On Thursday, President Obama delivered remarks at National Prayer Breakfast XLIX, the annual Super Bowl of Devotion that presidents have headlined at the Hinckley Hilton since Reagan was in office, and ever since, even the most reliably pro-Obama journalists have been at full DefCon Comic Book Guy status over one particular portion of the speech. Here is that portion, wrapped in the annoying "context" that television news is forced to omit because they suck:
"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."
That's the part that everyone's freaking out about, and deliberately, inexcusably missing the point of, because he summed it up really well at the end of that clip. "There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith," the president said, a concise explanation of "ISIS is not Islamic," even though they claim Islam and quote Islamic texts. The problem isn't the religion itself, the theory goes, but the men who are perverting it. Some dude who's inclined to eat a lung isn't going to become a crossing guard because he reads a better book.
I happen to agree with the president, but that's really beside the point. I also watched that portion of the Prayer Breakfast speech, and while I expected conservatives to flip out, I wasn't prepared for liberals to declare this the Worst Speech Ever. It's not just Lawrence O'Donnell, either, they've been doing it all day on MSNBC. On Friday morning's Morning Joe, I endured Joe Scarborough's utter douchebaggery because I just knew that my pal Sam Stein, a great reporter first and a liberal second, would try to add some context and clarity, and maybe remind Scarborough that Jim Crow and slavery actually were not 800 years ago. Not so much:
"It's stupid. It was dumb. It was ill-timed."
Sam was right about one thing, it was ill-timed, but not because of ISIS. That's all the more reason for the president to try and defuse hatred of Islam. It was ill-timed because he said it at a prayer breakfast. Many (not all) liberals are rising up against the president now for saying something they were all perfectly fine with a few months ago. There was absolutely nothing new about what President Obama said Thursday, except that he said it at a prayer breakfast. The "high horse" word choice was a definite red cape, but there is no combination of words that would have made that concept go down easy in that setting.
The one useful thing Lawrence O'Donnell did do last night was to provide several examples of awful moments in presidential prayer breakfast history, to which I would add the fact that this custom gave us all Ben Carson as a conservative rock star. For years, liberals have expressed frustration at presidents mixing church and state by humoring religion at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, especially this president. We're as convinced that he's a secret secularist as Orly Taitz is that he's a secret Kenyan Muslim.
But the Carson example illustrates an even better reason for presidents to skip the National Prayer Breakfast: it's not actually all that Christian a thing to participate in. Jesus never endorsed ripping a political opponent's skin off as an appropriate form of worship, and indeed, the Bible takes an overall dim view of the world of men. It also isn't too keen on preening, ostentatious displays of piety. Having a big televised #Nerdprom For Jesus is, for lack of a better word, un-Christian.
Update: On Saturday morning, Lawrence O'Donnell, stubborn cuss that he is, kept at it, but he and Up host Steve Kornacki also disappointingly showed the same historical blindness that Joe Scarborough did. Former Obama White House official Josh DuBois had to remind bot of them that slavery and Jim Crow weren't 800 years ago, which led to the awkward, ugly spectacle of O'Donnell (mostly) and Kornacki arguing against religious influence on the Klan, including the claim that while the Klan hated Jews and Catholics, "they assassinated only black people." This would come as quite a surprise to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner if they were around to be surprised, instead of being murdered by the Klan in Mississippi.
It got worse from there, as DuBois had to explain to two white dudes that slavery and Jim Crow actually were worse than ISIS, and actually were religiously inspired. Those weren't "T"s they were burning on all those lawns, you know, and the Stormfront logo isn't a crosshair.
On Friday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz took a couple of questions about this during a gaggle aboard Air Force One:
Q Can you talk about yesterday -- the President got some criticism for his comments at the prayer breakfast. Was he surprised by that? And what is your response to that?
MR. SCHULTZ: I saw that commentary, Anita. I think that the President has spoken many times to his belief in American exceptionalism. And the President believes America is the greatest country on Earth not only because of our military might or economic prowess, or because we serve in a unique leadership role amongst the international community, but part and parcel to America’s standing in the world is our values, and those are values like equality, tolerance, fairness, civil rights, human rights, treating every human being with respect and decency -- no matter their gender, their race, their faith, their sexual identity. Part and parcel to that and our values are holding ourselves up to our own values and our own standards.
So the President believes that when we fall short of that, we need to be honest with ourselves and look inward, and hold ourselves accountable. That’s what gives us the moral standing around the world -- not just because we assert it, but because we hold ourselves accountable. So whether that’s our elected officials, whether that is a free and vibrant press, a judiciary system that’s independent -- those are the values the President was talking about.
Q Did he think he would have that kind of criticism? Was he surprised by that?
MR. SCHULTZ: Fair question. I have not spoken with him about the reaction to the remarks, but I know that there’s a failed presidential candidate, an RNC chairman from the past who have criticized us. But I don’t have a response to either of those two people.
Q He’s also being criticized by some Republicans, like Rob Portman, who’s not one of these conservative pundits. He’s a Republican senator who said that he’s troubled by the idea that the President was drawing some sort of moral equivalency between what ISIS does and things done in the name of Christianity. Was he trying to draw a comparison and a sense of equivalency between those two things? Or does he reject that characterization?
MR. SCHULTZ: Again, what I think the President was trying to say is, over the course of human history there are times where extremists pervert their own religion to justify violence. And that’s what the President was trying to talk about yesterday.
Q How did President choose the national prayer breakfast to make those points?
MR. SCHULTZ: Again, I think if you look at the entire text of the remarks, you’ll see how well suited they were for that audience and that setting. And again, I think the President -- I’d refer you to his speech earlier this year at the United Nations General Assembly, where he spoke very compellingly about the United States’ standing in the world and how part and parcel to that standing is us living up to our own values and our own principles.