The 'Most Offensive' Comments a President Has Ever Made

Many of today's conservatives are on the warpath about President Obama's latest speech. Conservative thinkers of other eras might have seen it differently.

Barack Obama has gotten himself in trouble again, with people who generally find him troublesome, for a National Prayer Breakfast speech in which he made two non-pablum points. One is that down through time nearly every faith has at some stage been associated with violence and brutality. That is, it's not just today's Islam. His other point was that an essential ingredient of faith is, paradoxically, doubt.

For a sample of the balanced and level-headed response:

“The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said Jim Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

Further notes:

1) Please read Ta-Nehisi Coates's full-throated response to Obama's critics. He concentrates on the historical role of Christian faith in justifying racist violence in the United States. Also please read Ed Kilgore's post in The Washington Monthly.

2) A few weeks ago I wrote a NY Times Book Review item on Karen Armstrong's book Fields of Blood. Her book makes an extremely detailed historic case for a view that is different from Obama's (or Coates's) but complementary to theirs. In short, she says that religion has often been associated with violence, from long before the Crusades until this very week. But she argues that the underlying sources of violence are almost always political, and sometimes ethnic, with religion as an excuse or overlay rather than being the underlying cause. You can read more about the book in my review, and a lot more about this case in the book itself.

3) After Mario Cuomo died last month, I did two items about the power of his rhetoric, especially his ability to "think in public." The first was here and the second here. Cuomo's most famous speech, his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention, was a rousing partisan presentation but not a particularly "thoughtful" one.

His best speech, in my view, was by contrast all about wrestling with complexities. It was "Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective," delivered at Notre Dame also in 1984. Its subject was the tension between faith and doubt, between private convictions and public acts. For instance, about abortion:

I can offer you no final truths, complete and unchallengeable. But it's possible this one effort will provoke other efforts—both in support and contradiction of my position—that will help all of us understand our differences and perhaps even discover some basic agreement.

In the end, I'm convinced we will all benefit if suspicion is replaced by discussion, innuendo by dialogue; if the emphasis in our debate turns from a search for talismanic criteria and neat but simplistic answers to an honest—more intelligent—attempt at describing the role religion has in our public affairs, and the limits placed on that role.

And if we do it right—if we're not afraid of the truth even when the truth is complex—this debate, by clarification, can bring relief to untold numbers of confused—even anguished—Catholics, as well as to many others who want only to make our already great democracy even stronger than it is.

You can read the speech here or watch it here. It is in keeping with the efforts of Obama or any other serious person to recognize that doubt is an inseparable element of faith.

4) Or, if you're looking for a more prominent Catholic authority on the question of doubt, I give you: Pope Francis himself, Bishop of Rome. In a recent interview in The National Catholic Review he said:

"The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

“The risk in seeking and finding God in all things, then, is the willingness to explain too much, to say with human certainty and arrogance: ‘God is here.’ We will find only a god that fits our measure. The correct attitude is that of St. Augustine: Seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever."

So maybe the Pope has these issues in perspective; or maybe Jim Gilmore does. We'll keep searching for the truth.