Obama, the National Prayer Breakfast and the Tortured Truth of Christian History

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

– J.K. Rowling

In what’s become an increasingly mundane and predictable ritual as of late, the fundamentalist Christian Religious Right is up in arms over the latest “outrage” emanating from the White House. President Obama’s ‘sin’? A salient commentary delivered at the annual Presidential National Prayer Breakfast on the nature of religious wars. I have not always applauded the actions of our President but I believe I DO know courage when I see it, and our President exhibited unadulterated courage a few days ago when he bravely swung a verbal two-by-four upside the head of Christian supremacists at their annual “Jesus-Fest Tribute” in our nation’s capitol. His comments were made in light of the current campaign against ISIS, and they were absolutely right on the money. However, our fellow American citizens on the theocratic right have never been known to let facts get in the way of a damn good tantrum. Indeed, the hysteria and downright perfidy of the indecorous response to the president’s speech just shows the pathetic depths to which reasonable and rational political discourse in the United States has plummeted.

However, my friends, one such response towered above others in its grotesque hideousness: the response from Adjutant Rich Sestili of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 6 in Marrieta, Georgia. Sestili’s message was specifically designed to incite irrational rage and fury against our president: “Never in the history of the United States has any other president ever made a negative comment about Christ.”

Huh? When did President Obama, a lifelong Christian, ever make a negative comment about Jesus Christ? All things considered, the president’s “criticism” was pretty tepid, as well as most justified and germane, to the proceedings of this National Prayer Breakfast. This event is almost always an unapologetic and garish spectacle of exclusivist American Christian supremacy and primacy no matter HOW hard those who produce it try to disingenuously include token and minute, atomic particles of secularism, respect and acceptance for those who are not “the right type of Christian.” Obama’s courageous comments were clearly aimed at those who cynically manipulate and pervert religion for the purpose of harming others. And apparently he struck a nerve.

This is what the president actually said:

“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. 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.

Simple enough, yet in the leaden-eyed views of the ignorant, these comments are an indicator that our president “is a one-man sleeper cell” who seeks to “advance in America what Islam is advancing worldwide.” Obama even received criticism from his supporters on the liberal left for his supposedly “patronizing tone.”

However, what the president dutifully noted was simply the tip of the iceberg – let’s not forget the even more recent history of unbridled violence committed in the name of Christianity.

Take the post-9/11 era. Have Americans already forgotten the fact that our last president “christened” the struggle against al-Qaeda and similar groups as “this crusade, this war on terrorism”? Our Islamist foes certainly haven’t forgotten this gaffe-cum-Presidential fatwa.

Take “Jesus Rifles”, for instance – rifle scopes engraved with various New Testament biblical inscriptions which were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, we’d be remiss in failing to mention the official “Jesus Loves Nukes” instructional unit that was a part of the U.S. Air Force’s mandatory ‘ethics’ training for its nuclear missile launch officers. And then there are the incidents of forced attendance of Christian rock concerts, “Spiritual Fitness Tests,” violent hazing on religious grounds, as well as the shattered careers of hundreds if not thousands of enlistees, officers, and civilian personnel who’ve challenged the fundamentalist evangelical Christian domination of the U.S. Armed Forces. In fact, just last month the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF, the civil rights organization that I head) discovered a bit of “Christian Jihadi” training being carried out near the Sonoran Desert in Phoenix, AZ, where Army recruiters saw fit to recruit folks interested in going “On A Mission For Both God And Country.”

Even the most casual observer can see that the Muslim world hardly has a monopoly on religious violence, but don’t tell this to bona-fide Christofascist Chaplain Robert Doll of the Disabled Veterans of America. According to Doll, “the only known instance of Christians murdering unbelievers was Spanish conquistadors murdering natives in the New World” (emphasis added), a practice Doll shockingly muses – with all too obvious racist bigotry – that the Spaniards perhaps learned from the Muslim caliphs who previously ruled Spain.

Wait! What the HELL did that Islamophobic idiot just assert? Well, “Chaplain” Doll conveniently attempts to airbrush from history the entire centuries-old experience of American slavery, that “institution of God”, punctuated with the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan as well as the dozens of Native American tribes who were mercilessly annihilated during the “Manifest Destiny” expansion of the United States, to cite a couple of the most obvious examples. Likewise, let’s not forget the thousands of pogroms committed against the Jews of Eastern Europe, the murderous campaigns undertaken by ultra-Christian fascists throughout the Twentieth Century, the ethnic cleansings carried out by the Maronite Phalange in Lebanon, the Orthodox Chetniks of Serbia, and the Christian militias of the Central African Republic, or the terrorist attacks by such “lone-wolf” crusaders as Timothy McVeigh and Anders Bering Breivik. In many cases, murderous religious hatred was mixed with ethnic nationalism, racism, and simple greed, so sure – one can convincingly argue that the perpetrators of these crimes weren’t necessarily “true Christians.” However, if you’re willing to make that concession then why cast any aspersions on the nuances of Obama’s powerful and wholly truthful remarks? Similarly, if those who have killed and continue to kill in the name of Christ aren’t truly Christian, then why should we ignore the anguished pleas from a Muslim world numbering 1.6 billion people who continuously state that the atrocities carried out by ISIS jihadis in the name of Islam, including anti-Christian pogroms, are contrary to basic Islamic standards?

The answers to these questions are quite simple. What we have on our hands, from Marietta to Mosul, are filthy, cowardly bigots who are utterly crazed and have surpassed all established boundaries when it comes to utter hypocrisy, mendacity, irrationality, unspeakable violence and unscrupulousness. Some are Muslims, some are Christians, yet all are driven by hatred and all are bringing shame and infamy to their respective religious faiths. As Americans of all religious preferences (or none whatsoever), we gain nothing and rush pell-mell to bloody extinction by refusing to learn from the barbarous and savage history of sectarian religious violence practiced by Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, and Hindu alike.

No one sect has a monopoly on murderous misanthropy. As this article goes to press, horrifying details are emerging of the tragic mass-murder of young Muslim-American students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Indeed, initial reports about the shooter indicate that even atheists, of course, are capable of the foulest sorts of bigotry and hatred. When we acquiesce to or normalize a situation where entire populations are subject to wholescale denigration, distortion, and demonization, then one can be assured that rivers and rivers of blood will spill.

Education is the quintessential key. I’ve quoted H.G. Wells before, I’ll quote him again right now and I’ll keep on quoting him forever; to wit, “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.”

At this sorry historical moment of rampant fundamentalist religiosity, racialized xenophobia, and purely irrational bigotry, catastrophe is on a precipitously dangerous winning streak.