The problem with Obama's self-criticism
FEB 10, 2015
BY ROSS DOUTHAT
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama, like many well-read inhabitants of public life, is a professed admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous mid-20th-century Protestant theologian. And more than most presidents, he has tried to incorporate one of Niebuhr's insights into his public rhetoric: the idea that no society is innocent, and that Americans, in particular, need to put aside illusions about their own alleged perfection.
The latest instance came at last week's National Prayer Breakfast, when the President, while condemning the religious violence perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), urged Westerners not to "get on our high horse" because such violence was part of their own past as well: "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."
These comments were not well received by the President's critics - as, indeed, his Niebuhrian forays rarely are.
In the past, it has been neo-conservatives taking exception when Mr Obama goes abroad and talks about America's Cold War-era sins. This time, it was conservative Christians complaining that the President was reaching back 500 or 1,000 years to play at moral equivalence with people butchering their way across the Middle East.
From a Niebuhrian perspective, such complaints are to be expected. "All men," the theologian wrote, "(like to) obscure the morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity." Nobody likes to have those ambiguities brought to light; nobody likes to have the sanctity of his own cause or church or country undercut.
So the President probably regards his critics' griping as a sign that he's telling necessary truths. Indeed, sometimes he is.
Certainly, the sweeping Wilsonian rhetoric of Mr George W. Bush cried out for a corrective, and Mr Obama's disenchanted view of America's role in the world contains more wisdom than his Republican critics acknowledge.
But the limits of his Niebuhrian style have also grown apparent.
The first problem is that presidents are not historians or theologians and, in political rhetoric, it's hard to escape from oversimplification. You can introduce the Crusades to complicate a lazy "Islam violent, Christianity peaceful" binary, but then a lot of Christians are going to hear an implied equivalence between ISIS' reign of terror and the incredibly complicated multi-century story of mediaeval Christendom's conflict with Islam... and so all you've really done is put a pointless fight about Christian history on the table.
To be persuasive, a reckoning with history's complexities has to actually reckon with them, and a tossed-off Godfrey of Bouillon reference just pits a new straw man against the one you think you're knocking down.
The second problem is that self-criticism doesn't necessarily serve the cause of foreign policy outreach quite as well as Mr Obama once seemed to believe it would. Early in his administration, especially around his 2009 speech in Cairo, there was a sense that showing Muslims that a US president understood their grievances would help expand the country's options in the Middle East.
But no obvious foreign policy benefit emerged and, since then, Mr Obama's displays of public angst over, say, drone strikes have mostly seemed like an exercise in self-justification, intended for an audience of one. (Meanwhile, our actual enemies can pocket his rhetorical concessions: The alleged relevance of the Crusades to modern politics, for instance, has long been one of Al-Qaeda's favourite tropes.)
A third problem is that Mr Obama is not just a Niebuhrian. He's also a partisan and a progressive, which means that he, too, invests causes with sanctity, talks about history having "sides" and (like any politician) regards his opponents as much more imperfect and fallen than his own ideological camp. This can leave the impression that his public wrestling with history's tragic side is somewhat cynical, mostly highlighting crimes he doesn't feel particularly implicated in and the sins of groups he disagrees with anyway (Republican Cold Warriors, the religious right, white conservative Southerners).
Here, a counter-example is useful: The most Niebuhrian presidential speech in modern United States history was probably Mr Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address, in which he warned against the dangers of "the military-industrial complex" and "a scientific-technological elite". It was powerful precisely because Mr Eisenhower was criticising his own party's perennial temptations, acknowledging some of his own policies' potential downsides and drawing on moral authority forged by his own military career.
Mr Obama was never going to have Ike's authority, but he could still profit from his example. The deep problem with his Niebuhrian style isn't that it's too disenchanted or insufficiently pro-American. It's that too often it offers "self"-criticism in which the President's own party and worldview slip away untouched.
