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Obama criticized for 'Crusades' remark: What did he really mean?

President Obama’s opponents took strong issue with his comments linking Christianity to some violent episodes in the religion’s past. But are they missing his essential point?

Evan Vucci/AP
President Barack Obama speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington Feb. 5. He condemned those who seek to use religion as a rationale for carrying out violence around the world, declaring that "no god condones terror."

Comments made by President Obama about Christianity’s role in “terrible deeds” throughout history cut deep throughout America’s church community, where many believe the US is involved in a broader religious war that pits the West’s Christian underpinnings against the East’s Islamic tenets.

The comments, made at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington Thursday, came after weeks of reporting about violent deeds committed by the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS), sparking a fierce debate about Obama’s motives and beliefs, and the extent to which Islam as a religion should be tied to violent extremism when it comes to US policy.

After calling ISIS a "vicious death cult," Obama switched gears, saying, "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,” Mr. Obama said. "In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

Obama's point seems to have been that Islam, like Christianity, isn't inherently violent and extremist. But the backlash highlights a commonly-held notion, held by many, that America is involved in a religious war where the enemy is fueled by the religion's founding documents.

Others thought the comments were insensitive in the light of a stream of news involving acts of terrible violence against innocent people by terrorists working toward a new Islamic caliphate.

“As sustained news about the terrorist organization continues to sweep through the news cycles, there has been an increased pressure from leaders stateside on the Obama administration to frame the conflict as a religious war against radical Islam, which the president thus far has resisted,” writes Tom Sherman, on Slate.

An academic intellectual, Obama has long been known for rejecting simplistic arguments engaging more complex realities. Whether he’s gotten that mix right will be reckoned by his legacy.

The most likely explanation for the comments, however, doesn’t suggest a deviation for a President popularly elected even after dismissing some Americans as “clinging” to their Bibles and guns. In essence, Obama, who some have called a trailblazing president when it comes to challenging religious orthodoxy, warned Americans to untangle today’s Islamic terrorists from Islam, the same way Christians today untangle the horrors of the Crusades, slavery, and lynchings from their faith. 

In Dissent magazine, Michael Walzer seems to identify Obama’s intellectual point, and concludes that it’s a modern philosophical assessment, not a jab at Christianity.

“If I say that Christianity in the 11th century was a crusading religion and that it was dangerous to Jews and Muslims, who were rightly fearful … would that make me an anti-Christian?” Mr. Walzer writes. Instead, “I know that crusading fervor isn’t essential to the Christian religion.”

Nevertheless, the comments became a flashpoint from news studios to church pews.

It stirred those Americans who have long believed Obama is not a Christian at all, but himself a Muslim. As a boy, Obama attended public schools in Jakarta, where he studied both Islam and Catholicism.

He has always identified himself as a Christian, but even there he’s been suspect by some. During his first presidential campaign, questions were raised by his attendance at a church spearheaded by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who had expressed anti-American grievances from the pulpit.

But beyond conspiracy theories, mainstream Christians took clear offense at Obama’s remarks.

"The president’s comments … at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) said. "He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”

More secular commentators also took umbrage at Obama’s characterization of religions’ role in history, seeing it as a bad case of moral relativism, especially given that Christianity has long been a force of good in the world.

“We are all descended from cavemen who broke the skulls of their enemies with rocks for fun or profit,” writes Jonah Goldberg, senior editor of the conservative National Review. “But that hardly mitigates the crimes of a man who does the same thing today. I see no problem judging the behavior of the Islamic State and its apologists from the vantage point of the West’s high horse, because we’ve earned the right to sit in that saddle.”

Not everyone agrees with that positive “high horse” analogy.

As did Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in The Atlantic that not too long ago millions of African Americans were enslaved (and thousands of blacks were lynched) in the US – often in the name of Christianity.

"If you are truly appalled by the brutality of ISIS,” Mr. Coates writes, “then a wise and essential step is understanding the lure of brutality, and recalling how easily your own society can be, and how often it has been, pulled over the brink."

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