Obama’s God talk ‘doesn’t stand a chance’ in a polarized America

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday (February 5, 2015). Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PRAYER-BREAKFAST, originally transmitted on Feb. 5, 2015 or with RNS-EHRICH-COLUMN, originally published on Feb. 10, 2015. *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PRAYER-BREAKFAST, originally transmitted on Feb. 5, 2015.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday (February 5, 2015). Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PRAYER-BREAKFAST, originally transmitted on Feb. 5, 2015 or with RNS-EHRICH-COLUMN, originally published on Feb. 10, 2015, or with RNS-OBAMA-EXTREMIST, originally published on Feb. 16, 2015.

WASHINGTON (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 — walk the tightrope of religious rhetoric 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, Wednesday’s (Feb. 18) upcoming White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism 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 recruitment and radicalization of 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 Friday (Feb. 13).

In a time of hypersensitivity on all sides, Moline said the White House attempted in the prayer breakfast speech “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.”

obama lincoln

President Barack Obama looks at the portrait of Abraham Lincoln that hangs in the Oval Office prior to meeting with President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, June 29, 2009. RNS photo by Pete Souza/The White House

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, professor emeritus 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, communication professor at the 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 think 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 his presidency to create a “religious and racially pluralistic America.”


  • Obama’s God talk ‘doesn’t stand a chance’ in a polarized America

    No, it doesn’t stand a chance because the sort of confused pew-sitter who is fond of Obama by default, votes Democratic, and adheres to a creed reducible to dysfunctional niceness does not need to hear Obama’s God talk because that person’s already in the tank. Black evangelicals do not need to hear it, either, because political activity and opinion in the black population have little to do with policy or with the semantic content of what anyone says; they’re in the tank too. As for any other sort of adherent, Obama does not have any street-cred with them, and for good reason. You would not listen to Obama for gems of wisdom. He’s far too vapid for that. He’s also overexposed, so anything he says just dissolves into static.

  • The term “Obama’s God” is non-starter. I think it’s fairly plain to see that Mr. Obama is not a religious person. He only adopted the God talk because we’d never elect a non-religious candidate.

  • Joe DeCaro

    Obama didn’t take heat from the religious right for saying “Christians and Muslims have all committed horrors in God’s name,” but for using a moral equivalence argument to downplay today’s Islamic atrocities as if we were all back in the Middle Ages.

  • joep222

    Any rational person does not tend to listen to a liar and hypocrite who continuously waffles to try to say the words that he thinks people want to hear (and even gets that wrong). That is why when Obama speaks on religion, many people disregard him. He is a double minded man with no real principles or convictions.

  • Bob

    I’ll call your bluff, joep222:

    Cite any examples, with proof, of Obama lying publicly, in his spoken or written material. And remember, you must show intent to deceive.

  • Bob

    Pew sitters are generally confused.

  • Bob

    That might well be correct. I look forward to the day that we have a president who isn’t religious and doesn’t have to pretend otherwise. We started out with a few (Jefferson, Lincoln, Johnson, but things have gone downhill in that regard since those greater days.

  • Not sure I would regard Jefferson’s tenure as President one of accomplishment (he didn’t). Lincoln rejected his father’s Calvinism and Biblical literalism. His actual religious views are pretty opaque. If you fancy our trajectory since the misbegotten mess that was Andrew Johnson’s administration has been ‘downhill’, no one can help you.

  • When’s Obama going to come clean on the intramural operations of the Internal Revenue Service? He gets characters like Douglas Shulman to lie for him.

  • joep222

    “You can keep your current health coverage”

    “I [Obama] am going to close Guantanamo”

    “I [Obama] believe in Jesus Christ”

    “I [Obama] am going to reduce the budget”

    “ISIS is not an Islamic group”

    Your demand to show “intent to deceive” is irrational. I am merely stating my opinion. I cannot judge his heart (or intent). You can freely choose to reject what I wrote. But what matters is what is true.

  • Charles Freeman

    It doesn’t matter if you are right or left, Republican or Democrat, we have traditions and ideologically based practices in this country that we term freedoms.