NEW YORK TIMES
The Foolish, Historically Illiterate, Incredible Response to Obama's Prayer Breakfast Speech
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
People who wonder why the president does not talk more about race would do well to examine the recent blow-up over his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. Inveighing against the barbarism of ISIS, the president pointed out that it would be foolish to blame Islam, at large, for its atrocities. To make this point he noted that using religion to brutalize other people is neither a Muslim invention nor, in America, a foreign one:
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.The "all too often" could just as well be "almost always." There were a fair number of pretexts given for slavery and Jim Crow, but Christianity provided the moral justification. On the cusp of plunging his country into a war that would cost some 750,000 lives, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens paused to offer some explanation. His justification was not secular. The Confederacy was to be:
[T]he first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society ... With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so.Stephens went on to argue that the "Christianization of the barbarous tribes of Africa" could only be accomplished through enslavement. And enslavement was not made possible through Robert's Rules of Order, but through a 250-year reign of mass torture, industrialized murder, and normalized rape—tactics which ISIS would find familiar. Its moral justification was not "because I said so," it was "Providence," "the curse against Canaan," "the Creator," "and Christianization." In just five years, 750,000 Americans died because of this peculiar mission of "Christianization." Many more died before, and many more died after. In his "Segregation Now" speech, George Wallace invokes God 27 times and calls the federal government opposing him "a system that is the very opposite of Christ."
It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made "one star to differ from another star in glory." The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.
Now, Christianity did not "cause" slavery, anymore than Christianity "caused" the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslim terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion's share of American history.
That this relatively mild, and correct, point cannot be made without the comments being dubbed, "the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” by a former Virginia governor gives you some sense of the limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism in our politics. And it gives you something much more. My colleague Jim Fallows recently wrote about the need to, at once, infantilize and deify our military. Perhaps related to that is the need to infantilize and deify our history. Pointing out that Americans have done, on their own soil, in the name of their own God, something similar to what ISIS is doing now does not make ISIS any less barbaric, or any more correct. That is unless you view the entire discussion as a kind of religious one-upmanship, in which the goal is to prove that Christianity is "the awesomest."
Obama seemed to be going for something more—faith leavened by “some doubt.” If you are truly appalled by the brutality of ISIS, 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.
Why Obama's Crusades analogy is misguided
FEB 16, 2015
BY JONATHAN EYAL, EUROPE CORRESPONDENT, IN LONDON
IT IS reasonable to assume that a historical episode which took place almost 1,000 years ago would no longer be politically controversial today.
But, as United States President Barack Obama recently discovered, even that cannot be taken for granted.
Christian organisations throughout America erupted in anger when Mr Obama made a passing reference earlier this month to the Crusades as a period of "terrible deeds" and a reminder that, just as "twisted and distorted" people commit crimes in the name of Islam today, so did previous generations of Europeans in the name of Christ.
Some argued that it's offensive to make any "moral equivalence" between the Crusades a millennium ago and Islamic extremists today. Ms Star Parker, a noted conservative columnist, went as far as to claim that she was subjected to "verbal rape" by the President.
Strong stuff indeed. But most of the arguments on both sides of this Crusades debate are either factually incorrect, or dangerous political nonsense. Such historical references don't illuminate or inform the current debate about the connection between faith and bloodshed. Nor can they justify or even explain the current phenomenon of terrorism.
Different religions, similar zealotry
LIKE all historical comparisons of this kind, the similarities between the religious zealots who initiated the Crusades and those who today espouse jihad appear to be very strong on the surface.
The Crusades were a series of military campaigns organised by the Roman Catholic Church to "liberate" Christianity's holy places in Palestine from Muslim rule - particularly the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus was crucified and buried.
Like jihad, the Crusades amounted to a "holy war" in the name of Christianity.
And, like the proponents of jihad, the Crusades attracted volunteers from everywhere.
Countries and languages did not matter, as people from as far as Spain or Scandinavia left their families and all their belongings and literally marched to Palestine, a land of which they knew nothing about, and which many of them never lived to see - just as the misguided Europeans who currently volunteer to fight in Syria and Iraq may end up being cannon fodder, killed within days after their arrival.
The propaganda which justified the Crusades was as shocking and as false as that used by recruiters to terrorism today.
Christians were asked to fight to save their brethren in the Holy Land, who supposedly had their innards yanked out through their belly buttons by Muslims.
Much of the killing which the Crusaders perpetrated had nothing to do with fighting Muslims for possession of the holy places; a great deal of it took place in Europe, as columns of men made their way to the Middle East, killing, raping and stealing their way through the continent.
This, too, is similar to the terrorists today who, in their fight against the "infidel", end up killing mostly fellow Muslims.
And even by the miserable humanitarian standards of warfare at that time, the Crusaders were astonishingly cruel towards the people they defeated.
