The idealistic quite young Marquis de Lafayette bought himself a fast ship and came over here and helped us out with our revolution. We immediately made him a general, and now there are a lot of towns all across America named after him – and our General “Black Jack” Pershing arrived in France in June, 1917, and had part of the 16th Infantry Regiment march through Paris and pause at Lafayette’s tomb. That’s where Pershing uttered those famous words, “Lafayette, we are here!” His aide, Colonel Charles E. Stanton, actually said that, but minor details shouldn’t mess up heroic history. Massive numbers of American forces were deployed in France within a few months and we repaid our debt. The Kaiser was gone. France would remain France.
That’s what’s in our high school history books, the simple story. The French were our brothers, or our cousins, or something or other, because we had both done the same amazing thing in the eighteenth century. In 1776 we rejected the whole idea of monarchy. King George could stuff it – we could govern ourselves. Everyone could, and should. The people could decide things – and in 1789 the French rose up and finally got rid of their monarchy, definitively. The guillotine is pretty definitive. We weren’t that brutal but we were on the same page. Franklin and Jefferson both spent years in Paris coordinating the effort to create a new form of government, there and here and maybe one day everywhere. The idea of the divine right of kings – that God had put them in charge, so sit down and shut up – was an absurd idea. Look at these guys. God can’t be that stupid. The whole thing had been a flim-flam from the get-go. We’d been had. It was time to put an end to this nonsense.
That’s what was in the air. As discussed previously – perhaps in far too much detail – all of this was a product of the Enlightenment. It was the Age of Reason, and that had political implications. The new thinking was that men could govern themselves, using reason, all on their own – what God said was interesting, and perhaps uplifting, but it was rather irrelevant. It was our job to figure out, among ourselves, how best to order civil society, and to keep working on it as circumstances changed. That’s our job. God had other things to do.
We said that in our Declaration of Independence, and codified it in our Constitution, but we may have not entirely believed that. France, however, was the home of the Enlightenment, and they took its premises far more seriously than we did. Church and state were completely separated there, and they never argued about it again. Each does its thing, indifferent to the other. Americans still don’t believe that Jefferson was serious when he kept saying the same sort of thing over and over again. We’ve never been that sure that God shouldn’t have a say in public policy – even in tax rates and the regulation of commerce – even if there was no king hand-picked by God. We didn’t want to abandon God so cavalierly.
France had no problem with that. Yes, France is nominally Roman Catholic, but if its citizens take that religion seriously, that remains a private matter. It isn’t a private matter over here – ask any politician – but over there Voltaire and Rousseau won the day, and their tradition of rigorous skepticism lives on. Here, politicians have to talk about Jesus. We elect “men of faith” – anyone who keeps their religion to themselves, as a private matter, makes us queasy, and the list of “approved” religions is fairly short. Jack Kennedy had to explain he wouldn’t be taking orders from the Pope. Mitt Romney had to explain that Mormonism wasn’t all that weird. Jews get a pass – Jesus was born in Israel and will return there any day now – but Muslims will never get a pass, nor will atheists. We are not a secular country, in spite of the documentation. We are One Nation under God, with a system of government that isn’t about God at all. That causes no end of trouble.
Things are different in France:
French President Francois Hollande has pledged to redouble efforts to shore up France’s cherished secular traditions in response to threats from religious extremists like the radical Islamic terrorists who murdered 17 people last month.
Hollande said that the “Spirit of Jan. 11” that saw millions of French people turn out in a massive display of solidarity after the three days of terror had “impressed the world.”
“Secularism is not negotiable,” Hollande said during a press conference at the Élysées Palace. “It is a guarantee for France against intolerance that comes from the inside and from influences that come from the outside.”
Secularism is not negotiable here either – we’ll have none of it. Hollande gave his defiant speech the same day that President Obama attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast – as he always does, because he has to. Every president has to, and this has been going on each year since 1953, about the time we added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, to show we weren’t godless communists. These days, now that there are no more communists, the Prayer Breakfast is where our leaders show the world that God still matters in everything. It used to be called the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, but now it’s more general. Everyone gets to affirm that the Enlightenment wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Men cannot figure things out. Reason isn’t everything. Faith matters more.
This is harmless enough. The publically pious still have to live in the real world and deal with real problems, where what God wants is never clear, as if He even cares. Let them shout and pray and have a fine time, except this year Obama decided to shake things up. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin explains the surprise:
President Obama has never been one to go easy on America.
