No Escape From History

Ross Douthat accuses Obama of singling out the crusades, but they are part of the president's own Christian heritage.

My old colleague Ross Douthat has offered a response to Barack Obama's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. It does not damn Ross with faint praise to say he has, at least, avoided the drunk festival of ideas—American racism was actually pioneered by Gozer the Gozerian, Jim Crow was "a thousand years ago"—presently circulating. But if Ross's argument enjoys the virtue of sobriety, it is still injured by the vice of being wrong.

Ross is disturbed to see the president drawing an "implied equivalence" between the barbarism of ISIS and the "the incredibly complicated multi-century story of medieval Christendom's conflict with Islam." This will not do. The present conflict in the Middle East is also an "incredibly complicated multi-century story." And yet that fact does not (and should not) prevent Ross from drawing conclusions about the morality of burning a man to death in the name of God. The president's comments are no different: "During the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ." This is a manifestly true statement—just as true as: "During the Middle East conflict, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Allah." The first Crusade was anointed with a pogrom against the Jews of the Rhineland. The Spanish Inquisition included the executions of thousands, and led to the expulsion of Jewish communities from the country. I do not believe one needs a degree in medieval studies to deplore pogroms and ethnic cleansing, any more than one needs a degree in Middle Eastern studies to deplore the taking or beheading of hostages.

Beneath Ross’s claim of “incredible” complication is a plea for context and nuance on behalf of the murderers of Jews—one he does not make on behalf of ISIS. Either way, Ross does not think Obama should be in the business of self-criticism at all because it fails as a matter of policy. "Self-criticism doesn’t necessarily serve the cause of foreign policy outreach quite as well as Obama once seemed to believe it would," writes Ross. Maybe. Maybe not. The implicit logic here holds that an American president should only speak forthrightly when some mean, tangible, and immediate benefit is obvious. Whatever one thinks of that claim, it is at war with the rest of Ross's column. He cites Dwight D. Eisenhower's parting speech on the military-industrial complex as an example to Obama, but by Ross's lights that speech was a failure since it effected no real change in the pace of military build-up.

But Ross believes it makes a great example for Obama because it features Eisenhower criticizing his own party. Unlike Ike, Obama is a partisan attacking "crimes he doesn’t feel particularly implicated in ... and the sins of groups he disagrees with anyway (Republican Cold Warriors, the religious right, white conservative Southerners)." Ross thinks Obama would be better served by criticizing groups to which he is sympathetic. In fact Obama has spent much of his presidency criticizing the most loyal sector of his party, and often doing it in church. I have, with some vehemence, argued that much of this criticism is bunk. But Ross is condemning Obama for failing to do something which has, in fact, been one of the most remarkable and consistent features of his presidential rhetoric.

More importantly, Jim Crow and slavery were not merely the sins of Southerners and the religious right, but the sins of America, itself. Enslavement was not merely a boon for the South, but for the country as a whole. (During the Civil War, New York City was a hotbed of secessionist sympathy mostly because of its economic ties to the South.) And there is simply no way to understand segregation in this country without understanding the housing policies of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt and the G.I. Bill signed by Democratic president Harry Truman. Barack Obama is a Christian and the president of the United States and thus the inheritor of the full legacy of that grand office. He is neither, as Ross tries to position him, an outsider to American sin nor Christian sin. It’s his heritage too, and Obama is wise enough to know that he can’t simply charge off the bad parts of that heritage to intransigent Southern bigots.

It has been enlightening to watch this entire spectacle play out over the past week. There are now intelligent people going on television to tell us that the president should not use the word "crusade" to describe ... The Crusades. The problem is history. Or rather the problem is that there is no version of history that can award the West a stable moral high-ground. Some of the most prominent Christian leaders in this country used their authority to burnish the credentials of South Africa's racist regime—not in the 1960s, in the 1980s. At this very moment, there are reports that Uganda's attempt to make sex between men a capital offense is tied to the very sponsors of the Prayer Breakfast where Obama spoke. In such a world, a certainty about which "side" is always good and which "side" is forever evil doesn't really exist. And in an uncertain world, Obama is making a wise appeal for vigilance—vigilance against the death cult of ISIS, and vigilance against the allure of death cults period—even those inaugurated in the name of one's preferred God.