Debate Forum: 02/17

Forum Center: Offensive or comprehensive?

By Sarah Sidlow

President Obama made waves last week with his comments about the ability of religious faith to inspire not only acts of good, but acts of evil. During his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama urged his fellow Christians, who make up a majority of the United States, to think twice before castigating Islam at large as the fuel behind recent atrocities carried out by ISIL.

Obama cited the January shooting at the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris and fighting in the Central African Republic among his examples of religious passion being twisted into murderous acts. But he also invoked examples stemming back as far as the 16th century when, he claims, zealous Christianity was at the heart of tragedy.

“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” he said. “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.”

Critics of Obama leapt at the statement, calling it “offensive” and “wrongheaded.”

“The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said former Republican Virginia governor Jim Gilmore. “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.”

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called Obama’s comments about Christianity “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.”

Critics claim Obama’s comparison may downplay or temper the atrocities carried out by modern-day Islamic extremists. Critics also say that Obama is chastising the wrong people.

“The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians,” Moore said.

But those who defend President Obama’s statement claim the critics are missing the point: just as the Ku Klux Klan does not represent all Christians, ISIL does not represent all Muslims.

They say Obama’s remarks were historically accurate – that, for example, the suppression of African Americans in the Confederacy was done so in large part because of the belief that the race was inferior, a result of the “curse against Canaan” and the “will of the Creator.”

And, they say reactions like this by the political and religious right are exactly what make it difficult for the president, or any leader, to hold frank and honest conversations about sensitive issues like race and faith.

Reach DCP Editor Sarah Sidlow at Editor@DaytonCityPaper.com

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Did President Obama commit a “wrongheaded moral comparison” by comparing historic examples of Christian extremist violence to recent Islamic extremist violence?  

Debate Left: A history of revision

Response By Ben Tomkins

In response to President Obama’s acknowledgement that Christianity has been perverted in the past, I will be the first to agree with Russell Moore’s assessment that the remarks were “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded comparison.” He’s right; the violence and death the current brand of militant Islam has visited upon the world doesn’t even begin to compare to the breadth and scope of violence perpetrated in the name of Christianity. 

For starters, Christianity has a good 500-or-so-year head start on the whole thing. It’s hard to say how many heretics the words of early church leaders such as Tertullian resulted in, but it suffices to say that Rome-centric Christianity was congealed in a pool of Christ’s blood rather than swept in by a rising tide of baptismal water. 

The First Crusade was a response to Muslim encroachment on the Byzantine Empire, and the suggestion by Pope Urban II that the goal was to protect and liberate Christians in Constantinople seems somewhat understated in that it apparently included the sack of Jerusalem and wholesale slaughter of every living thing in the city. 

Concerning slavery, one can only assume that Governor Jim Gilmore looks upon it as justifiably mandated by Christianity if the suggestion that it is somehow a perversion of Christian principles is indeed offensive to “every believing Christian in the United States.” As hollow a calumny as being generally un-American is these days, one can assume a parcel of his insinuation of Obama’s disbelief in “America or the values we all share” must include the penning of the 13th Amendment. I think Mr. Gilmore would find there are quite a few Christians out there who are about as thrilled by his claim to speak for all Christians as they are of the Pope’s. 

However, most disturbing of all is the suggestion that President Obama’s call for reflection on how easily religion can be used as a mandate for violence is offensive simply because it brings up a subject “all Christians” – according to the dear leader of Virginia anyway –  would apparently like to forget. 

In the introduction to Will Durant’s “Caesar and Christ,” Durant says quite spectacularly:

“We may seek perspective through science by studying the relations of things in space, or through history by studying the relations of events in time. We shall learn more of the nature of man by watching his behavior through sixty centuries than by reading Plato and Aristotle, Spinoza and Kant. ‘All philosophy,’ said Nietzsche, ‘has now fallen forfeit to history.’”

Quite right. It is said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, but I prefer Durant’s variation. The study and remembrance of history is not preventative per se; it is a reminder that we must be forever vigilant in our guard against what man has been capable of in the past, because that potential remains within us. 

Although Durant says of the fall of Rome, “De nobis fabula narratur: of ourselves this Roman story is told,” the comparison could well have been made in reference to the Holy Roman Empire that followed. To express outrage at an acknowledgement – not an indictment, mind you – of how delicate the perch of religious self-righteousness is, is to have already taken a first step into the current of the Tiber. 

A component of the outrage no doubt is abhorrence at the suggestion that the glorious revelation that is Christianity might in some way be comparable to the filth of militant Islam. I would caution that, although the canyon is wide today, it still rebounds with echoes. I will never forget Pope Francis’s remark on the Charlie Hebdo murders that, although the church condemns all violence of that nature, “if my good friend Doctor Gasparri speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched.”

More disturbing and disgusting than the ominous undertone of the remark, coming from a man lauded as one of the most compassionate humanist Popes in years, is the flippancy with which it is delivered. And the Otto Dix-ian chuckling of the press corps that followed – the professionals most aggrieved by the attacks – demonstrates exactly the ease with which religion can turn the corner from condemnation to grinning, saccharine menace. 

