Speaking in general, Mr. Obama began by condemning zealots who hijack religion “for their own murderous ends.” He cited the recent massacre at a Pakistani school carried out by the Taliban, the assault on Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris perpetrated by radical Islamists, and the terrible murders carried out by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS or ISIS).
He widened his lens a bit, talking about the killings of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria and religious war in the Central African Republic.
Then the president said this: “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. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."
This did not go down well with right-leaning pundits. They noted that Obama had not actually said “Taliban” when he mentioned the school attack or “radical Islam” in the Charlie Hebdo reference.
“ISIS chops off heads, incinerates hostages, kills gays, enslaves girls. Obama: Blame the Crusades,” tweeted Michelle Malkin, conservative talker and author.
Right-side radio host Rush Limbaugh made the Christianity reference the subject of one of his segments on Thursday’s show.
“Why would you attempt to downplay Islamist extremism?” Mr. Limbaugh said. “Why would you attempt to put in perspective the actions taken today by Al Qaeda and ISIS and Boko Haram and the Khorasan Group and all of the rest of them by claiming that just as many atrocities have taken place in the name of Christ?”
So what was Obama thinking when he mentioned Christianity in this way?
First, it’s possible he was just trolling, knowing that Limbaugh et al. are always looking for ways to stimulate anger in their audience. But it’s more likely that he was taking the ecumenical setting of the prayer breakfast to try to reiterate something that’s been a US talking point since the Bush administration: America is not at war with Islam. It is fighting individuals who use distorted versions of faith as a weapon.
That’s the context of the remark. He leads into it by talking about the way religion can be misused.
“Part of what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we’ve seen the professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil,” the president said.
Then he tries to make clear that it is people who are doing the twisting and misusing here. It is not inherent in religion itself. And he tries to link this thought to Islam in particular.
“We have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but in fact are betraying it,” he said.
Obama then muses on how people of faith can reconcile these matters, the good of religion and the evil of those who misuse it. That’s when the Christianity reference comes in, as a kind of aside to try to establish that it’s not just Muslims who have this problem.
Conservatives have several issues with this line of reasoning. Some – certainly not all – on the right think the premise is wrong. They believe the United States is indeed at war with Islam as a whole, or at least a broad strain of Islam, and the sooner we recognize this, the better.
Here’s Limbaugh from Thursday’s show: “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.”
Others agree that we’re not at war with a religion itself, but just think Obama expressed himself poorly and made an inapt comparison.
The president specifically noted that the violent acts of Islam are carried out by “twisted” individuals. But his reference to Christianity, the Crusades, and Jim Crow was less about individuals and more about the religion as a whole, writes Noah Rothman at the right-leaning Hot Air.
“The president, and many of his allies on the left, frequently trip over themselves to emphasize – correctly, as it happens – that ISIS’s acts of brutality are not archetypical Islamic behavior.... But to assert this and in the same breath suggest that Christianity was also a violent, expansionist religion a mere 800 years ago is a contradiction. Why make this comparison if ISIS is not representative of Islam?” Mr. Rothman writes.
So there you have it. The president’s full remarks are worth reading if you want to make up your own mind. It’s possible he knew they would blow some of his opponents' stacks; it’s possible he’s surprised by the controversy. But controversy there is, manufactured or genuine.
As Washington Examiner political correspondent Rebecca Berg tweeted Thursday: “Today in hyperbole: Former VA Gov Jim Gilmore calls Obama’s Prayer Breakfast remarks ‘the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make.’ ”