President Barack Obama has seen waves of praise and criticism throughout his presidency. It seems that whatever action he makes sparks a ripple of comments, concerns and questions about his motives as commander in chief. On Thursday, February 5, 2015, the president spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. and attempted to calm any backlash Muslims may be receiving as a result of actions taken by ISIS and other terrorist groups domestic and abroad. During this speech President Obama condemns violence and carefully mentions instances in which even Christians have persecuted other faiths in an attempt to remind us that we should all practice humility and love regardless of what religion to which we belong. More specifically he brings up the Christian Crusades from the 11th through the 13th century and slavery, which lasted until the 19th century to emphasize the wrongs that can be committed in the name of religion.
Shortly after the president’s speech, controversy ensued, mostly fueled by conservative commentators. The chief problem with Obama’s speech: the Christian crusades were 700 years ago and ISIS is now therefore Christians shouldn’t be thought of as terrorists. Despite the outrage industry continuing their trend of shock value and quantity over quality, the issue remains, who is the president truly speaking to in this speech and what is he trying to convey?
In Jeffrey Alexander’s The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle For Power, he mentions the importance of walking the boundaries. “Insofar as social solidarity is civil, political victory cannot be won by narrow appeals to family connection or ethnic loyalty, to racial preference, to the quality of religious faith or the superiority of ideological dogma, or to the superiority of a gender or sexual tie. Instead, those who struggle for democratic power must prove they possess capacities of a purely civil kind. To win control of the state, the collective political representation must symbolize hopes for broad solidarity and disinterested representation,” according to Alexander (1). In this instance religion constitutes a very large boundary in American society. Like every president before him, Obama identifies as Christian, but because he is also a politician, he is caught walking the seemingly thin line between what is good for Christianity and what is good for America and party politics. If he wavers too far to either side, he puts his reputation in regard to civil society at risk.
When attempting to deescalate hostilities within America, Obama speaks to the citizens who form America. Since the United States is predominantly Christian, the light cast on Christianity during the speech is important. In this instance some Christians found it offensive to compare the atrocities committed by terrorist groups of the present to wars waged in religion from the distant past. Surely President Obama was aware of the reaction he might receive from this audience, but this audience isn’t the audience the president is primarily trying to speak to. He wants everyone, citizens of all backgrounds and faiths, to know that they are valued and important in our society. He wants them to know that he doesn’t take the freedoms we’ve been given lightly, and that we will continue to fight terror and bigotry regardless of what sect of the U.S. population it seems to affect the most. The civil society’s ideas of liberty and broad solidarity are exemplified in the words of the President during this speech.
President Obama walked the boundaries in this instance as he has done many times before and when weighing the outcomes of such a walk, determined that what’s best for America might not always be what’s best for Christianity.
- Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics : Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.