As a new president, he dismissed the idea of American exceptionalism, noting that Greeks think their country is special, too. He labeled the Bush-era interrogation practices, euphemistically called “harsh” for years, as torture. America, he has suggested, has much to answer given its history in Latin America and the Middle East.
His latest challenge came Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast. At a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.
“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” he told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. “And 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.”
No one expected to hear that, but earlier that day, far away, Hollande had warned against intolerance that comes from the inside as much as that which come from the outside. Obama echoed that, and it was just too French for some:
Some Republicans were outraged. “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore (R). “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.”
Obama’s remarks spoke to his unsparing, sometimes controversial, view of the United States – where triumphalism is often overshadowed by a harsh assessment of where Americans must try harder to live up to their own self-image. Only by admitting these shortcomings, he has argued, can we fix problems and move beyond them.
“There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency, that can pervert and distort our faith,” he said at the breakfast.
But many critics believe that the president needs to focus more on enemies of the United States.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called Obama’s comments about Christianity “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.”
Yeah, well, Obama has to deal with the real world:
Obama spoke a day after meeting with Muslim leaders, in what participants said was his first roundtable with a Muslim-only group since taking office. The Muslim leaders argued that their community has faced unfair scrutiny in the wake of terrorist attacks overseas. Although the White House released only a broad description of the meeting – which touched on issues including racial profiling – participants said it gave them a chance to express their concerns directly to the president.
Farhana Khera, executive director of the civil rights group Muslim Advocates, one of 13 participants, said the session gave Obama a chance to focus on Muslim Americans the way he has done with other constituencies, such as African American and Jewish groups.
“I started off by saying the biggest concern I hear from Muslim parents is their fear that their children will be ashamed to be Muslim” because of discrimination, Khera said. “We are asking him to use his bully pulpit to have a White House summit on hate crimes against religious minorities, much like the summit on bullying reset the conversation around LGBT youth.”
That’s what he did:
For the president, the prayer breakfast represented a role he has played before: explaining to Americans why others might see things differently. Joshua DuBois, who headed the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Obama and has served as an informal spiritual adviser, said that the president is conscious of the fact that Islam is an abstraction for much of the general public.
“The president, as a Christian, knows many American Muslims,” DuBois said. “Unfortunately, a lot of folks in our country don’t have close relationships with Muslims. The only time they’re hearing about Islam is in the context of the foreign policy crisis or what’s happening with ISIS.”
As a result, many Americans have an increasingly hostile view of Islam. A Pew Research Center survey last fall found that half of Americans think the Islamic religion is more likely than others to encourage violence, while 39 percent said it does not. The view that Islam is more apt to encourage violent acts rose 12 percentage points from the beginning of 2014 and was double the number who said so in March 2002 – less than a year after the Sept. 11 attacks.
A sudden rise in violent acts, even if your own righteous God tells you to go out and beat the crap of anyone down the street who even looks Muslim, is a public safety problem. Obama may be a Christian, but he’s also a public official, and Eilperin notes there’s not much new here:
In the past, Obama has used stark, personal terms to describe ongoing tensions between African Americans and America’s white majority. When discussing the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, he spoke of being trailed while shopping in a department store and hearing the locks on cars click as he walked down the street.
But he has also framed the most incendiary aspects of race relations – whether it’s the moment when his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, thundered “God damn America” from the pulpit or the shooting of another unarmed young black man, Michael Brown – as an opportunity to test the concept of American exceptionalism.
He titled the 2008 speech he delivered in Philadelphia about Wright “A More Perfect Union,” a phrase he echoed 6 1 /2 years later when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly.
“We welcome the scrutiny of the world – because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems and make our union more perfect,” he said. “America is not the same as it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago or even a decade ago. Because we fight for our ideals and are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short.”
And each time he said such things he got hammered by his critics, because he was apologizing for America – and we have nothing to apologize for. We never have. This was more of that, and Steve Benen offers perspective:
I’m going to assume that the president’s critics aren’t really outraged, but are instead playing a cynical little game in the name of partisan theater. It must be the latest in an endless series of manufactured outrages, because the alternative – that the right is genuinely disgusted – is literally hard to believe.
The portion of Obama’s remarks that has drawn so much scrutiny isn’t ambiguous – while people have used religion to advance righteousness and justice, horrible acts have been made in God’s name, no one group should be too quick to condemn another while wrestling with their own misdeeds. Is this accurate? Of course it is. Is it offensive? Only to theists who believe their faith tradition has always been without flaw (or perhaps those who’ve convinced themselves the Crusades and the Inquisition were noble causes, worthy of defense.)
