National Prayer Breakfast

by Michael Sean Winters

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President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, and the reactions to those remarks, illustrate why yesterday’s breakfast should be the last. No one goes for the breakfast – and I like a good breakfast – and no one really goes for the prayer. The event is a weird tribute to civic religion, in which no one believes, and presidents did fine without it for 160 years.

Most of the controversy has surrounded these words from President Obama. After talking about the violence perpetrated in the name of Islam by ISIS, which he and he alone persists in calling ISIL, Obama said:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  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.

Of course, President Obama probably has never read Henry Kamen’s history of the Spanish Inquisition. It was indeed barbaric at times. It was also an arm of the Spanish state. Critics of Obama’s comments were quick to point this out but they, too, were only half-right. Yes, the autos-de-fe were conducted in the name of Christ because governments in those days still considered heresy a civil crime. Indeed, the best way to point out that the specific conflation of religion and government evidenced by the Inquisition was bad for both would be for the president to say, “So, why are we, a bunch of politicians, hosting a prayer breakfast?”

Some noisy Christians took offense that the President compared past deeds done by Christians to contemporary barbarisms perpetrated by Muslims. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention said: “The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.” Hmmm. Last time I checked, as late as 1968, George Wallace won five states in a presidential election, and Mr. Wallace did not win those states because he polled so well among non-Christians. If Moore was only speaking about the Crusades or the Inquisition, well, it is easy for non-Catholics to criticize anything before the Reformation, but I would point out that when Protestants objected to the burning of heretics during the reign of Queen Mary, it was not the fire but the victims to which they objected and, once Mary died and her sister Elizabeth took the throne, the fire continued and it was Catholics who were sent to the flames. All in the name of God or in the name of a state conceived as possessing divine sanction.

It is not news to anyone that people who do good things and people who do evil things alike seek the sanction of their religion. The only politician who got the balance perfectly was Lincoln who once wrote “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time.” Since Lincoln, most politicians have been cynical when it comes to religion. Wilson was an exception and also a bigot. Obama is no worse than the others, but also no better.

Consider these words of his just before the controversial section quoted above. The President said, “But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge -- or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.” Is it really a politician’s place to say what is, and is not, a “betrayal” of a religious creed? Can you imagine any president offering a similar commentary on which variety of Judaism or Christianity is the “true” variety and which the false? Of course, President Obama was not saying anything his predecessor George W. Bush had not said. In the days after the attacks on September 11, 2001, President Bush went to the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue to affirm that Islam is a religion of peace. I am glad, I suppose, that both men say these sorts of things. Certainly better then seeing a soundbite going viral in which a Western leader affirmed that Islam is a religion of violence. But, if you think there is no cynicism at work here, just remember the bowing and scraping and ring-kissing both Obama and Bush have undertaken with the Saudis.

It is good for Christians, perhaps especially Catholics, to recognize that we did not come of our own volition to the cause of religious tolerance. There are historical and theological reasons for this, to be sure. And, the track record of our Protestant brothers and sisters is not exactly sterling: Long after the Act of Toleration in 1689, parliament continued to debate variations on the Occasional Conformity Bill as a way of using religion to deprive Whigs of political office. And, of course, the 1689 Act did not apply to Catholics at all. Still, we Roman Catholics were late to the idea that it was not the task of the state to enforce religious observance and conformity. How late? I was born in 1962 into a Church that still held the political doctrine of religious freedom was wrong.

I know that sometimes these conflations of religion and politics make me churlish. I confess I am very wary of the Pope’s addressing Congress: The optics seems all wrong, such a specifically political setting, and a powerful one too. Note to papal visit planners: The White House, the Capitol, the UN, even in its way the National Shrine, none of these really represent the peripheries where Pope Francis is most comfortable and where he has repeatedly said he wants the Church to be. I get creeped out when, at the Red Mass, they play the national anthem after the processional hymn but before the Mass begins in earnest. Of course, no politician would have the courage to simply refuse to go to the prayer breakfast. It would take a preacher-turned-politician, like Mike Huckabee, to pull that off, as it took a Nixon to go to China. I think we can all agree that a Huckabee presidency would be too high a price to pay for the breakfast to end. So, it will continue and presidents will continue to speak about things they should not speak about and say things about religion that are deeply cynical. There are worse things that happen in the world.  

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