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Does Obama Owe Christians An Apology?

Obama Namaste at Prayer Breakfast

I’m very offended. Or so I’m told. As a believing Christian, I’m supposed to be deeply troubled by the remarks that President Barack Obama delivered at the recent National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington, DC. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore had this to say:

The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. 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.

Strong words. But what were Obama’s terribly offensive remarks? Here’s what the president said:

And lest we get on our high horse and think [religious violence] 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.

Wait… what? Why should I be offended by that? That’s a fact. That’s our history. Every Christian should be aware of what we are capable of when we turn our eyes away from the self-sacrificing love of Jesus and instead turn Christianity into an ideology that justifies terror, brutality, oppression, and war.

It should be impossible to study Western history without getting some glimpse into the terrifying possibilities that any religious system – including Christian ones – hold out for those who seek t dominate others. We humans have a long track record of twisting our most precious faith into a weapon of violence and hatred. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement; it should be a matter of ongoing repentance and prayer for people of faith everywhere.

So I’m confused.

President Obama speaks about the reality that any religion, including Christianity, can be used as justification for acts of terror. Gilmore responds with outrage that Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.

I don’t see the connection.

For me, Christianity and America are distinct concepts. One is a 2,000-year-old religion centered around the person of Jesus Christ. The other is a roughly 200-year-old nation state where I just so happen to live. Why would Gilmore take President Obama’s remarks, about the violent distortion of Christianity, as an attack on America?

Unless he means… No, he can’t mean that, can he? That Christianity and American nationalism are essentially the same religion? I know he can’t mean that, because that’s exactly the kind of religious perversion that Obama was talking about. When we start making our causes, our ideologies, our nation synonymous with Christianity, we’re in the danger zone.

This is where religious terrorism comes from.

Let me state, for the record, that there is at least one believing Christian in America who is not offended by President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. On the contrary, I would have been pleased for Obama to take it a little further. The people of the United States are in desperate need of a wake-up call that real Christian faith is not compatible with any of our nationalist ideologies, no matter how popular and unquestionable they may seem at present.

When we turn Christianity into a belief system that justifies our fear and violent tendencies, we rob the gospel of its power to convict us of our need for forgiveness and transformation. When Christianity is cross-bred with nationalism, the resulting animal is one devoid of all prophetic fire, all critique of violence and state-sanctioned terror.

When we combine our Christian faith with American exceptionalism, we’re flirting with the soul-numbing ideology of ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

As a believing Christian, I choose not to be offended by the president’s words. Instead, I receive them as a much-needed rebuke to a nation that has far too often killed in the name of Jesus, carried out pre-emptive wars in the name of God, and overseen blasphemous systems of Jim Crow in the name of the God who freed the slaves.

For far too long, American Christians have been unwilling to face our own potential to be agents of religious extremism and terror, whether grassroots or state-sanctioned. Let this be a wake up call. It can happen here. It has happened here. It is happening here. And we’re responsible.

It’s never too late for America’s Christians to repent and believe the gospel. But we can’t carry the cross and the bayonet at the same time. We’re going to have to choose between following Jesus and serving Empire. Which will it be?

Related Posts:

Fifty Years Later, Segregation Lives

The State of the Union is Empire

  • Susan Chast

    Excellent! Thank you for picking up this commentary and taking it seriously. I hope many read your comments!

    • Thanks, Susan! I’m glad this connected!

  • broschultz

    I don’t think there is any question that the President is defensive about the religion he was raised in and I do think that, just like most politicians, his attendance at any Christian Church is politically motivated and not spiritual, but it is alarming that his request for “war Powers” isn’t shocking more “Christiian” religious leaders. His supporters didn’t vote for him because of his religious beliefs, at least not his Christian supporters. Politicians are elected based on their appeal to the broadest spectrum of voters and I thought one of those were us peace lovers. He doesn’t encourage basketball in North Korea, can’t find a peaceful way to calm Putin down and now wants to follow the last President’s failed policy of fighting a war in a culture completely foreign to our understanding of equality. Religious outrage should be reserved for offenses other than a mythological belief that this country was founded on Christian principles. They might have been used to unify a country of pioneers but those with an experiential relationship with God were not exactly welcomed with open arms.

    • Very true, Jim.

      I didn’t vote for Obama this last time around, because it’s so clear that he’s committed to expanding the reach and scope of Empire – both domestically and abroad. As someone who was very taken with his speeches back during his first election, he’s been a big disappointment.

      Still, in this piece I wanted to affirm something Obama said that was true, and draw attention to the dangerous idea that America and Christianity are somehow the same thing.

      • broschultz

        I am constantly trying to point out the fable of this being a Christian Nation. But I found that people don’t want to hear it. As a former Catholic I used to argue about the Inquisition and other atrocities with my Catholic friends but it only antagonizes people who become instantly defensive. I find it’s best to just be as loving as possible and avoid pushing any defensive buttons.
        See you in March


        Subject: Re: Comment on Does Obama Hate America?

      • Shasta4737

        Micah, I was so disheartened when I heard that David Axelrod wrote in his book that President Obama pretended not to believe in marriage equality because he felt he wouldn’t be elected if he gave his true opinion. Even though I support equal marriage rights for gays and most of Obama’s agenda, it seems so wrong for him to have lied so blatantly, especially to people like Rick Warren and other Christian leaders. I suppose politicians feel they have to lie, and that they do this all the time, but it just proves to me that we have to be very careful not to mix politics with religion.

