Why Obama’s Rhetoric About Christian Violence Was a Problem

Saturday morning I wrote some thoughts about why Obama was wrong to drag Christian sins into his speech condemning Islamic terror. I spent that afternoon debating my points on social media with Sam Rocha, Mark Shea, and others, so I thought I’d expand upon my rationale a bit.Barack_Obama_at_Cairo_University_cropped

I don’t really write about contemporary political events much. It’s not a subject of interest to me, not least because I find American politics simply disgusting. As a true conservative and Catholic who believes in the Permanent Things, I have no political home. The GOP is an abomination that needs to be dismantled now, and the Democrats offer only a toxic brew of anti-life militancy and ruinous economic policies.

Part of the problem with responding to Obama’s Crusades flap is that it’s following the course of all contemporary debate in drifting to the extremes. Thus, you get fools like Max Fisher at Vox proclaiming “Let’s be clear: The Obama Crusades controversy is over whether it’s okay to hate Muslims,” while Twitter fills up with people on the right simply crouching into a reflexively anti-Obama pro-Crusades position without taking care to acknowledge what I wrote at the beginning of by Catholic World Report piece:

The facts [of Obama’s comments] on their face are undeniable. During various Crusades and Inquisitions, some people did indeed do terrible things that no Christian should do, nor should any defend. But they also did great things in the name of Christ, and at the exact same time.

There’s a certain faction of the right and of Christendom that can’t see the Crusades any more clearly than the Muslims can. You find this faction ably summarized by HW Crocker III’s comment in Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, where he counts himself among “those who wish the Sack of Byzantium to be a feast day in the Church.”

What Obama said was not fundamentally inaccurate: it was its specific use in a particular place in a speech that made a mere fact into a provocative and offensive statement. It drew an inaccurate and inappropriate moral analogy between the violence of the past and the violence of the present.

Worse (and my larger problem) was the way it feeds an illusion in the Islamic world of the Crusades as unjust attacks on an innocent population, motivated by religious fanaticism and racism, rather than what they were: military operations with multiple motivating factors, self-defense among them. It’s a debate that could be simplified to the distinction between jus ad bellum and jus ad bello: the justification for war, and the justification (or “rules”) once war has started. The Crusades satisfied jus ad bellum but frequently failed to satisfy jus ad bello (a fact recognized by popes who condemned wanton violence).

That’s a stunningly fine point of law and theology to try to compress into a passing comment, and he clearly wasn’t attempting to do that. This was the Patronizing Obama. The Teacher Obama. The man who feels anointed to educate and uplift an ignorant population of racists and bigots always ready to burst into new acts of wanton and random violence against The Other.

In truth, the population of America, by and large, shows very little inclination to do this. The fringes may be loud, but they don’t represent the vox pop. The real poison in our civil body is the leadership class represented by both Obama and the GOP, which keeps its stranglehold on power by wars and inflammatory rhetoric. Obama almost certainly killed more people in drone strikes during his term than the Spanish Inquisition executed in 300 years, yet he never turns that laser-beam gaze of moral authority on his own actions.

Thus, my criticism was of rhetoric and its proper use. When I write about contemporary events, my critical lens is almost always Marshall McLuhan. I’m interested in how ideas and images are communicated, the intent of the communicator, and the effect on the receiver. Everything we say is shaped by multiple factors, not the least being the medium itself. When the speaker is a world-significant figure like the president, he becomes a kind of medium in and of himself. The Presidency is a medium, and it’s one that transcends the speaker and bears with it certain meanings and rules. His position shapes the way a mere fact is received, thus mere fact is sometimes (and most notably in this case) insufficient unto itself. Indeed, a truth can become almost akin to a lie in certain media or within a certain context.

Muslims found themselves, in the 20th century, in a ruinous situation after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Colonialism and partition made them bitter and resentful, and they reached into a myth of the past to find a justification for their present sorrow. That myth was one of constant persecution and imperialism from the west over centuries, conveniently ignoring Islam’s own imperialistic and bloody history and reducing the clash to one of mere racial and religious hatred.

That’s why Obama’s comments were so disastrous and tone deaf. In an attempt to chasten Christians, he used an obvious truth (bad things were done in the name of Christ) in the serve of a plain lie (the historical violence of Christians is morally analogous, or even relevant, to the present violence of Muslim terrorists).

Is Christian violence really that big of a problem that he needs to inject that history into this debate? As Bobby Jindal observed: “The Medieval Christian threat is under control, Mr. President.”

On the positive side, he managed to bring Catholics and Protestants together on the subject of medieval violence for the first time. The black lies about the Crusades and Inquisitions were fabricated and perpetuated by Protestants as part of their anti-Catholic polemic. I don’t recall anything like this kind of defense of Catholic actions by American Protestants. It’s wholly a byproduct of their contempt for this man and his dangerous and sloppy rhetoric.

I guess we should be happy with Obama: at last, he is a uniter!