Obama, The Prayer Breakfast And The Burden Of History

Moral introspection and critical self-examination are not exactly American strengths. The latest National Prayer Breakfast “controversy” over President Obama’s remarks about religiously-inspired violence have hightlighted, yet again, those national character flaws. The headlines tell the story in part:

Obama Trolls National Prayer Breakfast, Gets Expected Results

Critics pounce after Obama talks Crusades, slavery at prayer breakfast

Obama, Trying to Add Context to Speech, Faces Backlash Over ‘Crusades’

Bolton: Obama “Missed An Opportunity” at National Prayer Breakfast

Why did Obama compare Crusades to Islamic State at prayer breakfast?

You get the idea.

The President’s full remarks are quite good and speak some unpleasant truths that make religious violence historical whitewashers fulminate in the way we’ve seen in the wake of the event. Indeed, it probably would’ve been in order to remind the audience that the Crusades were not exclusively aimed at Muslims, as Eastern Orthodox Christians know well.

For me, the President’s remarks fell flat not because of his historically accurate claims, but because of the recent history he chose to ignore in the speech. I’m referring here to America’s embrace of torture.

What I’m struck by are the historical parallels between imperial Rome and post-9/11 America. Imperial Roman authorities in ancient Judea detained, tortured and murdered an innocent man whose only crimes were speaking truth to power, attacking the rich for their indifference to the poor, and hearlding a new age in which all humans should seek to care for one another instead of kill one another. Our post-9/11 government tortured innocent detainees, some to the point where they died in our custody. And while the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is attempting to bury that report, some of his clergy constitutents are not letting him off the hook for trying–to their great credit.

The President’s true missed opportunity at the prayer breakfast was in failing to address that report and its findings. He could have furthered the national debate–political and religious–on the topic by using the platform of the prayer breakfast to announce that the was releasing the full report, unredacted.

He could also have announced that he was issuing an executive order barring the Central Intelligence Agency from engaging in detention operations ever again, and then called on Congress to send him legislation that would make such an executive order permanent.

He could have announced the termination of those CIA personnel still on the government payroll who participated in or provided legal cover for the torture program.

He could have announced that any former government officials who participated in or orchestrated the program would, if still serving as government consultants with active security clearances, be barred from being on the government payroll if any form and were having their security clearances revoked.

All of these steps would’ve been more productive, and produced a far more meaningful public debate over America’s moral and political hyporcrisy, than a needless trip down an 800 year-old religious rabbit hole.


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