Unfortunate as it may be, Barack Obama’s presidency will be remembered as much for its failures as its successes. His revolutionary healthcare reform will be marked by the bitter political fight that followed; his troop withdrawal from the Middle East countenanced by the vacuum it left, the closing of Gitmo and acknowledgement of American torture balanced by the absence of prosecutions.
Even Obama’s chest puffing about America being on top of the global speed dial list when uncertainty strikes was offset by his neutered response to Bashar Al-Assad’s atrocities and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Where Obama has shone brightest has been in the spheres of social theory, particularly in his skewering of American exceptionalism and discussion of race relations. His speech “A More Perfect Union” was one of the most stirring treatises on the topic since the civil rights era, and his remarks during George Zimmerman’s trial cut to the heart of the Black American experience.
Arguably Obama’s greatest failing is that he has not used his unique platform to further such discussions, even as the globe has been wracked by religious and racially motivated violence.
It is within this context that his remarks during the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5 were so powerful. Many Americans continue to mistakenly conflate religious identity with righteousness or evil — a schism that damages national unity.
“Lest we get on our high horse and think this [religious violence] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people did terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” Obama stated. “In [the US], slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
Predictably, he was hammered by Conservatives. Former Virginian Governor Jim Gilmore (R) exclaimed that the President does not “believe in America and the values we all share,” while MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough railed against what he termed “stupid left-wing moral equivalency.” Given this virulence, the Independent Journal Review’s description of Obama’s comparisons as “tenuous at best” sounded like praise.
While Obama’s examples were questionable — events 900 years old do not resonate today — his unprompted decision to broach this topic was laudable. The common defense offered by Conservatives has been that Christians were involved in the abolition of segregation.
This is, of course, true; without the support of many white Christians, it’s arguable whether the results achieved would have been achieved when they were. But what Obama’s detractors miss is that there was a strong religious justification offered by the system over centuries. By shooting the messenger, Conservatives ignore the very real discord that still thrums within America — racial, religious, and sexual.
Obama’s goal was to address a deeply fractured society poisoned by xenophobic alarmism, one that forgets the overwhelming majority of Muslims have denounced radical terrorists. Half of Americans, according to a Pew Research Survey last fall, believe that Muslims are more likely to encourage violence. Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host, chastised Obama to “stop defending Islam. Start protecting Americans,” while Bill Donohue cut to the heart of right-wing alarmism: “We have a problem with Islam. Not just Islamists. We have a problem with Islamic people.”
Such hard-headedness plays into the game that terrorist groups such as ISIS want: to pit the Islamic world against the Western one. Political and religious knee-jerk defense mechanisms simply further societal schisms and isolate tribes, a phenomenon that Obama has tried his best to avoid. It was one of the most admirable leaps of his presidency; let’s hope he continues to drive the conversation.