“It is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures,” as Montaigne said, “to have a man roasted alive because of them.” After burning to death a Jordanian pilot in a steel cage, it’s safe to assume that the Islamic State puts a high premium on its “conjectures.”
In his recent speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama denounced the religious violence perpetuated by the Islamic State, but also warned his audience not to “get on our high horse,” because (to coin a phrase) only those who are free of sin ought to cast stones. “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.”
This argument has been roundly criticized, especially by the president’s opponents in the Christian orbit who complain that Obama propels a spurious moral equivalence between medieval Christianity and modern Islam. They have noted that Obama seems to extend the benefit of the doubt to Islam while withholding it from Christianity. These critics have the shadow of a point given that Obama did not indulge the polite fiction – as is his wont when the subject turns to Islam – that Christian barbarism was a perversion of the “true” spirit of the faith.
Despite this, it has to be said that Obama’s words were, on the whole, defensible as sheer historical fact. Even if the record of the Crusades and the Inquisition is not well understood – indeed, widely misunderstood – it is undeniable that, over the centuries, Christendom has committed innumerable crimes against natural law in defense of the faith. Until very recently, it was a continual source of human conflict and human misery. “The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort,” Mark Twain said, “in the innocent blood it has spilt.”
In his bill of indictment, the president included America’s twin stains, slavery and segregation, which enjoyed fairly explicit Biblical warrant and widespread religious support. Abolitionists sought to use the doctrine of Christianity to undercut these evils, but the theological ground was firm beneath the Slave Power. As the Reverend Richard Fuller noted in 1845, “What God sanctioned in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New Testament, cannot be sin.” Ta Nehisi Coates cites Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who explained in his “Corner Stone” speech the kind of society the Dixie South was hoping to build:
[T]he first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society … With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.
In response, Christian apologists have pointed out that slavery and segregation were also overthrown by those, including Martin Luther King, who justified their actions in the name of Christ. (Abraham Lincoln, a religious skeptic, has not proved as serviceable to their cause.) King was of course as devout a Baptist as they come, but his commitment to civil disobedience probably owed more to Gandhi than the God of the Bible – the latter of whom was rather less consistent on the principle of nonviolence. However that may be, it should be readily granted that Christianity has grown appreciably more civilized – docile, even – since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (to say nothing of the tenth and eleventh centuries).
Where does all this leave us? The problem with Obama’s argument wasn’t so much that he spoke of medieval Christianity and modern Islam in the same breath. At a time when it is widely assumed that the Muslim Middle East is historically doomed to backwardness and despotism, it is worth remembering that “the West,” too, was once a benighted civilization. The problem with Obama’s argument is, rather, that he stopped there, thereby squandering the opportunity to urge the world of Islam to follow Occidentalism in splitting temporal and spiritual power.
Obama’s glib and disobliging remarks about Christianity’s past were not, in other words, delivered in the service of a resolute secularism. They were delivered, instead, as an apology for Islam. But Islam does not need apologies; it needs reformers. These reformers exist, of course, agitating for a Reformation and Enlightenment in their faith and society. For their trouble, they have been and continue to be subjected to a campaign of persecution and murder by forces convinced they are agents of God’s will. The reformers’ struggle against the reactionaries is not one we can view with indifference.
And yet … Get off your high horse. That’s fair advice to Christians who find it convenient to forget that their faith long countenanced burning heretics at the stake. But as a message from the chief executive of a secular republic in response to the menace from radical Islam, it’s profoundly inadequate. On this issue, the trouble with the Obama administration – and the political left in general – is not that it has been too liberal, but that it has not been, in the more fundamental sense, liberal enough. In the war against jihadism, we do ride a high horse, and we could learn to sit in the saddle with rather more confidence.