Again, the Right Wing of America winds itself up for the repeated stoning of our President for being a "heretic" because he condemns violence used by religious zealots in the name of one god or another. At the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2015, the U.S. President offered the following remarks (full transcript here):
From the White House Blog: "The President went on to explain how, although faith is constantly inspiring people to help others across the world, it is being "twisted and distorted" by some who use it as a wedge and sometimes as a weapon:
Here now follows is the part of his remarks that so upset advocates of a Christian theocracy in America:"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.We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion."
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. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.
President Obama is brave and honest to raise the issue of religious violence at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual ritual of praising God (for many Americans, this means the Christian variety of God) and asking for his blessings on the United States of America. Politicians in America know that criticism of religion (particularly Christianity) is fraught with political suicide. But Mr. Obama is not running for any political office and he is right to raise such criticism of acts of violence committed in the name of a religion, especially given the times we live in. He is the President of the the most powerful nation on earth and therefore his audience is the entire population of this planet. In addressing the National Prayer Breakfast, he's not talking to a select group of American Christians, but is speaking to the people of many faiths and national origins. If I were a Muslim in this country, I would want to hear my President condemn the use of Islam to justify religious violence, but I would feel wronged if he did not also condemn the violence done by zealots of other religions. The fact remains that the majority of domestic terrorist attacks in America have been committed by Biblically-inspired Christian extremists against Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious minorities. If you look at the recent high profile murders of abortion doctors, LGBT and people of color committed in the name of Christianity, it's really appalling that more Christian ministers and leaders have not spoken out against such violence perpetuated in the name of Christ.
In his book, The End of Faith, Sam Harris, the American author and rationalist thinker, wrote about the dangers of a democratic society that self-censors itself on the subject of religion. Harris' most recent podcast after the Charlie Hebdo murders critiques liberal thinkers for their refusal to see that it was core Islamic scriptures that influenced the jihadi terrorists to murder the Charlie Hebdo journalists and innocent people in a Jewish market. In this country and many western democracies, criticism of someone's religious beliefs (no matter how bizarre) is considered "inappropriate" because of our tradition of religious tolerance. However, since 9/11/2001, we have seen an increase of criticism of religious practices and beliefs that seem totalitarian and incompatible with a democratic society. We are living in times where death cults masquerading as the True Religion are larger and deadlier than the tiny suicidal cults like Peoples Temple or Heaven's Gate. Today, groups like ISIS expand their poison across international borders through the internet and social media reaching millions of potential recruits. And, through their capture of political power in failed states, these death cults have access to military weapons and possible weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons) to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of the "heretical" world.
Wherever dialogue and free debate exists within societies about religious beliefs and the intolerant and violent practices that may be practiced in the name of such beliefs, then we have hope of stopping the death cults. We cannot muzzle ourselves or others who speak the truth about the sordid side of religion. I am very proud that our President can see this and has no fear in speaking out against violence by religious extremists, no matter what God they profess in their practice of intolerance and violence against those who do not share their profession. Let the light of rationalism expose the falsehoods of such beliefs.