One week ago President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. His speech has already occasioned many responses. Presuming to add to the heap, I hope that I can analyze his remarks in light of general principles, elucidating precisely what made his expressions so ill-advised.
Before anything else, we must establish how we are to evaluate his speech. Mere truth is not a sufficient a criterion, however necessary it is: His taking the stage and outlining geometric proofs, however timeless, certain, and precisely true, would have been a bad move. For considering his words, we need to consider the circumstances: Who our speaker was, the occasion of the speech, his audience, and anything else immediately relevant. For now, let us focus on the occasion.
A History Lesson at the Prayer Breakfast
What this speech is supposed to embody is an address at the National Prayer Breakfast. This may sound tautological, but it bears explicitly stating. This gives rise to the question: What should one of those particular addresses look like? What is its purpose? What is its specific virtue, the good that differentiates it from a sermon, or a press release, or a State of the Union address?
These questions seem ill-answered from the body of the president’s text. At times, the discourse grasps at philosophizing, while other sections meander into history, commenting on the Crusades and American slavery. This failing was alluded to, perhaps ungenerously, by Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana (R-LA), who remarked: “It was nice of the president to give us a history lesson at the Prayer breakfast.”
Now, this might seem to be a critique inconsistent, hypocritical, or otherwise odd, coming from someone who has previously written on the interrelatedness of all disciplines. The failing I see in this speech, to be as precise as I can, is not that disparate subjects are tied together. It is that they are introduced unskillfully and executed poorly. I believe in the understanding of all knowledge, but I believe in doing it correctly. Stating, “I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt,” may or may not function depending on your treatment of the claim. All things should work in proportion with each other, and you cannot tap into philosophizing only to draw down select aphorisms; you may not consider the nature of abstract concepts without so much as defining your terms. This is improper.
Knowledge is Enslaved to Practice
Parts of the history on which President Obama lectures are problematic for the same reasons – I could discuss, for instance, the bald claim that “our founders wisely embraced the separation of church and state,” in light of the historic fact that, while the First Amendment commanded that “Congress . . . make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” multiple state governments had established religions in 1788. (This is not the first misunderstanding of America’s religious history expressed on such an occasion, and will not be the last. Ronald Reagan made a comparable over-generalization in 1982.)
They are more problematic, however, for a second reason, one that also applies to the Philosophy Lite quoted above. These flourishes of variation do not enrich the speech and the interpretation it makes of its subject matter; the historical references are truncated, abbreviated, and incoherent because they are introduced to fulfill the very specific purpose of advancing the speech’s clear agenda. Knowledge is enslaved, emaciated, to practice. This is not to say that having any aim (“agenda” is Latin literally means “the things to be done”) at all is bad; rather, all clear writing comes from a precise idea of reaching some horizon. When the aim, however, is not in keeping with the purpose of the event but exploits the event to accomplish external goals, one is acting in impropriety. President Obama’s disregard for circumstances, for traditions larger and more important than himself, is inappropriate.
The Distortion of Religion
Now it seems apt to address the major theme argued in the president’s remarks: that of distorted religion. I think I have suggested the importance of considering context enough to state directly: “neither the time nor the place.” Not only addressing abuses of religion, but specifically of the religion about which this event is organized, should not have been done here. I am not arguing for a suppression of free speech or critical inquiry; simply, this is not the context for reflections on the Crusades.
But I digress. For all said the backlash against the president’s comments on the Crusades, those comments only appear in one paragraph and lurk beneath the surface for the rest of the speech. The real question is that of Islam. What question that is, however, has yet to be determined. For this, I think, is the real kernel of President Obama’s address, and its failure.
There is a debate about the nature of Islam. Some people are concerned with whether its nature is violent, and others are more focused on its distortion and abuse. Which question is more proper, and what the answers are, are not discussed in this essay. At the National Prayer Breakfast, the question of how Islam has been abused, and atrocious deeds done by people “claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions,” was discussed. It is the only side of the debate heard, or mentioned, or acknowledged. In the midst of all the historical comparisons – and how dare anyone argue against someone denouncing the Crusades, for fear of being decried as sympathetic? – the president has made a rhetorically dishonest move.
The crux of the question, whether the recent atrocities constitute an abuse of Islam, is answered without words. The speech proceeds with this assumption in place, driving the remainder of the discourse. Speaking to Americans who are struggling with and debating this question, our president should not have settled the issue without “even so much as the courtesy of open debate” (assuming that such a topic was to be addressed at a prayer breakfast at all.) This is the glaring theme that renders the whole speech itself a twisted and distorted piece of exhortation.
The Good of a National Prayer Breakfast Speech
Now, some of you may have noticed that I myself avoided the answer to the question above: What is the good of a National Prayer Breakfast speech? So far it has sufficed that all possible answers inferred from the text itself were obviously wrong. Rather than leave the question unanswered, I would consider Reagan’s Remarks from 1982, already referenced above, so that we can glimpse a proper understanding of the purpose of this tradition:
“I hope that on down through the centuries not only is this great land preserved but this great tradition is preserved and that all over the land there will always be this one day in the year when we remind ourselves of what our real task is.”
This is not to say that very true, very good words were not uttered in this speech; only that certain described sections as well as the shaping of the whole were misdirected and inappropriate. It is true, for instance, that “[w]e see through a glass, darkly” – whatever meaning was attributed it in context. It is also a true statement, although remarked in levity, that “God works in mysterious ways.” It is not only profoundly true, but exceptionally relevant to our culture, that “No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number” — just not relevant to any subject our leader dared address.