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The Problem Isn't What the President Said At the Prayer Breakfast

02/09/2015 02:32 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2015

The problem is the Prayer Breakfast

Conservatives are upset over President Obama's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, in which the President spoke not only of recent atrocities committed in the name of religion but also about the historical connection between religion and violence.

"We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.... 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." - President Barack Obama

Or, as Jesus said in Matthew Chapter 7, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?...You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye."

For all their religiosity, modern Conservatives don't really seem to like the actual teachings of Jesus.

Conservatives should thank the deity of their choice that the President ended his review of history with Jim Crow. In the United States, religion - specifically the Conservative version of Fundamentalist Christianity - is directly linked to science denial, including our failure to do anything about climate change; to our failure to provide universal healthcare; to our ongoing problems of misogyny, racism, and hate speech; and too many other problems.

The problem with President Obama's remarks at the Prayer Breakfast is not what he said. The problem is that a nation like the United States would stage something like the National Prayer Breakfast in the first place. The controversy over the President's remarks is yet another example of what happens when our elected officials mix religion with politics. Rather than bringing us together, religion in this setting only tears up apart. At the very least, the National Prayer Breakfast expects believers and the leaders of various religions to set aside their differences and pretend that all gods are equal, something that adherents of any religion seem unlikely or unable to do. At its worst, the National Prayer Breakfast incorrectly emphasizes the fiction that the United States is a Christian nation and while we may tolerate other religions to some extent, everyone knows whose rules we will follow in the end.

There is no mention of a Prayer Breakfast in the Constitution or other founding documents. The Breakfast did not exist until 1953, about the same time that the United States added the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance in order to distinguish our nation from the godless Russian Communists. "In God We Trust" became the national motto shortly after, on July 30, 1956, although the phrase "In God We Trust" had appeared on American coinage since Civil War times, when it was added as part of a campaign to promote Divine Protection and American Exceptionalism. In times of conflict, we like to believe that God's on our side.

Dwight Eisenhower and latter day saints Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush may have felt that America needed a public profession of faith. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson did not. Nor did Francis Bellamy, the Baptist minster who wrote the original Pledge, which does not include the words "under God", in 1892. Nor do a growing number of Americans who reject religion altogether.

Yet despite the lack of a foundational legacy, every President since Eisenhower has felt duty-bound to attend this Kumbajah, "Can't We All Just Get Along" event. One can only imagine the outrage on the Right if President Obama had decided not to attend. As it is, Obama met this unofficial political obligation, said something very similar to what Jesus Christ might have said, and is still crucified by the Religious Right.

Clearly, the atrocities of ISIS - decapitations, burning people alive, rape as a weapon of war, and more - are much more than a small speck of sawdust. These are evil acts that demand a response. But the sins of Christianity are not washed away by the blood of ISIS.

Ronald Reagan often spoke of an Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican." Modern Republicans have expanded that philosophy to include "Thou shalt not speak ill of the United States", in which the word "ill" actually means "honestly" or "candidly" and the term "United States" is code for "people who look and think like me." But unless we are honest about the United States - unless we are willing to remove the plank from our own eye before we try to fix the rest of the world - then we will continue to make the same mistakes. We will continue to torture prisoners, we will continue to disenfranchise voters, and we will continue to train an increasingly militarized police force to attack inconvenient but innocent citizens. And we will continue to lose whatever moral high ground we may have left. We will continue to slide from a position of moral leadership to a position of moral irrelevance.

The National Prayer Breakfast and events like it are doing our country a great disservice when they are used to promote one religion over another and to whitewash the actual historic record of religion's role in the world and in this country.

Obama's comments and his subsequent castigation parallel the comments and subsequent Conservative reaction to John McCain's statement about the CIA report on torture. Speaking in the Senate chamber, McCain said, "The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless." McCain and Obama both recognize that the United States is not without fault. They also both recognize that one does not have to be blameless in order to fight for what is right. America's past does not excuse the present conduct of ISIS or similar organizations. The present conduct of ISIS and other groups does not erase the mistakes of our own country.

By speaking the truth, President Obama was not criticizing Christianity or the United States. He was challenging both institutions to live up to their ideals and to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Bob Seay is the Publisher, Editor, and Writer of NewsPrism.com