There are numerous defenders of President Obama’s prayer breakfast appeal for Christians to not “get on our high horse” about criticizing Islamic violence and to recall the Crusades, Inquisition and American racial segregation. These defenders seem not to understand that most critics of the speech are not disputing wickedness by Christians but are concerned about the context, timing, and implications of such comments, especially in the present conflict with ISIS.
Some defenders have likened Obama’s speech to appeals by Abraham Lincoln and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr for national modesty, especially in time of war, without fully considering their different context, timing and tone.
According to historian John Fea of evangelical Messiah College, in a column for Religion News Service, “anyone who is angry with Obama’s speech must also express the same wrath toward one of the greatest presidential speeches in American history, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered 150 years ago next month.”
That speech, of course, suggested the Civil War was divine judgment upon a sinful nation, north and south, that was collectively responsible for slavery. “Let us judge not, that we be not judged,” Lincoln admonished of the north as it looked south, with “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”
“He wanted the people of the North to recall their past sins before they began to cast judgment on the South,” Fea concludes. “Obama, by reminding Americans about the Crusades and slavery in his Prayer Breakfast speech last week, was doing something similar.” He calls Obama’s controversial appeal “a great speech, a moving speech, a Christian speech, an American speech.”
Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne also was flummoxed by criticism of Obama’s comments, noting “most religious people agree with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that we should all share ‘a sense of contrition about the common human frailties.’ But I guess a president isn’t allowed to have complicated views about religion.”
A United Church of Christ pastor, in his own column, similarly commended Obama’s speech for situating “doubt and humility as the center piece of a worthy faith,” evidently like fellow liberal Protestant Niebuhr, whom the pastor quotes: “When the self mistakes its standards for God’s standards it is naturally inclined to attribute the essence of evil to non conformists.”
In the same vein, Peter Beinart tweeted that “Obama’s talk of a universal ‘sinful tendency’ that should keep us from self-righteousness is straight out of Niebuhr.” And Noah Millman at American Conservative discerned that “President Obama’s warnings about the danger of self-righteousness owe an obvious debt to Niebuhr, but they also trace back to President Lincoln’s warnings about Northern self-righteousness in the cause of anti-slavery.”
Yet the Lincoln/Obama comparisons forget that Lincoln’s call in his March 4, 1865 Second Inaugural for national spiritual mortification came just five weeks before Lee’s surrender. The war was virtually won, the south was prostrate, and Lincoln was looking toward national reconciliation, requiring forgiveness and modesty on both sides.
Lincoln, while he rallied the northern people to war, was not talking about avoiding any “high horse.” Instead, in his July 4, 1861 message to Congress, he contrasted the “treason” of Confederates with loyal Union men and described the impending conflict starkly:
This is essentially a People’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men. . . . to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.
And here is Lincoln’s muscular closing:
Having thus chosen our course, without guile, and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God, and go forward without fear, and with manly hearts.
As to Niebuhr, he was at a nearly similar point in WWII when even more bracing and unequivocal in his moral call to arms, as with his opening editorial in February 1941 for Christianity and Crisis, which he founded in challenge to pacifist and isolationist Protestants:
Our civilization was built by faith and prayers and by hard work. It was also built by fighting. . . . We are witnessing the first effective revolution against Christian civilization since the days of Constantine. . . . The choice before us is clear. Those who choose to exist like parasites on the liberties which others fight to secure for them will end by betraying the Christian ethic and civilization which has developed out of that ethic. If history has any meaning, if ethical considerations have any force, the Protestant clergy of America will in their capacity as citizens be the first to take the lead in informing the people of the nature of the Crisis and in persuading them to put the full resources of America at the disposal of the soldiers of freedom.
Niebuhr also pleaded in that same issue for fierce resolution by the morally imperfect:
Action against genuine evil must be resolute and it may have to be speedy. As Christians we realize that evil is mixed with our good, and good is mixed with the evil against which we contend. But this realization must be expressed, not by irresolution or inaction, but through the depth of understanding with which we act.
Besides timing and context, perhaps “depth of understanding” is the key distinction between Obama’s prayer breakfast speech and appeals by Lincoln and Niebuhr. The latter two, like Obama, abjured hubris, but were still explicit about the moral imperative of complete victory. Undoubtedly Obama wants to defeat ISIS, which he strongly denounced, but he is seemingly discomfited by confident rhetorical affirmations of what once was called “Christian civilization.” Such hesitance invites concerns about irresolution and overly abundant moral ambiguity.
Before next year’s National Prayer Breakfast, the President should read more of Lincoln’s and Niebuhr’s summons to robust defense of the right.
Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.