Because I’m not running for anything, I can give it to you straight: Christianity pretty much got out of the genocide business when church and state became separated in the United States and Europe following the American Revolution. As a consequence, all of the truly impressive mass murders in living memory were carried out by secular ideologues worshiping the nation state — a superstition to which millions of Americans are not entirely immune.
More about that directly. Meanwhile, yes, President Obama was a bit tone-deaf and smug in his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast last week. A band of primitive fanatics beheads innocent captives, burns an Allied POW alive and sends out a slickly produced video of the atrocity, and the president says we shouldn’t “get on our high horse” about it? He references the Crusades, a regular feature in ISIS propaganda? I suppose we can be grateful he didn’t call ISIS “folks.”
Mr. President, the Crusades took place 1,000 years ago. Better to cite Oliver Cromwell, who was slaughtering my Irish Catholic ancestors a mere 350 years ago. Or the French King Louis XV’s persecution of Protestant Huguenots a half century after that. Along with the English Civil Wars of the 17th century, the examples of these religiously motivated genocides persuaded Jefferson and Madison to build their famous wall between church and state.
Indeed, I shall vigorously applaud the first president who gives these prayer breakfasts a pass — assuming I live that long, which ain’t likely. Leave them to NASCAR drivers.
Even so, Obama’s right. Many Christians did argue that the Bible sanctioned Negro slavery. Writing in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates quoted Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens arguing that God made black people inferior to whites, and that “the Christianization of the barbarous tribes of Africa’ could only be accomplished through enslavement.”
Coats also points out that in his infamous 1963 “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.”
And what do the sad-sack sheet heads of the KKK do when they want attention? They burn crosses.
But yes, 19th-century abolitionists also more plausibly claimed divine sanction. So did Martin Luther King. As Obama implied, history is complicated.
But back to the president’s prayer breakfast remarks. Here’s the part they’re not banging on about at Fox News:
”From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith . . . professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yazidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority.”
Let’s see now: “brutal, vicious death cult,” ”unspeakable acts of barbarism.” This, one Republican congressman, Rep. John Fleming, calls “a case to defend radical Islam.” He asserts that the president basically declared ISIS to be “just like the patriots of the Revolutionary War.”
Honestly, where do they find them? Bossier City, Louisiana, in Fleming’s case. You’d be tempted to observe that the congressman, although a physician, is either a great simpleton, or he’s confident that his constituents are.
Elsewhere, people calling themselves “conservatives” demand that President Obama pronounce the magic words “radical Islam,” or “Islamic radicalism.” Obama has steadfastly refused, doubtless for the same reasons President George W. Bush kept insisting that Islam was a “religion of peace” in the days just after 9/11.
Because when you’re in a propaganda war against a theocratic splinter group that’s trying to convince billions of Muslims that “crusaders” are at war with their faith, it would be seriously dumb to play directly into their hands.
Another problem is that many of today’s self-proclaimed conservatives are themselves religious fundamentalists offended by Obama’s gutless relativism. Diplomacy be damned. They’d only be happy with a president who denounced Islam as a false religion. “Our God is red hot; your God ain’t diddly squat.”
Most also tend to be aggressive nationalists as George Orwell defined the term. In a famous 1945 essay, Orwell distinguished between love of country and the temptation to deify the nation-state — “placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”
“Nationalism,” he emphasized, “is not to be confused with patriotism.” The nationalist thinks entirely “in terms of competitive prestige … his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations … Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception.”
It almost goes without saying that such people resent any and all comparisons to lesser nations and people, i.e., to all of them.
This far into his presidency, it’s remarkable that Obama thinks it worthwhile to try.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000).