When they marched into Jerusalem on the morning of July 15, 1099, the Crusaders butchered the entire Muslim population - an estimated 70,000 people.
There were no videos of these murders but, according to contemporary accounts, the Crusaders who first entered Jerusalem barefoot quickly acquired "shoes", formed from the coagulated blood of the murdered people which stuck to their feet.
Overall, it is estimated that one million people perished in the Crusades - one in 10 of the population of Europe at that time, and about the total population of Britain in the 11th century.
And in an eerie reminder of terrorists today, Crusaders also believed that, if they died in battle, all their sins would be forgiven and they would go straight to heaven.
Their actions were justified in religious terms.
The blood-curdling exhortations of Crusader leaders read rather like the meanderings of Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, full of grotesque misrepresentations of their respective faiths, peppered with quotes from holy books, usually lifted out of context.
So, if the similarities between Christian violence a millennium ago and those of Muslims who espouse violence today are so striking, why the outcry over Mr Obama's comparisons?
Different historical context
THAT is largely because the differences between these two historical episodes are far too great to draw any meaningful conclusions.
The Crusades took place over 200 years, spanning 12 European generations. None of the people who fought at that time knew of the word "Crusade" or called themselves Crusaders as such; the term entered European languages only in the 17th century.
To suggest that all Crusaders were inspired by religious fanaticism is wrong.
People fought for many reasons, including honour, chivalry - most chivalric orders, including the St John's Order which operates ambulances today, hail back to those times - loyalty to their prince or king, or the simple camaraderie of young men who went to fight from the same village.
Crusaders felt themselves under attack from Muslims, an undeniable reality since Muslim armies already ruled Palestine and were closing in on Europe in a pincer movement from the Balkans on one side and Spain on the other.
So, what to us looks like a dark episode of Muslim-bashing was perceived at the time as legitimate self-defence.
Some Crusades never aimed to reach the Holy Land, and were used instead to settle scores between European princes.
Some were just pathetic, like the so-called Children's Crusade of 1212 when, responding to a call of one boy who claimed to have been told by Jesus to work for the peaceful conversion of Muslims to Christianity, thousands of teenagers from France and Germany went on the march to the holy places.
Most either drowned in the Mediterranean Sea or were sold into slavery in North Africa.
Alongside the undeniable cruelty, there was also much progress.
Europe's road network and shipping lines owe their origins to the Crusades.
Ironically, much of the law of warfare which operates today also originated at that time. And, just as ironically, many of the warfare techniques which subsequently made the Turks such fearsome fighters were also perfected as a result of fighting Crusaders.
That is why in many Christian countries, the concept of a "crusade" retains positive connotations. Politicians sometimes refer to crusades against crime or poverty as expressions of determined action. Reducing all of this past to just a bunch of religious nutters who strutted across Europe to kill Muslims is to render history as a parody.
One can understand why Muslims dislike the idea that the Crusades can ever have a positive meaning.
Former US president George W. Bush's use of the term in the context of the fight against terrorism was certainly misguided.
But it's also worth noting that some Muslim leaders have used the Crusades to justify their own call for violence.
It is noticeable, for instance, that those who are most fond of reminding the faithful of the horrors of the Crusades are largely the terrorist leaders of today.
For most of the moderate Arab leaders, the Crusades are history, as they should be.
Perhaps Muslims everywhere should be reminded of an often-neglected aspect of the Crusades: that, ultimately, the Crusades failed and the Muslims won.
By the end of the 13th century, Muslims were back in control of the Middle East and, two centuries later, they were in central Europe.
The Crusades can, just as plausibly, be portrayed as a tale of endurance and triumph by the Muslims, the way Muslim history presents the Ottoman conquests of the Balkans or of Spain, neither of which were exactly bloodless.
Either way, the safest bet for someone like Mr Obama is to avoid repeating simplistic historical analogies which offend some Christians without reassuring most Muslims.
Nobody denies that all religions are capable of generating violence, and nobody is suggesting that any of the world's great religions advocates violence as its main objective.
That is enough for an American president to say; the rest should be left to trained historians, which neither he nor his speech-writers evidently are.
Perhaps the truly enduring moral to this episode is that all politicians should go easy on historical analogies; not only are they liable to be misunderstood, but invariably they also confuse rather than clarify matters.