        • Debra B. Stewart

          Come, now, my dear! He’s a politician and far from perfect. And, lest you forget, he learned to play ball in the most political of all places, Chicago. I’ve followed him since my stepdaughter worked for his opponent’s campaign for the US Senate nomination and, believe me, he’ll play hardball when he has to. Having said all that, I still believe he’s a lot more righteous than the majority – think Schoch, for instance, or McDonnell or “who-do-you-believe-me-or-your-lyin’-eyes” Dubyah, to name a few. I think we’ll see the true measure of the man when President Obama is out of office and free to do things that matter. Always amazes me how quickly people can give up . . .

          • Shasta4737

            Hello Debra, I do support President Obama and his policies, but it still hurts that he would use “the ends justifies the means” tactic. Because of that, he can’t say much when others do the same.

  • Amy Kietzman

    I wish there was a word that conveyed the meaning of Empire, yet was thought provoking instead of divisive. In other words, how can this message engage others beside the “choir”, besides those that already think this way. On the other hand, prophets don’t really get to choose their words, they (we) must say, loudly, what G!d calls or commands us to. There is a saying attributed to to Saint Francis, “Preach often, use words, when necessary!” that leaps to mind. And that reminds me that we modern day Quakers often mis-quote George Fox when we say “let your lives speak”, since what he actually said was “Let your lives preach!”

    There is something about leading a life that preaches; how can we live lives that touch move and inspire those around us? As others have commented, using different words, It takes a village…!” If we are trying to do things- anything really- by our lonesome, then we are not living the kingdom, or as I like to call it the kin-dom! If our own life is not deeply connected to a community, a faith community, yes- but also our neighborhood, the community we live in- then how can we be preaching anything but individualism or even, dare I say it? segregation!

    I do not think it was by accident that what Jesus said about where the Kingdom can be found is a Greek word that means both within AND among. “The Kingdom of God is within/among you.” This is not an either/or statement. This is a both/and statement. Maybe even a command! One of the thing that Empire does is divide people. In our own country its has successfully divided black and white (as well as middle class from poor). How is the way we treat the Earth related to the way we treat each other? It seems that many of us white middle class folk, many of us, Quakers are beginning to get that we need to and want to reduce our ecological or carbon footprint. What about our injustice footprint? our racial footprint?

    I have been challenged, in a good way, recently by a Quaker of color who has invited us all to do just that; in the same way that we try to do something everyday to reduce our carbon footprint, to begin reducing our racial footprint. The genius of this is that nobody thinks climate disruption/ecocide will be solves by individual actions, nor will our communities be healed from racism. But it is hopeful to take the small steps that are within our reach. It creates some space, some inspiration, some hope that as we do these small steps we will see and do the bigger ones together.

    And here’s the kicker! We will never solve the ecological crisis without the brilliant thinking and insights of our sisters and brothers of color. As long as they are excluded we do not have any access to the Kin-dom. A few years ago I was given the prophetic statement, “There is no such thing as individual salvation!” Its all of us or none of us, folks! It is the gravest sin of this era of Christianity, to assume that its all about “me” and my salvation. What did Jesus say was the greatest commandment? What was the good news that Jesus proclaimed? What did his life preach? Where and when is the Kingdom he pointed to? It is within, and it manifests only among us in the kin-dom we invite and with Divine assistance enact in the world.

    Fancy words, but how? At West Philadelphia Friends Meeting we are trying something. We are experimenting (prayerfully) with a mid-week group focussing on white privilege and racial justice, with the intention of deeply engaged conversation and action in our neighborhood. How might your meeting, church or group do something similar?

    • Thanks, Amy.

      The struggle for words that resonate and speak truthfully is a real one. At the end of the day, I still think “Empire” is probably the most faithful word I can use to describe the death-dealing system of systems we’re caught up in. It’s certainly more accessible than “principalities and powers”!

      I’m glad to hear of the work that WPFM is doing to engage with the need for racial reconcilation. I’ve been reading a fair amount of Cornel West, and am in the middle of reading “The New Jim Crow,” right now – so this is all very much on my mind.

      • Amy Kietzman

        I am heartened that you are reading Cornell West and Michele Alexander’s THE NEW JIM CROW. May I also suggest the t you view the Independent Lens , PBS documentary AMERICAN DENIAL. It’s airing in the Philly region on Monday night, 2/23, at 10:00 PM. Are you and Friends of Jesus supporting the DC area activities of #BLACK LIVES MATTER? or some such? praying with your feet/bodies?
        Just yesterday I was given Bill Taber’s PH pamphlet, THE PROPHETIC STREAM TO READ. Here is his thoughts on
        Micah 6:6-8: “The way to please God, and to find inward peace, lies not in the number game of deciding just how much of my treasure will please God, for that is the the way of ‘the works of righteousness”. The rough, but very practical prophet Micah saw that the way to please God is not in a giving or sacrificing which leaves the heart untouched, but in DOING and BEING; to DO justice (not just believe in it), to LOVE mercy (faithful covenant love,) and to WALK HUMBLY WITH GOD.”
        May I be so bold as to say that you and all who truly seek to DO justice- must pray on it. Ask over and over again for the way to be shown to you, baby step by baby step if necessary. to do justice, is to enact it in the world. How are you and your congregation creating racial justice?How are you preaching with your actions> Are you preaching segregation or reconciliation with your actions? (Please know that I am asking myself, and all Quakers the same questions!)

  • Shasta4737

    I’m another believing Christian who wasn’t offended by President Obama’s message. We do need to be careful and not “get on our high horses”. ‘When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:2).

  • Micah- You speak my mind on this. We are far too quick to condemn other cultures for our own faults.

  • Philana Danceforth

    Yes!! Complete agreement!

  • Duncan Pugh

    I’ll say it again but I find it completely paradoxical that Christianity is such an issue in the realm of party politics and I was absolutely gobsmacked by this story :

    • Wow. Talk about blasphemy. I think “gobsmacked” is the right word.

  • Doug Indeap

    Good points well put. Bravo!