Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fighting the Extremists Within

What I find interesting in the conservative outrage over President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast is that most of it is focused on his inclusion of the Crusades (and occasionally the Inquisition). It is an attempt to dismiss what the President said because the events he referred to happened such a long time ago.

All of that ignores that he also included the more recent events of slavery and Jim Crow (the latter of which was still alive and well during my lifetime). For those who suggest the Christian community did not sanction slavery, Ta-Nehisi Coates uses a quote from Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens to show that the secession of the Southern States over the issue of slavery was defended based on their religious beliefs.
With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system...

It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made "one star to differ from another star in glory." The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.
Of course there were also Christians who were part of the abolitionist movement - initially a small minority confined mostly to the Quakers. But the question eventually came down to Christians vs Christians over the question of slavery - to the point of a Civil War.

When the issue of Jim Crow actually comes up in these recent discussions, it is usually conservatives appropriating the mantle of Rev. Martin Luther King as a Christian minister who led the Civil Rights Movement. For example, here's Tucker Carlson:
And by the way, who ended slavery and Jim Crow? Christians. The Rev. Martin Luther King. Christians.
He's right, of course. Rev. King based his objection of Jim Crow on his Christian faith. But as we saw with slavery, a lot of white Christians firmly planted themselves on the other side. And it wasn't just the KKK with their burning crosses. I am reminded of the fact that Rev. King's most famous written document -  Letter from Birmingham Jail - was penned in response to eight white religious leaders in the South who objected to his activities.

What we see from both of these examples is that on the question of slavery and Jim Crow, there were Christians on both sides of the divide. After a lot of suffering and death, the "Christian extremists" in our country were defeated by those who held fast to a faith that practiced what it preached.

That is exactly what President Obama's foreign policy is attempting to accomplish in the Muslim world today on the question of ISIS. His message at the Prayer Breakfast was that often throughout history extremists of various religions have distorted their faith in order to justify their "nefarious" ends.

Here's what the President told Matt Yglesias about the current challenge in the Middle East.
But this is going to be a generational challenge in the Muslim world and the Middle East that not only the United States but everybody's going to have to deal with. And we're going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don't have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out. And that to some degree, the people of these countries are going to have to, you know, find their own way. And we can help them but we can't do it for them.
In other words, just as our history shows with slavery and Jim Crow, the best way to defeat the ISIS extremists is for the Muslim world to organize against their terrorism. Conservative attempts to malign all Muslims for the actions of those extremists would actually distract and block that from happening. Just as Malcolm X's hajj to Mecca opened his eyes to the fact that not all white people are inherently evil, Christian conservatives would do well to acknowledge the basic humanity of Muslims who are willing to fight the extremism of ISIS.


  1. Just one correction - Quakers were by no means the only Christians who challenged the institution of slavery. They have been given major attention, and rightly so, but all manner of people from the "Wisdom Tradition" of social justice read the NEW Testament not relying on the tribalism of the Old. Congregationalists, Methodists, Episcopalians, etc. were in the forefront of the Abolition movement in the North starting very early and expanding that base. These are the same denominations that wound up supporting labor, the anti-child labor movement, progressive government reform, Civil Rights, and anti-war movements into the pro-Marriage Equality and reproductive rights movements today.

    Their presence in such matters is very much part of the reason that religious fundamentalists worked to gain such a toehold again after their rousing defeat by Civil Rights and other movements. Social justice was anathema to those ultra-conservative faux Christians who had once and still do support inequality as a manifestation of 'salvation' with their superiority proof they are God's 'chosen'. But as they were deadly wrong about slavery, they remain utterly wrong about all other manifestations of inequality as well. They pursue a vicious and sometimes violent crusade against equality into today.

  2. Thank you for your well written statements of what the president really said. On television and in news blogs I have been hearing only distortion even from supposedly liberal sources. I have been hoping to read a true statement Christian sources and found it here : http://www.religionnews.com/2015/02/05/obama-condemns-distorted-faith-national-prayer-breakfast/