There is an old saying in baseball that "nothing good ever follows a walk."
In the world of religion, that's how I feel about references to the Crusades and the Inquisition. (Oh yeah, and comparing public figures to Adolf Hitler.) We are talking about very complicated and controversial historical subjects, here. It's hard to turn the Crusades and Medieval theological disputes (yes, some leading to combat) into modern one-liners.
President Barack Obama and his speech-writing team are learning about that right now, after he used the Medieval C-word in his address at this year's National Prayer Breakfast. Here is a key early slice of The Washington Post report:
... At a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.
“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” he told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. “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.”
Some Republicans were outraged.
Note how the piece immediately turns this into a political story. That's refreshing, isn't it?
Truth be told, this Post report has plenty of valid content in it. For example, there is a hint of religious depth to this:
Obama’s remarks spoke to his unsparing, sometimes controversial, view of the United States -- where triumphalism is often overshadowed by a harsh assessment of where Americans must try harder to live up to their own self-image. Only by admitting these shortcomings, he has argued, can we fix problems and move beyond them.
“There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency, that can pervert and distort our faith,” he said at the breakfast.
From my perspective, however, there are two crucial angles missing in this story.
First of all, while the story offers a key conservative religious voice reacting to the president's remarks (more on that in a minute), no one is quoted backing Obama up from his own camp -- that of the articulate Protestant Christian liberal. So often, journalists turn religious liberals into political types and that's that.
Then there is my second point -- history. The article assumes a certain view of the Crusades and what they meant and, frankly, that is a highly divisive and controversial subject in church history. Could the Post team have spared a few paragraphs for the voice of an historian who can voice why some Christians are howling about the president's statement for reasons that are more than political? There are moral and theological issues here, even when talking about the modern Middle East.
Read between the lines in the following:
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called Obama’s comments about Christianity “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.”
What we need more is a “moral framework from the administration and a clear strategy for defeating ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
And then at the very end of the story:
Critics say that Obama is chastising the wrong people.
“The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians,” Moore said. He added that while he understood Obama’s attempt to make sure “he is not heard as saying that all Muslims are terrorists, I think most people know that at this point.”
So I want to praise the Post team for recognizing that there was more to this than politics, but I only wished that this story could have given -- surprise -- religion a bit more attention (including those voices from the religious left).
The term "moral equivalence" gets tossed around too much in politics and it was certainly looming in the background as the president punched this hot button. But there is more to that kind of debate than mere politics and, today, that's important to remember when covering this religion-news storm.