Sunday, February 8, 2015

Don't get on your "high horse": Professor Obama lectures Americans on moral relativism and the Crusades

President Obama raised a storm of controversy for remarks he made at the National Prayer Breakfast.  After talking broadly about radical extremism in the Middle East, he cautioned listeners not consider themselves as being morally superior. "[L]est 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."

Fox News commentators (many of whom are Catholics) responded angrily to the President's remarks, and I will try not to reiterate what has already been said in their condemnations.  I offer just two observations.

First, what is President Obama doing at a prayer breakfast anyway? To paraphrase an observation from my Oklahoma childhood, Barack Obama knows as much about religion as a hog knows about Sunday. 

Second, to compare the present-day barbarism of radical Islam to the Inquisition and the Crusades is not very useful. Of course, the Crusades and the Inquisitions were terrible episodes of religious intolerance and cruelty (although I doubt President Obama knows much about those events). President Obama could have spent all morning recounting the dark episodes of Western Civilization: The Thirty Years War, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the brutal execution of Catholics by Queen Elizabeth, Thomas Cromwell's murderous conquest of the Irish in the seventeenth century, British and American firebombing of German cities during World War II, Nagasaki, etc.

But what good would that do?

Americans are waking to the realization that radical Islam wants to destroy Western Civilization, a phrase President Obama probably disdains to use.  We are in a battle to preserve the world's basic humanity and decency against forces of unfathomable evil. We will not win this battle by reminding ourselves we are no better than our enemies.

Can you imagine President Roosevelt telling Americans on December 7, 1941 not to get on our high horse against the Japanese. Yes, the Japanese did a bad thing when they bombed Pearl Harbor, but let's not forget about Jim Crow.

Ross Douthat offered a half-hearted defense of President Obama's remarks in the Times when he proffered that President Obama sees the world from a Niebuhrian perspective. Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian of the first half of the twentieth century, was something of a moral relativist.

But you don't have to read Niebuhr to be a moral relativist. You can pick up that world perspective just by hanging around Columbia and Harvard (where Obama went to school) without reading anything. And I am skeptical of the proposition that Obama has read Niebuhr.

In my view, President Obama's unfortunate remarks at the prayer breakfast were not inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr. Rather they are the remarks of a man who is arrogant, supercilious, and a bit lazy. After all, if he can play down the mortal threat of ISIS in the Middle East,  maybe he won't have to do something about it.

Susan Rice, President Obama's disengaged National Security Advisor, assures us that ISIS and the other radical Islamic groups--Boko Haram, the Taliban, etc--do not pose an "existential threat" to the United States--certainly nothing serious enough to distract President Obama from his golf game.

But of course Ms. Rice is wrong. Islamic extremists are not enemies at our gates in the sense that the Nazis surrounded Stalingrad. But surely everyone understands that some of these mad men would incinerate our major cities if only they had the capacity to do so. And some day, they may have that capacity.

Reinhold Niebuhr (Yale guy)


Ross Douthat. Obama the Theologian. New York Times, February 8, 2015, Sunday Review Section, p. 11.

Remarks by National Security Advisor Susan Rice on the 2015 National Security Strategy. White House press release, February 6, 2015. Accessible at:

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