THE BLOG

Getting Off Our High Horse

02/13/2015 03:35 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

Obama trolls the religious right at the National Prayer Breakfast.

We ask for trouble when we turn to politicians to uphold our faith. Take the National Prayer Breakfast (please), a political event dressed up as a religious occasion. You are better off praying at home, as Jesus said (Matthew 6:5-6). But if you have to attend, you could not do better than President Obama did at the Hilton Washington on February 5. After cataloguing some of the slaughters being done around the world in the name of religion, he said this:

"Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. 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.... There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith."

He continued, "I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt -- not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us ... that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth." These wise words are as direct a rebuke of American Exceptionalism as you will hear from any president, though he would not say so. His words set off a firestorm on the right, but his assertions stand up to scrutiny.

At its best, faith challenges us to reflect on how far our actions have strayed from the standards we profess. The Christian Right, by contrast, uses faith as a weapon against its political opponents. Its standard bearers cannot acknowledge crimes even nine centuries in the past. So forget the anti-Semitic Rhineland Massacres of 1096; the sack of Constantinople in 1204; the destruction of ancient libraries and art treasures; the hundreds of thousands who died from slaughter, famine, and disease before the Crusaders even reached the Holy Land. Do not mention the estimated 1.7 million deaths from the Crusades, or that the savagery was launched by Pope Urban II in 1095.

The denial is not only about the Middle Ages. Millions were caught up in the Middle Passage that brought slaves to the western hemisphere, and black men in America were being burned alive in public lynching festivals well into the twentieth century. People cut off parts of the victims for souvenirs. Innumerable photos of these horrors are a few clicks away.

We can talk about this. At bottom, that is the president's message. He does our country a service by raising it, though he knows his opponents are waiting to pounce on whatever he says. He can speak less guardedly with his last race and last midterm election behind him.

The likely Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 offers no similar critique. Hillary Clinton told Jon Stewart in 2014, "We are not perfect by any means, but we have a great story about human freedom, human rights, human opportunity, and let's get back to telling it to ourselves first and foremost and believing it about ourselves and then taking that around the world." This self-flattery ignores the past seven decades (since WWII) of U.S.-backed coups, assassinations, and wars that were done in our own perceived interest, and are viewed far differently by much of the world. Our sins are bipartisan.

Like Lincoln at Gettysburg and King at Lincoln's memorial, we must heed our founders, whose words spurred our national struggle across generations precisely because we fell short of them.

It is not freedom but privilege that imperialists and religious bullies are defending. They seem to fear that without white Christian supremacy they will disappear. Respectful coexistence is unthinkable to them.

The president does our nation a favor by puncturing this imperial self-regard. Too many treat greatness not as a responsibility but as an entitlement, an inheritance that was earned for them. They fail to grasp that the struggle for our values is the prize. Take it for granted and it slips away. We will defeat enemies like the Islamic State by learning from our past, not airbrushing it.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Blade and Bay Windows.