President Obama’s words at the National Prayer Breakfast have become yet another controversy in the long list of his remarks that have provoked attacks and defenses. The first thing to notice before his provocative “high horse” warning is the characterization of the killings in recent weeks as cases of “faith being twisted and distorted,” with ISIL a “death cult” mounted “in the name of religion.”
But those terms “faith” and “religion” don’t quite work. They are abstractions. The killers didn’t proclaim, “We do this in the name of religion” or “We kill in the cause of faith.” They are concrete and specific in their beliefs.
But it is precisely that generalization that allows the President to extend the criticism to Christianity.
The other point to make is historical. While I have no expertise on the Crusades and the Inquisition, I do know something of Jim Crow, having devoted two years in archives and written a book about an event that took place at the center of a Jim Crow time and place. To say, as the President did, that “Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ” is, at best, a misleading statement.
Yes, some ministers preached the natural state of white supremacy in Georgia and justified it on Biblical grounds. Other ministers spoke of white supremacy, but more as a historical condition, urging white support for black populations until equality had been reached.
The whole debate, however, was tangential to Jim Crow laws and practices, which were articulated almost entirely in social, economic, scientific, and legal terms, not religious terms. To say that Jim Crow was justified in the name of Christ, and that we shouldn’t get on our religious high horse about ISIL is no different than saying Jim Crow was justified in the name of biology and so we shouldn’t get on any scientific high horse about ISIL.
No doubt, this correction strikes supporters of the president as quibbling. But historical statements coming from the U.S. president, at any time, have to pass a high bar of judgment. It is crucial that the president speak carefully about the past, and that his assertions demonstrate sound knowledge.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.