I’m still thinking about the brouhaha that stemmed from our president’s talk at the National Prayer Breakfast, and I appreciated Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ take on this column by Ross Douthat. I thought I’d curate it, along with my comment.
PRESIDENT OBAMA, like many well-read inhabitants of public life, is a professed admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous mid-20th-century Protestant theologian. And more than most presidents, he has tried to incorporate one of Niebuhr’s insights into his public rhetoric: the idea that no society is innocent, and that Americans in particular need to put aside illusions about our own alleged perfection.
The latest instance came at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast, when the president, while condemning the religious violence perpetrated by the Islamic State, urged Westerners not to “get on our high horse,” because such violence is part of our own past as well: “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.”These comments were not well received by the president’s critics — as, indeed, his Niebuhrian forays rarely are. In the past, it’s been neoconservatives taking exception when Obama goes abroad and talks about our Cold War-era sins. This time, it was conservative Christians complaining that the president was reaching back 500 or 1,000 years to play at moral equivalence with people butchering their way across the Middle East.From a Niebuhrian perspective, such complaints are to be expected. “All men,” the theologian wrote, like to “obscure the morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity.” Nobody likes to have those ambiguities brought to light; nobody likes to have the sanctity of his own cause or church or country undercut.So the president probably regards his critics’ griping as a sign that he’s telling necessary truths. Indeed, sometimes he is. Certainly the sweeping Wilsonian rhetoric of George W. Bush cried out for a corrective, and Obama’s disenchanted view of America’s role in the world contains more wisdom than his Republican critics acknowledge.But the limits of his Niebuhrian style have also grown apparent.The first problem is that presidents are not historians or theologians, and in political rhetoric it’s hard to escape from oversimplication. You can introduce the Crusades to complicate a lazy “Islam violent, Christianity peaceful” binary, but then a lot of Christians are going to hear an implied equivalence between the Islamic State’s reign of terror and the incredibly complicated multicentury story of medieval Christendom’s conflict with Islam … and so all you’ve really done is put a pointless fight about Christian history on the table. To be persuasive, a reckoning with history’s complexities has to actually reckon with them, and a tossed-off Godfrey of Bouillon reference just pits a new straw man against the one you think you’re knocking down.The second problem is that self-criticism doesn’t necessarily serve the cause of foreign policy outreach quite as well as Obama once seemed to believe it would. Early in his administration, especially around his 2009 speech in Cairo, there was a sense that showing Muslims that an American president understood their grievances would help expand our country’s options in the Middle East. But no obvious foreign policy benefit emerged, and since then Obama’s displays of public angst over, say, drone strikes have mostly seemed like an exercise in self-justification, intended for an audience of one. (Meanwhile, our actual enemies can pocket his rhetorical concessions: The alleged relevance of the Crusades to modern politics, for instance, has long been one of Al Qaeda’s favorite tropes.) […]
Click here to read the rest of this op-ed at NYTimes.com
Mr. Douthat exemplifies the deeply-held beliefs of so many Caucasian-Americans that continuing to deny America’s bloody and racist past is the better path to its history, than finally acknowledging it, atoning and making amends for it, and then, finally, moving on to a better, more honest future.
Meanwhile, white America continues with its hypocrisy, not only to its African-American population, but also to subsets of its own. By refusing to acknowledge exactly what is wrong with the subjugation of a people or class, some, in America, continue to benefit from hegemonistic subjugation.
The root causes of our school to prison pipeline, prison-industrial complex, refusal to care for our own through a better social contract, tighter regulation of markets and product safety, and, lately, the dismantlement of the social benefits and institutions of FDR’s New Deal source all the way back to slavery.
We have never allowed ourselves to learn that we can do well without oppressing others. We have not yet learned that we can all do so much better as a society, and it doesn’t have to be at the expense of anyone. Conservatism, today is about rewriting history and reestablishing the values of the Old South.
Everything President Obama said at the prayer breakfast is exactly right. He could have gone a lot farther and still been exactly right. I wish he’d been saying these things since 2007. Americans can’t hear or learn these things enough.
We need Moral Monday, desperately.