Politics & Policy

Putting on Humility

(Win McNamee/Getty)
President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast missed so many opportunities.

‘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.”

These words from the president of the United States have — according to text on the screen during one of the morning shows the day after the National Prayer Breakfast — “rankled some.” The text further said: “Commenting on faith,” President Obama “stirs emotion.”

“Critics Seize on Obama’s ISIS Remarks at Prayer Breakfast” was the headline in the New York Times, and the piece began: “President Obama may have thought he was giving a straightforward history lesson at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday when he compared the atrocities of the Islamic State to the bloodshed committed in the name of Christianity in centuries past.

“But that is not how many of his longtime critics saw it,” the news story continued.

You don’t have to be a longtime critic of the president, however, to see his turning attention away from evil in our day, during a rare occasion for focus on it, as a missed opportunity — another instance of our avoidance of tough questions about faith and reason, a public conversation that typically gets shut down — and often with threats or even with actual violence — when the subject is Islam.

You do not have to be a longtime critic of the president to know that whereas Christians are upfront about being sinners — thus the need and gratitude for a Savior — there are a disturbing number of Islamic clerics who stir up violence, and way too many moderate Muslims who do not get a mainstream hearing. As President Obama turned to the Crusades and pointed to slavery in U.S. history as having sometimes been justified in the name of Christ, he did a disservice to abolitionists who were men and women of faith. He bypassed something fundamental, too: Those who do evil are not behaving as Christians; that is, whatever else they may do or believe, at the moments when they are doing evil they are clearly not adhering to the Gospel of Christ, any way you read it.

You do not have to be a longtime critic of the president to see his remarks as a slap in the face to Christians in the Middle East, including those displaced from Iraq and Syria on account of the Islamic State’s campaign to eradicate them. Their continued presence as a leaven there, in the birthplace of Christianity, is uncertain at best.

People being killed for blaspheming and Christians being killed for refusing to renounce their faith are not things of the past, which is why the president’s loaded history lesson wasn’t the best use of his platform.

As it happened, also the morning after President Obama’s remarks, Pope Francis preached on the Gospel reading of the day, which was about John the Baptist’s head turning up on a platter. Pope Francis was visibly moved as he preached on this passage. He explained that he was thinking of “our martyrs, the martyrs of our times, men, women, children who are being persecuted, hated, driven out of their homes, tortured, massacred.” These 2015 martyrs, he said, “are meeting their end under the authority of corrupt people who hate Jesus Christ.”

But President Obama’s most controversial comments at the prayer breakfast weren’t his most alarming. During that same speech, he said: “No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.” As the president said this and directed those listening to “put on love,” I couldn’t help hearing the echoes of Mother Teresa’s speech at that same breakfast 21 years ago: “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”

Of course we are blind. Of course we can’t see clearly. Our national conscience is too clouded, too complicit, too bogged down by false claims of love and choice and freedom.

President Obama also said: “So humility I think is needed. . . . Humility; a suspicion of government getting between us and our faiths, or trying to dictate our faiths, or elevate one faith over another.”

The president’s speech and the reaction to it belie the depths of the secularization of what he described as “one of the most religious countries in the world.” We’re a country that uses God’s name in many ways, but also and increasingly privatizes the practice of religion. The Supreme Court last summer decided cases about the Obama administration’s insisting that you do not have religious freedom as the owner of an arts-and-crafts chain or a religious-bookstore chain. The administration was insisting, in short, that religious liberty doesn’t extend to those pursuing commercial activity and providing jobs. This is a posture that religious believers have contributed to, and are now falling victim to. When the president vowed on Thursday to defend religious liberty, portraying the United States as its beacon, his call to humility begged for self-reflection, as his own administration continues to keep believers going to court for religious-liberty protection.

The speech before the president’s on Thursday, by NASCAR’s Darrell Waltrip, was about the power of prayer and conversion to the rigors of sacrifice and, yes, love, in the Christian tradition. Waltrip warned of, essentially, the road to hell being paved with good intentions. He warned against thinking you’re basically good when you’re not going out of your way to serve and protect and defend and love.

In her 1994 speech, Mother Teresa pleaded: Instead of aborting a baby, give me the baby. Laughable? How can a little nun take care of all the children whom “choice” deems better not born? The society that Mother Teresa envisioned is one that a better and more humble people would work toward rather than consoling themselves with nice sentiments about humility and love while distracting attention from the grave evils in our midst.

If the president was looking to remove a splinter, he may have missed a huge beam.

Humility is needed to see the damage that ideology does in clouding what’s right in front of us, and certainly in making it impossible to see clearly what’s half a world away. Humility is needed to see that it has become its own religion, mandating compliance with a tyrannical impulse.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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