    Could the religious intolerance and violence, which has happened in the Middle and Near East, happen here? Of course they could. Those people around the globe from us and our own population are not different biologically. The difference is the practical traditions of freedom developed after damaging hard experience with control by religious ideologies.

    Out of that experience, we have developed a wariness of integration of religion and government. There are many Christians in the Western world who might well attempt to invalidate Constitution protections. We must fight for our right to think and say whatever we believe. Also, we must not shrink from extending our efforts to other lands in order to protect our own lives and property. The radical Islamic murderers exist here as well as Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Near East, and parts of Asia. But, they aren’t the only threats based on fundamentalist religious ideologies. There are Hindus, Muslims, Christians and other religionists battling in almost every corner of the globe.

    What we must to do is maintain separations between church and state in as much of the world as we can influence economically, culturally, and militarily, so that freedoms-based cultures may survive. This President appears to now be aware of the dangers and the necessary steps to take. We need to support those efforts.

  • Chaplain Martin

    Thank you, Charles for your helpful comments. “Out of that experience, we have developed a wariness of integration of religion and government.”

    As you further stated we must fight to maintain the separation of church and state, actually religion and state. To some atheist, their very non-belief is developing into a sort of religion.
    Not just presidents but just about anyone in our emotional culture gets in trouble talking about faith or religion in any public way.

  • Karen

    Here’s some help for you Art: it is the departure from religion that will be the big step forward, and I think it is coming in my own generation. Certainly, Britain is way ahead of us that way, in electing clearly atheist politicians lately, and I think we will follow before too long. The less religious delusion held by our elected officials, the better.

  • Bob

    joep, since you cannot produce evidence of intent to deceive, please show some guts for a change and retract your baseless, slanderous allegations of Obama having lied. Same for you, Art Deco.

  • Bob

    You should get in trouble, or at least be challenged, for touting your religious delusions in any public way.

  • A statement of your foetid hopes and dreams is real helpful, just not toward any end an ordinary person might have.

  • But Dr. Gruber has already admitted that the Obamacare plan was sold with deception and has defended his and others deceptions. You really need to stay more current.

  • Should you ‘get in trouble’ for touting your philosophical delusions in a ‘public’ way?

  • Karen

    I’m glad my own mind isn’t polluted with your sick fetid dreams and delusions.

  • Jack

    There is no good way for any president to get religious rhetoric right, precisely because ours is a diverse society, religiously and ideologically. That necessarily entails wide disagreements on some very important things.

    However, there is a tradition, at least in both Christianity and Judaism, as well as the British Enlightenment, that serves as a good guide for presidents to articulate a common moral understanding to the nation.

    Catholics call it natural law. Protestants call it common grace or general revelation. Jews have called it the Noahide laws. Thomas Jefferson and his editors called it self-evident truths.

    What it amounts to is the reality that regardless of ideology or belief, people in all times and places, including our own, share certain convictions. Every society in history reflects in its laws those convictions, even when they honor them in the breach….that murder is wrong, that you shouldn’t do to others what you would not want others doing to you….that lying and stealing and cheating are bad things, that even the most absolute rulers are not ultimately bigger or more important than the continuity and future of the societies and peoples they govern…etc.

    Each culture has its own “spin” on these basics, including our own. Successful presidents like JFK and Reagan were able to articulate these basics in a way that connected with the American people. It is not easy, but it is doable.

    JFK and Reagan were successful because they understood that pluralism suggested that the less said about specific religions, the better, and the more generic the talk, the better. When modern presidents single out religions, like Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism, for good or for ill, they are looking for trouble.

  • Jack

    It’s frankly amazing how Karen can maintain such pristine certainty about the most contested issue of humanity. That’s called living in the ultimate of bubbles.

  • Jack

    Bob, every president has lied about something. You should read presidential biographies and see for yourself. The notion that the current president is exempt from the ravages of human nature suggests a devotion that borders on the idolatrous.

  • Jack

    “Bob,” tell us what you mean by saying that people should “get in trouble” for “touting…religious delusions in any public way.”

    You sound like you’re against religious freedom.