Monday, February 23, 2015

Did the President Misrepresent Christianity?

President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, as you know, and that speech unleashed considerable negative reaction—mostly from the same people that have criticized him for about everything he has said or done since 2009.
Most of the criticism centered on remarks he made about Christianity in the context of talking about the Islamic State. His words about the latter were not minced: he described ISIL as
a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism—terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.
Shortly after that clear censure of the Islamic terrorist organization, the President went on to ask his hearers to
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.
It was this latter statement that elicited strong criticism from his political opponents.
The President’s talk came shortly after the barbaric burning of a Jordanian hostage by ISIL. But consider these historical burnings of Christians by Christians.
In 1415 the Moravian Christian leader Jan Hus (John Huss) went to the Council of Constance (in Germany), the 16th Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church. Hus was promised safe passage, but ended up being burned at the stake. Here is an image portraying his tragic martyrdom:
 In 1527, the Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler was also tortured and then burned at the stake by Catholics in Rottenburg, Germany. Other Anabaptists, beginning with Felix Manz in January 1527, were killed by the Reformed Church in in Switzerland. Here is an image depicting Sattler’s martyrdom:
One more example: in 1555, Queen Mary in England sentenced Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley to be killed by burning. Here is a drawing from “Foxe’s Book of Martyr’s” (1563) showing their martyrdom: 
Some say, though, “But all that was a long time ago!” Quite true. But it was also in the 16th century that the Augsburg Confession (1530) was adopted by the Lutherans, and it remains as a primary doctrinal statement or Lutherans today.
Further, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion was a document adopted by the Church of England in 1563 (finalized in 1571). Incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer, that is still the basic statement of Anglican/Episcopal doctrine.
My point is this: it is not logically consistent to dismiss some events of the 16th century as being done by ancient people who are not like us today while affirming 16th century religious statements as still being authoritative.
Moreover, the Christian atrocities mentioned above weren’t done by some radical fringe group, such as the so-called Islamic State (which is neither truly Islamic or a state) is, but by the most prominent Christian authorities of the time.
Of course, the President also referred to events of the 20th century, not just of the Middle Ages.
On the same day as the President’s Prayer Breakfast talk, noted political commentator Bill Moyers posted “The Fiery Cage and the Lynching Tree, Brutality’s Never Far Away” on Apparently before the President’s talk, Moyers was writing about the very sort of thing the President mentioned—and has been criticized for.
If you aren’t convinced by the brutality of past Christianity depicted in the pictures above, check out Moyers’s article. The President, sadly, wasn’t misrepresenting Christianity.


  1. I would add to your list the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572 during which probably some 9,000 French Protestants were stoned, stabbed, and clubbed to death by French Catholics.

    The question this debate raises about religion should not be dismissed lightly, it seems to me. Maybe religion is not entirely innocent in these atrocities. Certainly there's a humane and civilized Islam just as there is a humane and civilized Christianity, but we should ask ourselves whether there is something in religion itself that lends itself to justifying murder. Except for crimes of passion, psychosis, and politics, what has justified the greatest slaughters in the modern world (since the late Middle Ages) have been isms--racism, nationalism, sectarianism, ethnocentrism, and various politico-economic ideologies. America's history of racial brutality and oppression is surely linked to a combination of sectarianism (Evangelical Protestantism) and racism. What is it in these things that can stifle or justify the stifling of the apparently inherent human empathy towards others of the species, even spurring us on, beyond a lack of empathy, to active murder itself? If there is something in these ways of thinking and processing that stimulates the worst in us, it's perhaps incumbent on us who are religious and reflective to seek it out and promote whatever changes such insight would call for.

    1. Anton, thanks for comments. As is often the case, you raise issues that I cannot respond to adequately.

      Certainly the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre is one of many additions that might be made to the list--and that is of Christians killing other Christians!

      I have long been negative toward most "isms," so I agree with what you said about that issue. In addition, when religion becomes linked to political power, bad things usually happen--and through the centuries there has most often been that link of church and state (or mosque and state, etc.). That is why I have often said that most "religious" wars are fought much more for political reasons than for religious reasons.

      Karen Armstrong's new book "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence" (2014), which I still haven't read much of, speaks to this issue quite well, I think.

      So, yes, I definitely think those of us who are religious need to work continually at trying to keep religion separated from power as well as separated from isms (ideologies).

  2. One need not scour history even 50 years. Currently the Christian Identity Movement defines White people as God's chosen. These groups foment hate and violence, and are popular among inmates. Here is an article on the Christian Identity Movement. It links to live websites of some of the groups.

    President Obama's detractors rage that he won't use the phrase "Islamic Terrorist(s)" to describe ISIL or individual perpetrators who claim to be Muslim. I wonder how those people would feel about someone calling Timothy McVey a Christian Terrorist? Would they think that was an accurate descriptor or too broad a brushstroke?

  3. Jamelle Bouie has an interesting article Obama's and Giuliani's recent comments. He agrees that with Giuliani that Obama is different than other Presidents, just not with how Giuliani defines that difference. Bouie argues that Obama, as a black man, has a complicated relationship with America, and that shows in the nuance of his speech, the very same nuance that tends to cause certain conservatives to blow a gasket. See the article here:

    The fact that even George W. Bush has a much more nuanced view of Islam than much of the current generation of GOP hopefuls is staggering. When a President publicly describes a dangerous situation in the world, his every syllable counts. Calling Islam a peaceful religion is a calculated (and very logical) effort to try to nudge it in exactly that direction. Admitting that the United States is less than perfect is setting a precedent allowing other nations room to re-examine their own situations. At one time American politicians worked under an agreement that politics, at least publicly, ended at the water's edge, to allow Presidents room to navigate those dangerous waters. That agreement never worked perfectly, and poor decisions, such as the war in Vietnam, forced a certain amount of adjustment to the agreement. However, the extent and vehemence of the current undermining of the President in foreign policy leads, on the one hand, to the question of what constitutes giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States, and, on the other hand, to the word that Article III of the United States Constitution uses to describe such aid and comfort. Today that aid and comfort is just more collateral damage in the rule-or-ruin politics now dominating Capitol Hill.

    Perhaps this is time to remember a question, from days gone by, asked by Joseph N. Welch of Senator Joseph McCarthy, on the fateful day of June 9, 1954. "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" Perhaps "decency" would be a kinder word than the one found in Article III.

  4. After Obama made the statement you referenced, some of my conservative friends said that the Crusades can be defended as a defensive war against an invading army. It's the first time I've heard somebody say that the Crusades were a good war.

  5. Thinking Friend George, a Canadian pastor, writes,

    "I concur. People down through the ages have used the term "Christianity" loosely. What Obama said is so true -- people have justified some of the sordid events in the past and in the present in the name of Christianity.

  6. Here are comments shared by local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your wise remarks.

    "The President correctly pointed out some atrocities committed in the name of Christianity. They were not confined to the 15th or 16th centuries. It is estimated that 4,000 African-Americans have been lynched in America since the War Between the States and I strongly suspect that those who committed those lynchings claimed to be good Christians. (I am not, however, aware of any atrocities committed by Anabaptists or their descendants.)

    "While ISIS may adhere to a slavish, literal interpretation of the Qur'an, most Muslims do not commit atrocities and they are more likely to view the Qur'an in its original context, which means that while some of the actions condoned in the Qur'an may have been appropriate in situations confronted by Mohammed, they are not appropriate today. And, as with any holy book, multiple interpretations are possible."

  7. I just now saw that the Faith & Freedom Coalition is calling on its members to demand an apology from the President for what he said about Christianity at the 2/5 prayer breakfast. The link is