Can one imagine the German people raising such a hew and cry by a call for remembrance of the lessons of the Holocaust in the face of ISIL’s genocidal cleansing of the region’s minorities? Considering PEGIDA’s desire to indulge its latent racism and purge Germany of its Middle-eastern population by suggesting that radical Muslims are an ethnic, rather than an ideological group, who can say these days?

I will not hold today’s Christians guilty of the crimes mentioned by Obama, even though they would condemn the Jews to this day because of the piddling verse 27:25 of Matthew: And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and our children!” 

However, don’t expect anyone to capitulate to your demands to shut my mouth because you are offended. As Aquinas admits in his ninth article on the name of God, “it follows that this name of God is incommunicable in reality, but communicable in human opinion.” Well, I’m not the one who is called upon to check the spelling now and again because I’m not afraid of changing the letters.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at
BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

There he goes again

Response By Rob Scott

The President of the United States speaks to millions of people every day, through personal live speeches and addresses, news coverage of print, television and Internet varieties and other forums. In most instances, every word the president says is crafted carefully by policy wonks and speechwriters at the White House. More often than not, most presidents stay on script and never deviate from their teleprompter.

Going off script is very risky when so many people listen and hang on your every word. Foreign and domestic policy in many ways is revealed and set through the president’s speeches. The need to be more careful is even more pressing today due to the technological advances of news coverage and the ease of getting messages out.

Many times presidents have used this to their advantage. Sometimes, it has been to their disadvantage. No one would accuse President George W. Bush of being great on the podium; however, in times of need most believe he was a solid orator. President Ronald Reagan, known as the “Great Communicator,” was extremely skilled in hitting folks with one-liners and humor to get a point across. President Bill Clinton was perceived as being very competent at the podium and “folksy.” 

President Barack Obama is an extremely skilled orator from the podium and is very comfortable in the position. Like any president before him, he has given thousands of speeches to millions of people. Most certainly, all of his speeches are written for him. 

Despite the thoroughness, no president, even with the vetting and carefully script speech is without criticism of the ultimate final product. 

Last week, during his 2015 National Prayer Breakfast address, President Obama took some heat for likening the barbarism of the Islamic State to the “terrible deeds” committed by Christian crusaders and Jim Crow segregationists. Obama’s address has many from the Christian factions upset with the comparison, and has received criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.

Interestingly enough, The Economist/YouGov did a poll regarding public sentiment in regards to the President Obama’s comparison in his speech. The results are:

“Americans don’t deny that crimes were committed in the name of Christ during the Crusades, but many find the comparison with ISIS inappropriate.

Americans agree – at least in part – with some of President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast last week about violence in the name of Christianity, but only when it comes to his description of events that date back centuries.”

The President’s Prayer Breakfast statements about how religions – including Christianity – have been used to justify horrible actions were criticized by many religious activists – and by many Republicans – as being offensive to Christianity, and as an attempt to equate the sins of the past with Islamic radicalism today. But the public does agree with at least one of the president’s specific statements. Most Americans – Republicans and Democrats alike, both the most religious and least religious – agree with the president that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” 

However, That’s not the case when it comes to the more recent evils of slavery and Jim Crow. “Asked whether ‘Slavery and Jim Crow [were] all too often justified in the name of Christ,’” YouGov reported, “Americans disagree, though many aren’t sure. Democrats agree, but Republicans and the most religious definitely do not. And African-Americans, whose ancestors suffered from slavery and many of whom had personal experience with Jim Crow laws, are evenly divided.

“Criticisms of these statements were not just about their truth, but also about whether they were insulting to Christianity – and many Americans agree they are. That is particularly true for the statement about slavery: by 44 percent to 26 percent, the public regards that statement as insulting. Americans are somewhat less sure whether the statement about the Crusades and Inquisition insults Christianity. Thirty-six percent say it does, 42 percent say it does not. 

“But Americans don’t want the president reaching back to examples of Christianity’s failures to explain how religion can be misused – and certainly not when modern day examples of violence are justified by reference to Islam. Half the public finds that comparison inappropriate. Democrats are closely divided, but Republicans and those who describe themselves as most religious overwhelmingly find the comments and comparisons inappropriate.”

Ultimately, this comes down to President Obama’s themes of his speeches. Was what President Obama said in the address correct? Yes, but historically. Today, Christians are not having violent crusades nor does the United States of Jim Crow laws. The comparison was in bad taste and a continuation of the same old, same old from President Obama.

However, President Obama has a record of criticizing Christianity and relating most issues with race. This causes the Obama naysayers and a famous line from President Reagan: “there he goes again.” The president’s remarks were distasteful and frankly, not needed at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Rob Scott is a general practice attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is a Kettering City Councilman, founder of the Dayton Tea Party, member of the Dayton Masonic Lodge and Kettering Rotary. He can be contacted at rob@oldhamdeitering.com or gemcitylaw.com.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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