Jay Michaelson’s Breaking Down President Obama’s Point About Christian Crusades and Islamic Extremism does a nice job of providing historical information that fleshes out the facts of how Christianity has been used to justify extreme violence and oppression. A hullabaloo arose because the President juxtaposed Christian and Islamic extremism against one another, urging U.S. Christians to practice humility when analyzing and acting against brutal violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists like ISIL. Critics raged against the President because they believed he dared place Christianity and Islamic extremism in the same universe of phenomenon.
The criticism is messed up. First, there the reaction stems from a false analogy. When critics slam the President they are arguing implicitly that he was equating the entire breadth of Christian experience with an extreme group of Muslims. He was not, and he said as much. But the reaction—grounded in muddled reasoning—persists nonetheless. Arguments continue to be posited that the Crusades and the Inquisition happened centuries ago. Of course they did. And that is not germane to the President’s point. His remarks simply acknowledge that the diversity of Christian history and practice includes extreme violence and that Christians cannot disconnect themselves from that reality. By the way, Christian extremism is not dead. White supremacist groups that privilege Christianity over all other religions and racial groups still exist all over the world.
But is my big insight: critics are reacting to the comments because they seem to believe that a call for humility and perspective somehow diminishes the ability to hold Islamic extremists accountable for their brutal violence. It’s as though we must have some perfect lily-white moral platform from which to blast ISIL else we lose the moral justification to condemn the violence.
In fact, being clear and truthful about the historical reality of one’s religion positions that person to take more decisive and wise action to end violence in the name of that religion. Self-righteous outrage is not a prerequisite for moral action. It’s OK to understand that Christian religious tradition includes and sometimes condones extreme violence. What better way to motivate good Christians to persist in cleaning their own houses? Self-righteous indignation is at the heart of rash and frequently stupid reactions. It is rooted in the need to do whatever it takes to make you and your group, community, or nation look and feel virtuous. It weakens our reasoning, prompting us to stereotype and group anyone who even resembles the perpetrators as guilty (e.g., bigotry toward all Muslims).
Michaelson gives us some facts in his post. What we do with them speaks more to our real virtue than sound bytes of indignation.