutral with regard to the panoply of religious traditions out there.
    I see the President doing his best to appropriately straddle this divide. Does he always do this flawlessly? Certainly not. But, to me, his speech at the Prayer Breakfast was not, at the core, wrong-headed in this regard.
    Also, I believe it is in the strategic interest of the United States in its foreign policy to not alienate and unnecessarily diffuse the goodwill of moderate, peaceful Muslims wherever it may exist, since as you well point out, they shoulder a big part of the responsibility to call out and bring their more radical brethren in line with their way of thinking, and the ongoing security of the world appears to hinge, to some degree, on their ability to do so. This, it seems to me, is a big part of what the President was attempting to do in his speech.