Can Obama Walk the Tightrope of Religious Rhetoric in a Polarized America?

Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS
Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington Feb. 15. Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS

After taking heat from the religious right for saying Christians and Muslims have all committed horrors in God’s name, President Obama is now angering the religious left with an upcoming White House conference on combating ”violent extremism” that seems to focus only on Muslims.

The back-to-back controversies raise the question: Can Obama — or any president — safely discuss faith in today’s political crosswinds?

No, say experts who keep a close eye on presidential God talk. It’s a perilous walk, taken without a safety net as news and social media voices wait to savage him in a nanosecond.

Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast triggered fury when Obama mentioned the Crusades, the Inquisition and Jim Crow segregation laws as examples of Christian violence in God’s name.

“This is not unique to one group or one religion,” Obama said. “There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

Todd Starnes at Fox News asked viewers: “Did you ever imagine the day would come when an American president would twist and distort and insult those who follow Christ?” And pundit Michelle Malkin tweeted: “ISIS chops off heads, incinerates hostages, kills gays, enslaves girls. Obama: Blame the Crusades.”

Suddenly, the upcoming White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism on Feb. 18 came into sharper focus.

The White House announced the summit in January as an event made “more imperative in light of recent tragic attacks in Ottawa, Sydney and Paris.“ The topics will be efforts to prevent efforts to recruit and radicalize potential killers. But all the examples were community programs aimed at Muslims.

That doesn’t fly with the Interfaith Alliance, which has sent an open letter to Obama, signed by leaders of 18 religious and civil rights groups. It said the conference should not single out any specific faith when it condemns extremist violence.

“Here in this country, Muslims are far more likely to be victims of the actions of extremists than they are to be the perpetrators,” Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, said Feb. 13.

In a time of hypersensitivity on all sides, Moline said the White House attempted “to satisfy both sides of a silly rhetorical debate” but chose language that, “unfortunately, was more encouraging to the antagonists toward Islam than the people who practice it.”

Still, Moline does not find Obama any more or less graceless with God talk than presidents before him. Someone wielding religion as a rhetorical weapon has pilloried every president, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Obama.

“I don’t think people’s reactions are different than they used to be. They just have a new vehicle for expressing it,” said Moline. “You can sit down behind your laptop and spew all you want.”

There really is no way any president can get religious rhetoric right, said Martin Marty, one of the nation’s leading religion historians.

Presidents have three roles they could take – “none of them Constitutional.” said Marty. He listed the roles as a priest over the rites and rituals of the nation; a prophet calling Americans to virtuous account; or a pastor-in-chief comforting them in moments of tragedy.

Rare is the president who could safely and consistently navigate any one path, and “Obama has none of those choices in this era of polarization,” said Marty, the retired dean of American church historians, at the University of Chicago. “He doesn’t stand a chance.”

Even Lincoln, who spoke in a prophetic but religiously generic voice, was pounced upon by both abolitionists and slavery proponents for calling America God’s “almost chosen people.”

Every president has taken blows from the media of his time, said David Domke, professor of communications at University of Washington, in Seattle, and author of studies on religious speech in American politics.

What’s different today, Domke said, is the speed of the Internet and social media, and the velocity of the anger from evangelicals who feel their cultural clout is slipping “so they are fighting harder.”

Add to this that there actually are “some very dangerous people in the world who claim to be Islamic.” To ignore that is to ignore global reality, he said.

There’s one other inescapable obstacle for Obama, Domke said. The president is a Christian but a stubbornly significant number of Americans still thinks he is a Muslim.

A 2012 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found 16 percent of voters — including 24 percent of white evangelical voters and 25 percent of Republican voters, labeled him as a Muslim.

“If he criticizes Christians, he’s seen as a closet Muslim. If he criticizes Islam, he’s accused of trying to hide that he’s Muslim,” said Domke.

Still, despite the crosswinds, Obama steps out on the God talk tightrope. Domke said Obama is pushing harder now than in the first six years of the presidency to create a “religious and racially pluralistic America.”

Cathy Lynn Grossman is a senior national correspondent for Religion News Service, specializing in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality, and ethics. Via RNS.

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