Last month, President Obama delivered–what turned out to be–a somewhat controversial address. The majority of the speech condemned religious violence, in particular ISIS, in the strongest possible language. At one point he called the militant group a “brutal, vicious, death cult.” Yet the Prayer Breakfast address dominated the news cycle because Obama, ruminating on the dangers of perverting faith, warned his audience not to forget the terrible acts committed in the name of either Christianity or the United States.
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And 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.
On the Right, pundits cried “Christianity-bashing.” Others, on the Left and in the center, admitted the validity of Obama’s historical parallel. Some came unabashedly to the president’s aid, while others questioned his wisdom in his potentially patronizing tone.
The forthcoming posts will not rehash the validity of the differing interpretations. Rather, they reveal what I believe is the faulty logic underlying them all: that Prayer Breakfast speeches ought to be compared with official statements of policy. After all, Obama’s comparison of ISIS to crusading Christians touched a nerve precisely because it purportedly indicates he lacks the moral certitude to win. Now it can be argued that any address is a public (and therefore official) statement by a president. Yet this is at odds with what the Prayer Breakfasts have been in the past.
Prayer Breakfast speeches are a special class of address. They resemble major addresses–like States of the Union, or Inaugurals–in that they recur at regular intervals. At the same time they are informal. Presidents have not historically used them to outline major policy initiatives. That simply is not what presidents do here. At Prayer Breakfasts the president is far more like a pastor than a politician, and his rhetoric has historically reflected that distinction.