Editorial: Obama’s prayer

You may or may not know that during his Feb. 5 National Prayer Breakfast speech, President Barack Obama praised Pope Francis and said he was looking forward to his U.S. visit. He also condemned religious and sectarian violence around the world, including in the Middle East, India and Nigeria. And, as widely reported, he addressed the violence by radical Islamists now shattering the Muslim world:

“As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another ...” he said. “But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”

President Obama’s ‘Crusades’ analogy would have been much more effective if he’d cited the Thirty Years’ War instead.

Well done. But for every step forward, President Obama took two steps back. True to the strategy of his administration, the president sought to remove from ISIL (also known as ISIS) the veil of religiosity in which it seeks to clothe its barbarity, identifying it not as a religion but as a “death cult.” But it is very much a religion — one of twisted extremism that finds pleasure in massacring its own people. Despite the dangerous anti-Western, anti-Christian and anti-Semitic violence that typifies Islamic extremism, the tragedy occurring in the Middle East is less a war on the West than a war on Islam itself, a terrible fratricide in which the vast majority of the victims are fellow Muslims. How else to describe its willingness to burn a fellow Muslim alive in a cage?

Next, President Obama took it upon himself to play the role of religious historian and equated the Crusades and the Inquisition with the so-called Islamic State’s modern-day Middle Eastern butcher shop. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place,” Obama said, “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

No two events are used more often to club the Catholic Church as the Crusades and the Inquisition. Choosing those two examples not only fed into the “black legends” Protestants told about the Catholic Church, but also tapped into one of the propaganda tropes of the Muslim extremists: That U.S. military intervention in the region is another attack by infidel Crusaders. While there is no space here to do historical justice to either event, his analogy would have been much more effective, and much less offensive, if President Obama had used as his analogy the Thirty Years’ War, because it mirrors in several ways the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East today.

The Thirty Years’ War was often described as a religious war between Catholics and Protestants, but in truth it was an amalgam of religion, geopolitical conflicts, the decline of the Holy Roman Empire and the rise of the modern nation state. Fought primarily on German soil, it is estimated that 20 percent of the German people were killed in the struggle, a war marked by shocking barbarity and slaughter.

Presidents of all stripes get terribly generic when talking about religion, often using broad generalizations and abundant clichés. It is unfortunate in this case that our president was not a little more general or a little less clichéd.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor