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Here’s What’s Behind the Criticism of Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast Remarks

President Obama’s remarks at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast have certainly stirred up the right wing. Charlie Pierce has a rundown of some of the reactions, as does Juliet Elperin at the Washington Post, Julie Hirschfeld Davis at the New York Times, Tierney Sneed at US News, and you can find a lot more like this own your own with a simple search of the internet. Most of the commentary from the Right focuses on Obama’s discussion of the Crusades and the Inquisition as episodes of religious extremism carried out by Christians, and carries a tone of “how dare he?!?” while dog-whistling their followers and supporters with remarks that say that no “real” Christian would say something like that.

I’m shocked — shocked, I tell you . . .

But the reaction from folks like Bill Donohue and others of his ilk only proves Obama’s point. What I haven’t seen in any of the run-downs of the address or the reactions to it is what Obama notes to be the starting point when addressing those who try to justify their violence in the name of religion, which is where things went off the rails for the Right Wing.

Before getting to substance, though, Obama opened with the usual greetings to those in attendance, and offered a nice instant-reaction to NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip and his keynote address:

I will note, though, Darrell, when you were reading that list of things folks were saying about you, I was thinking, well, you’re a piker.  I mean, that — (laughter.)  I mean, if you really want a list, come talk to me.  (Laughter.)  Because that ain’t nothing.  (Laughter.) That’s the best they can do in NASCAR?  (Laughter.)

After this lighthearted start, Obama turned to a sobering tour of the world and the violence carried out by a wide variety of religious extremists, and then moved on to his take on how to respond to it:

So this [religiously-justified violence] is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.  In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

And, first, we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

That last paragraph is what set off the exploding heads on the right, because that last line is pure shade.

With those words, he’s calling out Bill Donohue and the American Family Association and Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee and every oh-so-holy religious conservative with a radio show, television show, or blog. These are folks who are absolutely certain that they know every last little bit of the mind of God, and that this knowledge is their sole possession.

Obama is talking about them, and they know it. Oh, do they know it.

Starting with “humility” is not something these folks accept at all, “doubt” is not a virtue in their book, and the suggestion that they are not the exclusive possessors of Teh Truth (and you know they capitalize it in their minds) is an absolute abomination. The fact that this pronouncement was made at a prayer breakfast, by someone of dubious religious and ethnic background, only adds to their anger.

You know who else called out these folks for their lack of humility and their desire to play God? Jeremiah Wright, as I noted back in 2008:

[In an interview with Bill Moyers,] Wright was absolutely on target in his analysis of his 9/11 sermon and the way it has been used. He was crystal clear for those worshiping that day, who heard the whole thing. The right, OTOH, was also crystal clear in the way they twisted his words, and they too communicated what they wanted to communicate:

BILL MOYERS: . . . Did you somehow fail to communicate?

REVEREND WRIGHT: The persons who have heard the entire sermon understand the communication perfectly. What is not the failure to communicate is when something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public. That’s not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they wanna do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a “wack-a-doodle.” It’s to paint me as something. Something’s wrong with me. There’s nothing wrong with this country. There’s -its policies. We’re perfect. We-our hands are free. Our hands have no blood on them. That’s not a failure to communicate. The message that is being communicated by the sound bites is exactly what those pushing those sound bites want to communicate.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think they wanted to communicate?

REVEREND WRIGHT: I think they wanted to communicate that I am- unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ. And, by the way, guess who goes to his church, hint, hint, hint? That’s what they wanted to communicate. They know nothing about the church. They know nothing about our prison ministry. They know nothing about our food share ministry. They know nothing about our senior citizens home. They know nothing about all we try to do as a church and have tried to do, and still continue to do as a church that believes what Martin Marty said, that the two worlds have to be together-the world before church and the world after postlude. And that the gospel of Jesus Christ has to speak to those worlds, not only in terms of the preached message on a Sunday morning but in terms of the lived-out ministry throughout the week.

That “learned journalist from the New York Times”? Maureen Dowd.

The right wing didn’t like it in 2008 when Wright slammed their “exceptionalism,” whether American exceptionalism, Christian exceptionalism, or both, and they certainly don’t like it any better in 2015 when Obama does the same thing, especially at an event that they view as the property of Conservative Christianity (though we’ll invite a few non-believers to put on a polite face). No, they don’t like it at all, even (as I noticed in 2012) when Wright is preaching their language about Big Government and false idols.

At the end, Obama hit the theme of humility one last time:

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose.  We can never fully fathom His amazing grace.  “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love.  But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required:  To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I pray that we will.  And as we journey together on this “march of living hope,” I pray that, in His name, we will run and not be weary, and walk and not be faint, and we’ll heed those words and “put on love.”

“Properly humble”? That’ll leave a mark among the “we’re perfect” crowd of his critics.

Maybe I was wrong about Obama’s remarks about Darrell Waltrip and his list. Perhaps he was simply setting up his own remarks, because God knows that list of things that people on the right are saying about Obama just got a whole lot longer.


photo h/t to Indy Metro and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.