THE BLOG

President Obama at the Prayer Breakfast

02/09/2015 12:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

James Gilmore, the former Virginia Governor, has it wrong. Indeed, Governor Gilmore committed a categorical falsehood. What did Governor Gilmore say? He pretended to speak for all Christians when he declared that President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast "offended every believing Christian in the United States." I am a believing Christian and an American. And I was not offended. In fact, I was greatly cheered by the President's comments. Governor Gilmore is therefore wrong.

But before we go any further, let's be clear about what the President said last Thursday (February 5). He denounced ISIS and the Islamist extremists who carry out their bloody agenda as a nihilistic "death cult." He reminded his audience that terrorism is never approved of by God. He spoke of God's abundant love and God's mercy. All important things to say, and none of it controversial.

But then the President reminded his listeners about some uncomfortable truths. Great crimes have also been committed in the name of Christ. There were the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. These were the great offenses of medieval Christendom. And lest Americans think of themselves immune, the President added that America has also seen its share of misguided religious passion -- slavery and Jim Crow were both justified in the name of Christianity.

All of this is true, of course. Let's just ponder for a moment how terribly bloody some of these events were. In 1095, the leader of Christendom himself, Pope Urban II, called on the knights of Christian Europe to raise an army and free the Holy Land from Muslim control. A large armed force was raised and transported to the coast of modern-day Israel.

Accompanied by a special papal ambassador, Adhemar of Puy, the Crusaders slowly and methodically made their way to Jerusalem. They seized the City of Antioch in the summer of 1098 and slaughtered thousands of its inhabitant. But the main prize was Jerusalem, and that City fell to the invading Crusaders in the summer of 1099.

The massacre that followed was immense and grotesque. The killing continued for days and it was said that the Crusaders were soaked in blood up to their ankles. Men, women, and children were slaughtered without distinction and without mercy. It is probable that upwards of 10,000 persons were put to the sword by the Crusaders.

The Spanish Inquisition, as President Obama declared, was another bloody demonstration of religious zealotry run wild. The Catholic Church had conducted periodic inquisitions since at least the early thirteenth century. But the Spanish Inquisition was another magnitude worse than these earlier efforts, as it represented a twisted fusion of theology and state power. It stood out for its totality and its brutality. Jews and Muslims were its special targets. Thousands were forced to convert, thousands more were put to death, and finally, in 1492, both groups were ordered expelled from the country. Following their expulsions, the Inquisition remained active for much of the sixteenth century, hunting down and killing Protestants.

Religious persecution, furthermore, was a depressing feature of American colonial life. The Salem witch trials are well known. Less well known, however, is Massachusetts' colonial-era persecution of Quakers. The Boston Martyrs, they were called, the four Quakers hanged on Boston Commons between 1659 and 1661 for the crime of their religious belief.

Their executions followed the enactment of a bill by the colonial legislature outlawing Quakerism and requiring all Quakers resident in Massachusetts under penalty of death to renounce their faith or leave the colony. In addition to the four Quakers who were hanged, others were severely whipped or suffered bodily mutilation by the Puritans who were determined to enforce what they thought to be God's law. King Charles II finally intervened in 1661 and commanded the killings to stop.

And as President Obama reminded his listeners, Christian believers played a central role in the justification of slavery. And these were Christians in positions of power and influence. Consider Henry Bidleman Bascom (1796-1850). He was chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives and a leader in the Methodist Church. He also argued that since the Bible condoned slavery, the campaign for abolition lacked a moral foundation.

A mature faith, a strong faith, a faith that can distinguish between flawed humanity and a transcendent message of hope and truth, is not frightened by the realization that believers can sometimes commit grave sins in religion's name. I remain impressed along these lines with Pope John Paul II, who confronted more directly and honestly than most other modern religious leaders the sins committed in the name of religion.

Over the course of two decades, he apologized for the complicity of the Church and Catholics in any number of great human tragedies: He apologized for the violent conquests of Mexico and Peru by the Conquistadores who acted in the name of Christ. He apologized for the pogroms and the torture and the mass executions of the sixteenth-century Wars of Religion. He apologized for the participation by Christians in the slave trade and the silent acquiescence of many Christians in the Holocaust. His decades-long penitential observance reached its climax in a Day of Pardon commemorated in March, 2000, when John Paul II asked forgiveness for the countless times Christians resorted to violence in the misguided defense of their faith.

John Paul II, in these many efforts, which must have been personally very painful, had it right. The message of Jesus is love -- love of neighbor, love of God, and love without limits or boundaries. But Christians do not always know this or act on this message and sometimes they fall grievously, tragically short.

And when I read President Obama's remarks, I see someone whose sincerity I will grant. Like the Pope, the President knows the historical record. And like the Pope, he wished to nothing more, it seems, than to call Christians to live out the full truth of the Gospel. And part of that call must mean confronting -- and learning from -- the sins of the past if only to live more authentically into the future.