Yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast (a concept/event that I can’t say I entirely understand), President Obama spoke about the state of religious liberty and freedom in the world, as well as commenting on the violence being carried out by numerous groups (specifically ISIL) citing religious motivations for their acts of inhumanity. (Here’s a write up about it with a video clip.) In his speech, he lamented the fact that such atrocities continue to be carried out in the name of religion, insisting that such actions are distortions and affronts to the true heart of religion. After condemning the kinds of atrocities currently being carried out by ISIL, he went on to remind us that such injustices do not belong exclusively to Islam.
Reminding us that such violence is not “unique to some other place” outside of America, he recalled that Christian history is full of violence carried out in the name of Christ, and he specifically decried the Crusades, slavery, and Jim Crow as examples of such instances. These comments were met with outrage and disgust by Christians accusing him of justifying Islamic terrorists in their actions and insulting Christianity in general.
The problem is not with one side or the other. The problem is that everybody is missing the point, and the whole National Prayer Breakfast situation is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with everything in the way we talk about all of these things.
1) Nobody has ever done anything in the name of religion.
Nobody. Ever. Because “religion” is an abstract concept. No one has ever once committed a crime or an atrocity in the name of religion, because “religion” as such does not exist. The term is a construct of modernity, a kind of shorthand to refer to the widely varying systems of belief and cultural practices of peoples around the world. To say that something is done in the name of religion is to say absolutely nothing at all. People do not do things in the name of religion; people do things as a result of the way they construe the world and what they believe to be its ultimate realities. For the vast majority of people who have ever lived, such realities include some form of supernatural force or deity. But to say that religion is inherently violent or inherently peaceful is like saying that color is inherently red. Some colors are red. Some colors are not red. Some “religions” are violent–very violent. Some “religions” are peaceful. Some are neutral. Some are peaceful at their core but distorted in order to justify violence. The analogy isn’t perfect. But to say that “religion motivates” anything at all is to speak nonsense by turning a highly undefinable universal into a particular.
Think of it from a different angle. No one has ever carried out violence in the name of atheism (as atheist evangelists are wont to point out). That, too, is a meaningless statement. Of course no one has ever carried out violence in the name of atheism, because it is a neutral point of intellectual assent. But many people have carried out many atrocities as a result of godless ideologies. To say atheism is inherently violent or inherently peaceful is equally nonsensical as saying the same of religion. No one has ever killed in the name of religion. No one has ever loved in the name of religion. People kill and love based on what they believe deep down about the world and themselves, whether that belief system includes a deity or not.
Speaking about “religion” in the public sphere at all is in many ways a fruitless enterprise, because you haven’t actually said anything. If by “religion” we want to mean “belief systems that include a deity”, that may be a useful shorthand, but at the end of the day we cannot say that “religion” as such is a force for good or for evil. For one thing, outside of belief in a transcendent reality that is external to sentimental anthropology, we have no such categories as good and evil. We are left with popular opinion or utilitarianism, both of which in the end come to nihilism if severed from the transcendent. For another, those belief systems are inevitably going to come into conflict with each other, and with the state–not to mention with the various present ideologies based on a materialist faith. (And yes, materialism is an article of faith.) To speak about religion in the context of public policy or impact is to say nothing more than, “What people believe about the world has an impact on what they do.” “Religion” as such does not, will not, and cannot be a motivating factor for anything at all. It is only in the particulars of faiths and cultures that any such motivation can be found, and “usefulness” or “power for good” must be assessed in the concrete specificity of faith and practice. This is a fact that we have to acknowledge, rather than submitting to the sentimentally simplistic and anthropological rhetoric of “religion” language.
2) Christians have to admit the truths of the past (And also, stop assuming that the President supports Islamic terrorists).
While talk of violent or benevolent “religion” is nonsensical, nothing that President Obama said about the history of Christian violence was in any way untrue. The Crusades absolutely happened (and they absolutely continue to affect the way many Muslims in those areas see the West and its Christendom). The Crusades were brutal, murderous, and truly were often motivated by Christian zeal. That zeal was misplaced, and we are also now in a position to see that much of the driving force behind the Crusades was political power. But they happened, and as Christians (particularly Western Christians) we must acknowledge the evil carried out by our forebears, both in the faith and in DNA. We must wrestle with it and repent of the remaining Christendom mentality that continues to subtly manifest itself in our own culture.
We must similarly accept the fact that Christianity was used to justify the African slave trade and the American slavery system. We must repent of the unjust social structures and racial injustices that continued as a result of that system, and admit that a perverted (or at least apathetic) Christianity was a major contributor to such problems. Whatever you think of Obama’s presidency (or faith) as a whole, he is spot on in his recognition of America’s–and Christendom’s–faults. We should be humble enough to follow his example in acknowledging the fact that our own faith (and nation) has blood on its hands.
And we must realize that humbling ourselves enough to acknowledge the truths of the past and wrestle with them does not mean that we throw in the towel on Christianity altogether. It does not mean that we are forced into a relativism that admits that all religions are equally good (or equally bad). Because our faith is not dependent on the actions of our fellow Christians, nor of ourselves–thanks be to Jesus Christ, or else we would find ourselves utterly doomed. It is not dependent on power structures based in political might or popular opinion. It is based on the Savior King who announced an altogether different kind of kingdom–one in which the weak and poor are blessed, in which justice rolls down like waters, and in which the all-conquering enemy-love of the King calls us to repent and forgive as we have been forgiven.