Ed Kilgore suggests this:
While some of Obama’s critics may claim the Inquisition and the Crusades just weren’t all that bad (though an auto-da-fe in a capital case for, say, the refusal to eat pork, was probably about as “barbaric” as a beheading), I think Gilmore articulates the main objection: we’re in a “religious war” and the president needs to show solidarity with “our” religion. Others, of course, reject the idea of separation of church and state that Obama spoke of yesterday…
Some people just didn’t like the Enlightenment, where that separation began, and Bloomberg’s David Weigel suggests Obama knows that:
Obama has spoken at the National Prayer Breakfast every year of his presidency. Not until 2014 did he start using the speech to talk specifically about violence from religious extremists. But in his very first speech at the event, in 2009, he’d dropped a reference to how “far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another – as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance.” He’s talked about Islamic terror as an aberration that reformers within the faith can fight back against.
Some conservatives can get away with arguing that; Obama’s insistence that terror groups pervert Islam, and do not grow naturally out of it, is one of his most reliably anger-inducing tics for the right. This year’s prayer breakfast speech was like taking an air horn and blowing right next to the people who’ve been complaining about the noise from the TV.
“What’s important is what’s happening now,” columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News. “Christianity no longer goes on Crusades, and it gave up the Inquisition a while ago. The Book of Joshua is knee deep in blood; that story is over too. The story of today, of our generation, is the fact that the overwhelming volume of the violence and the barbarism that we are seeing in the world, from Nigeria, to Paris, all the way to Pakistan, and even to the Philippines, the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, is coming from one source, and that’s from inside Islam.”
When Republican candidates for the White House return to the trail, they too will probably start attacking Obama’s speech. Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, who’s visited Iowa and New Hampshire as he explores a darker-than-dark horse bid, got his name in the first round of “outrage” stories by condemning Obama.
“While Christians of today are taught to live their lives as the reflection of Christ’s love, the radicals of ISIS use their holy texts as a rationale for violence,” said Rick Santorum in a statement. “To insinuate modern Christians – the same Christian faith that led the abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and global charitable efforts fighting disease and poverty – cannot stand up against the scourge we see in the Middle East is wrong.”
Maybe so, but there’s this:
Obama clearly doesn’t care. He’s appeared at the National Prayer Breakfasts, yes, but he’s done so after progressives turned on the event. … Obama’s never relished the breakfast the way previous presidents have; even commentators sympathetic to Obama think he’s phoned it in. He has no campaigns left to run, so why not phone it in? There’s no political consequence for him saying what he thinks about religion.
Why not? The whole thing is a joke. This year’s keynote speaker was Darrell Waltrip, the redneck NASCAR driver. Obama brought the Dalai Lama along with him. Obama likes irony, and Jonathan Chait adds this:
Barack Obama’s method of persuasion involves conceding his opponent’s most justified grievances in order to locate common ground. When Obama does this with Republicans, by acknowledging that government can overreach, he irritates liberals. When he does this in the context of acknowledging American historical failures to other countries whose behavioral improvements he is urging, he angers Republicans, who depict him as an unpatriotic apologist.
So be it:
Rebuking the Inquisition – and especially the Crusades – places Obama in opposition to a powerful strain of right-wing American Christian chauvinism. It is commonplace for conservatives who invoke the Crusades (which, to be sure, sits well down the list of their preferred topics) to defend them. … And so, by this line of thinking, even to compare radical Islam to the murderous Christian extremists of 800 years ago unduly insults the Christian faith.
Into this fertile political territory has stepped Bobby Jindal, a 2016 presidential candidate who has positioned himself as the voice of the right-wing id, rebuking mainstream conservatives for their alleged spinelessness and identifying himself with all kinds of notably reactionary stances. One of those stances is as religious warrior, framing American foreign policy in the clash-of-civilization terms that American Christian chauvinists favor. Jindal picks fights with the Muslim religion in the insensitive terms his supporters crave (“Let’s be honest here; Islam has a problem”). He repeats discredited conspiracy theories about “Muslim no-go zones.” Obama’s comments provide him the perfect opportunity to replenish his Christian warrior bona fides.
In a prepared statement, Jindal rebukes Obama, “The Medieval Christian threat is under control, Mr. President.” It’s true – as long as Jindal is out of the White House.
Actually, the Medieval Christian threat, to which the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions were a response, is not under control. The idealistic young Marquis de Lafayette didn’t show up here long ago to fight for theocracy, minus the kings. The whole idea was to move beyond that nonsense, but we have an annual National Prayer Breakfast anyway. The French don’t do breakfast by the way – black coffee and a cigarette will do. They may be onto something.