A president’s perspective on piety


Imagine a man, caged like an animal, doused in flammable liquid and then immolated. This is no scene from a graphic horror novel, not a reminder of the past atrocities committed by uncivilized brutes in the dark days of man’s past. This is nothing other than a poignant example of the dangers of religious fundamentalism.

The man in question, Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, was executed inhumanly for political show. His killers, ISIS, sought to deter his home-country from continued involvement in ongoing Western military action against the extremist group. This act drew worldwide condemnation, including from the U.S.

In his Feb. 5 National Prayer Breakfast address, President Obama strongly denounced ISIS and its murderous agenda. Speaking of the rich religious faith in America, he questioned, “And so, how do we as people of faith reconcile these realities? The profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion, the love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religions for their own murderous ends.” Despite these words against ISIS, President Obama was lambasted following the speech. One critic called his words the “most offensive” remarks a president has ever made. Why? What birthed the uproar against Obama speaking out against religiously-inspired terrorism? To be frank, the entire cant was generated by a mistake made by the president. While criticizing ISIS, he dared to remind the West of its own failings.

The president, in his speech, warned listeners about getting onto their “high horse,” recalling the Crusades, slavery and the Jim Crow laws as examples of when Christianity was hijacked for murderous ends. This honest self-admonishment of the often-hypocritical West was exploded into an attack on the very principles of America. And why? What is wrong with a president demanding a higher standard for the free world while condemning others? Is it too much to ask that America and its allies live by the same principles they command the rest of the world to cherish?

To digress: call to mind the Crusades. Was the sacking of Constantinople any different than ISIS’s march upon Syria and Iraq? Call to mind the repression of the civil rights movement. Were the methods of the Ku Klux Klan (lynching, extortion, intimidation) any less morally-repugnant than those of ISIS? Has the passage of time absolved the West of its crimes? President Obama spoke rightly when he grouped religious fanatics together; there should be no excusing of the use of religion for Godless ends. Furthermore, it is ridiculous to assume that ISIS is some new evil that has never been seen before, one that has arisen solely from the roots of Islam. In truth, ISIS is merely the latest instance of an age-old phenomenon. Man has always sought to justify his actions – actions that he knew were wrong – by recourse to some outside authority. The most egregious examples of this have come when man has attempted to add to his perverse desires the legitimacy of divine command.

Instead of criticizing the president for being honest about our past, we should instead draw hope from the positive message he sought to impart: “Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace – in bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred.” The call to peace is one universal to religion, for it is the call to put aside that which keeps man from reaching out of and above himself. Acts of evil, whatever their motive, cannot be condoned simply because they are granted a religious label. Rather than pompously assert innocence in the face of a damning history, it would behoove all religious traditions and people to excommunicate those who use religion as justification and to jointly pursue the peace that is not of this world.