My comment on #Douthat’s #Obama the Theologian

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

My comment:

Rima_1966_ovalMr. 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.


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7 thoughts on “My comment on #Douthat’s #Obama the Theologian”

  1. I, too, noticed how all the criticism was focused on the mention of the Crusades, probably on hopes of distracting from the much more immediate example of slavery and Jim Crow.

  2. I am reluctant to do this as I don’t want you to know my name but since Charles Blow protects you from being confronted this is my only recourse and I do it for some very specific reasons
    1) I don’t know where you got it in your head that you can judge me as a conservative. You make these all encompassing attacks on conservatives and seem to think you can condemn a whole group of people. That’s BS You are not my judge, God is and until he tells me otherwise? Exclude me from your slurs.
    2) Do not think for one moment you can lecture me abour race relation. Maybe Blow is impressed, I am not in the least. I grew up in it in Chicago. I saw the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. I saw my father go to Minneopolis to the railroad headquarters to demand they honored the brakeman who kept my brother from bleediing to death from a gruesome train accident. His name was Milt and he was black. My parents made you look conservative and unlike you they accepted who I was politically. They didn’t judge me or attack me like you do. They were very tolerant of differing viewponts. You? If everyone does believe and act exactly as you say they should they are a racist.
    3) I worked for the Department of Juvenile Justice as a Youth Correctional Counselor until I blew out my knee running to break up a fight. For 6 1/2 years I worked on Ironwood, a unit so violent that 90% of staff refused to work there.

    1. Dear Mr. Kunold,

      I can properly address you now that I know your real name.

      Comments in reply to newspaper columns are part of a discussion where each commenter expresses a response or opinion that relates to what the columnist has written- not a confrontation. I guess that is the difference between you and me.

      When I comment, I exercise my right to free speech – just like you do.

      As for the protection you mention, the NY Times moderates comments. Of all the inappropriate comments you’ve left me over the years, I only asked for one to be taken down because it included an antisemitic insult.

      You are welcome to come back and comment on my blog any time. Since I am the one who does the moderating, I can say this: I will approve your comments as long as they don’t contain abusive language – just like the one above.

      1. I do not use racist slurs. Never. If. I did you have my apology. I honestly do not remember doing so. That is not me
        It is frustrating when you judge all conservatives the same. Please stop doing that. I am not a term. I form my own opinions
        By the way, I got an ugly letter from Reince Priebus demanding money or they would drop me. After telling him I was told I would not leave the ER at Sharp Hospital alive on 12/10/2012 and having everything change I decided I would not let people try to get over on me. I told Priebus he does not define me and if this is how he raises money he can KMA. I told him to take my name off immediately Never heard back

        Rima, you are one of the smartest people on there. Your arguments are good until you paint every person with the same brush. You don’t need to go there. Attacks put people on the defensive and I Feel I have to defend myself when I’ve done nothing wrong

        I am a conservative. I am not a mean person. I would like to have a civil discourse with no attacks but healthy debate. Does that work for you?

          1. I apologized once. I admitted my mistake. That is as far as so I will go. A sincere apology should be enough. Your decision. Have a nice day

          2. There was an if in your statement which you prefaced with a denial of engaging in racist behaviors. FYI, “if” in an apology negates it.

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