Virtually all the commentary today on Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast has focused on his tu quoque argument that people have taken Christianity as the inspiration to do bad things, just as Islamists take Islam. (My colleague Howard Portnoy gave it a unique treatment of his own here.)
It’s certainly legitimate to object to the tu quoque argument, in large part because it’s not clear what Obama is suggesting by it. What does he mean to say we should or shouldn’t do, based on the premise he outlines? He clearly doesn’t mean we should refrain from criticizing ISIS. Obama himself says ISIS is vicious and barbaric, and needs to be “degraded and defeated.”
If he means we need to criticize ourselves, what’s the purpose for saying that? Does he have something specific and constructive in mind? An open-ended commitment to rebuke ourselves repeatedly for the same things, and keep the faults of (some of) our ancestors at the forefront of our thinking, is the opposite of what a leader should be urging us to.
I ran across a post by Rush Limbaugh at Facebook today. It captures this first question nicely.
But there’s a less-noticed passage in Obama’s speech, and I want to highlight it here. It starts around the 2:20 mark in this video clip. It takes Obama an inordinately long time to spit it out, which is interesting in itself. I’ve tried to capture the lengthy pauses in my transcript below.
First, we should start with some basic humility.
I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt…not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right, and…and… that God speaks only to us. And doesn’t speak to others.
That God only cares about us, and doesn’t care about others…that somehow…we alone…are in possession of the truth.
Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth… Our job is to be true Him, and His…word, and His…commandments. And we should…assume humbly that… [pause] … we’re confused, and don’t always know what we’re doing, and we’re…staggerin’ and stumblin’…towards Him.
First of all, we must ask why the president of the United States is telling Americans that their faith should start with doubt. What is his charter as an elected public official to do that? His accusatory tone is unmistakable. He is not merely musing about his own personal take on faith. He implies clearly that people who don’t share it are “full of themselves” and overly “confident that they are right.”
He goes further to impute to these unnamed people the assumption that “God speaks only to them” and “doesn’t speak to others.” There is zero support in his statement for this prejudicial and divisive formulation. He’s impressionistic and emotive here; we may all know what mindset his points come from, but that’s not the same as his points being logical or supported by evidence. He’s painting a picture, not building a case.
The same goes for his additional point about “God only caring about us, and not about others.” This, like his previous points, is a strawman. There are no major faiths practiced in America that posit that God cares only about their adherents, and not anyone else. If there are individual persons who hold that view, how is it in the president’s job description to rebuke them on that head – particularly as a theoretical problem?
After paving the way with accusation and encouragement to doubt, Obama delivers the coup de grace. Putting yet another strawman on parade, he informs us that our job is not to ask God to respond to our notion of the truth – the embedded premise being that at least someone is out here doing that – but instead to assume, “humbly,” that we are confused, and don’t know what we’re doing.
Why would the president make that point to the people? We don’t elect the president to instruct us on how to think about God, faith, metaphysics, or cosmology. We don’t elect him to define for us what it looks like to have a proper level of humility. We certainly don’t elect him to accuse us of not having it. There is nothing wrong with a president sharing some of his own beliefs about God. But that’s not what Obama is doing here. He is actually wading into the divisive question of what other people’s faith “should” or “shouldn’t” look like.
Two points. One, that’s not what anyone is doing who acknowledges the obvious: that Muslims who cite the Quran and the hadiths as their motive for committing atrocities in the name of Allah are, in fact, engaged in Islamic radicalism. To acknowledge that is merely to point out the empirically indisputable. People who do so are not commenting on what Islam “should” look like – although by distinguishing radicals from other Muslims, they are recognizing, quite properly and usefully, that there’s a difference in behavior.
What any of us is competent to judge, and the state competent to try to address, is what people do. I can’t settle for Muslims what Islam is supposed to be, much less what they hear from God. Nor can the state. But as a citizen, I can certainly tell everyone that we won’t have any blowing up of crowds at bus stops or beheading of heretics, tossing of gays from rooftops or torching of girls’ schools. I expect the state to back me up on that – and not to pretend it doesn’t know where to look for the radicals most likely to do these things.
The other point is that there is a mode of address going on here that some people’s rhetorical radars will be more attuned to than others’.
The accusatory tone. The sowing of doubt – no, glorifying doubt: vaunting it over certainty, which is disparaged, by implication, as inherently mean-spirited and prideful. The false, and convenient, equation of a good characteristic – humility – with a paralyzing condition: confusion. The implication that none of us can really be certain about having heard anything from God, presumably whether it’s in the Bible or not.
Who would inspire such a mode of address? He who has ears to hear, let him hear.