If you follow the news at all you probably noticed that a lot of editorial ink has been spilled over the content of President Obama’s recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. In the interest of adding the million and first word on the subject to the million already published, and since this blog has been pretty quiet of late, I thought I’d jump into the tempestuous teapot for a few minutes.
Honestly, I’ve gone back and forth in my assessment of the Prayer Breakfast speech. My first reactions were negative and dismissive, like “why, why at this moment do you dust off the old secularist/Islamist litany about the Crusades and Inquisition?” And “what the President doesn’t know about the Crusades and Inquisition is a lot.”
The President’s references to the horrors of slavery, and the atrocities committed post-Reconstruction in the “redemption of the South” (which was more like the “doubling down on the original sin of the South”) caught my attention, though. First, because the horrors of Southern lynching are far more akin to the atrocities of ISIS terrorism than either the Crusades or Inquisition; and second, because the horrors hit far closer to home than the Crusades and Inquisition. The President’s uncomfortably apposite reference made me think better of his speech, for a little while.
But I’ve come back around to a more critical view of it. The reason is bound up with the answer to this question: What is President Obama doing when he says “lest we get on our high horse”? I think it’s pretty clear, from the litany of wrongs that follows, there’s no I and a lot of you in that we.
No one would think, for example, that President Obama — son of an African father and, to the extent his theology can be categorized, a liberal Protestant — is in any meaningful sense a successor to the Crusaders or Inquisitors. But the Catholic Bishops, many of whom are among the President’s most persistent critics, are successors to the men that blessed the Crusades and conducted the Inquisition: both in reality (via apostolic succession) and in public perception.
Much the same goes for slavery and Jim Crow. To the extent the President is a successor to those, he’s a successor clothed with the moral credibility that comes with being heir to the persecuted class. Meanwhile, his political opponents — not a few of them white, Southern, Baptist, socially conservative — are much more plausible heirs to slaveholders and lynch mobs. So they are in the position of having always to repent of the sins of their ancestors (which many do, though with varying degrees of sincerity). But in the midst of that repentance they have simultaneously to fight the Ghost of Jim Crow: to persuade themselves, a hostile media, and an increasingly skeptical public that today’s battles are not yesterday’s. Which is why they fight so hard to distinguish, say, defense of the traditional legal definition of marriage, which goes back to Genesis 1-2, from defense of anti-miscegenation laws which (on American soil) go back to 1691. And why they object to the indictment constantly handed down by liberal Christians: that they’re just behind Bull Connor in the line of stiff-necked reactionaries who twist Scripture, resist the Holy Spirit, and kill the Civil Rights prophets. And why they protest the not uncommon charge that they oppose the President because of his skin color.
In short, “lest we get on our high horse” and the litany that follows is a dig meant to make political opponents squirm — and, you may have noticed, they have been squirming plenty — cast as self-criticism and shielded from reproach by the clever use of the pronoun “we.”
One final point of interest. A handful of commentators have compared Obama’s remarks to Lincoln’s second inaugural, one of the most profound speeches ever delivered on American soil, and certainly one of the all-time great theological interpretations of a national crisis. But one of the things that made Lincoln’s speech so compelling was that it was uncomfortable for everyone, himself not excepted. Lincoln named then-present evils. He cited St Matthew 18.7 and Psalm 19 in a way that indicted all of the then-divided States, and brought them, together, before the judgment seat of God. In the course of his great speech, Lincoln took his stand firmly upon the dangerous middle ground between the South and the Radical Reconstructionist North, and committed himself and the whole of a divided Nation to the judgment and mercy of God. Compared to that, President Obama’s speech is tepid. One key contrast between the speeches: At no point in President Obama’s speech does he say anything that cuts himself close to the bone. In a comfortable setting, he expounds his largely fashionable views on public religion, his chic certainties about the virtue of doubt. He lists evils which occurred far away or a long time ago, and which in conventional wisdom are types of his opponents’ wrongdoing, rather than his own. To the extent the President’s speech is “confessional,” it is (to paraphrase Ambrose Bierce) a confession admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.