Obama’s God Talk ‘doesn’t stand a chance’ in a Polarized America

President Barack Obama talks faith at National Prayer Breakfast

President Barack Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast

WASHINGTON (RNS) After taking heat from the religious right for saying Christians and Muslims have all committed horrors in God’s name, President Obama is now angering the religious left with an upcoming White House conference on combating ”violent extremism” that seems to focus only on Muslims.

The back-to-back controversies raise the question: Can Obama — or any president — walk the tightrope of religious rhetoric in today’s political crosswinds?

No, say experts who keep a close eye on presidential God talk. It’s a perilous walk, taken without a safety net as news and social media voices wait to savage him in a nanosecond.

Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast triggered fury when Obama mentioned the Crusades, the Inquisition and Jim Crow segregation laws as examples of Christian violence in God’s name.

“This is not unique to one group or one religion,” Obama said. “There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

Todd Starnes at Fox News asked viewers: “Did you ever imagine the day would come when an American president would twist and distort and insult those who follow Christ?” And pundit Michelle Malkin tweeted: “ISIS chops off heads, incinerates hostages, kills gays, enslaves girls.Obama: Blame the Crusades.”

Suddenly, Wednesday’s (Feb. 18) upcoming White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism came into sharper focus.

The White House announced the summit in January as an event made “more imperative in light of recent tragic attacks in Ottawa, Sydney and Paris.“ The topics will be efforts to prevent recruitment and radicalization of potential killers. But all the examples were community programs aimed at Muslims.

That doesn’t fly with the Interfaith Alliance, which has sent an open letter to Obama, signed by leaders of 18 religious and civil rights groups. It said the conference should not single out any specific faith when it condemns extremist violence.

“Here in this country, Muslims are far more likely to be victims of the actions of extremists than they are to be the perpetrators,” Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, said Friday (Feb. 13).

In a time of hypersensitivity on all sides, Moline said the White House attempted in the prayer breakfast speech “to satisfy both sides of a silly rhetorical debate” but chose language that, “unfortunately, was more encouraging to the antagonists toward Islam than the people who practice it.”

Still, Moline does not find Obama any more or less graceless with God talk than presidents before him. Someone wielding religion as a rhetorical weapon has pilloried every president, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Obama.

“I don’t think people’s reactions are different than they used to be. They just have a new vehicle for expressing it,” said Moline. “You can sit down behind your laptop and spew all you want.”

There really is no way any president can get religious rhetoric right, said Martin Marty, one of the nation’s leading religion historians.

Presidents have three roles they could take — “none of them constitutional,” said Marty. He listed the roles as a priest over the rites and rituals of the nation; a prophet calling Americans to virtuous account; or a pastor-in-chief comforting them in moments of tragedy.

Rare is the president who could safely and consistently navigate any one path, and “Obama has none of those choices in this era of polarization,” said Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. “He doesn’t stand a chance.”

Even Lincoln, who spoke in a prophetic but religiously generic voice, was pounced upon by both abolitionists and slavery proponents for calling America God’s “almost chosen people.”

Every president has taken blows from the media of his time, said David Domke, communication professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and author of studies on religious speech in American politics.

What’s different today, Domke said, is the speed of the Internet and social media, and the velocity of the anger from evangelicals who feel their cultural clout is slipping “so they are fighting harder.”

Add to this that there actually are “some very dangerous people in the world who claim to be Islamic.” To ignore that is to ignore global reality, he said.

There’s one other inescapable obstacle for Obama, Domke said. The president is a Christian but a stubbornly significant number of Americans still think he is a Muslim.

A 2012 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found 16 percent of voters — including 24 percent of white evangelical voters and 25 percent of Republican voters, labeled him as a Muslim.

“If he criticizes Christians, he’s seen as a closet Muslim. If he criticizes Islam, he’s accused of trying to hide that he’s Muslim,” said Domke.

Still, despite the crosswinds, Obama steps out on the God talk tightrope. Domke said Obama is pushing harder now than in the first six years of his presidency to create a “religious and racially pluralistic America.”


Religion News Service

RNS is owned by Religion News LLC, a non-profit, limited liability corporation based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Its mission is to provide in-depth, non-sectarian coverage of religion, spirituality and ideas.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Wes AndrewsMarkKevinGeorge Nixon Shuler Recent comment authors
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I’m still not convinced “George” is not a precocious teen-aged girl with a little too much time on her hands and a troublesome pubescent addiction to left-wing politics, including a starry-eyed conviction that everything in Huffpo, Sojourners and The New Yorker is 100 percent accurate.

George Nixon Shuler

I read Huffpo for the poiltical news on my lunch hour. Sojourners I skim and leave my copy in the Narthex. New Yorker, no clue. Seen it once or twice in the waiting room. My colleagues read it sometimes. I’m hardly left-wing, just an ex-associate of the triangulating President in the 90s with the chubby thighs and the booming economy and have a brick in my name on the walk to the CPC in Little Rock. I’m a parent of four ex-teenager girls and I take that as a highest compliment from a member of the faction which has no… Read more »

George Nixon Shuler

My friend, your insults bounce off me like bullets bounce off Superman. It is you whom is to be pitied for your mindless rah-rahing of personal attacks. I expect to see you exiting the multiplex all sweaty in your trenchcoat after you view the latest Hollywood dreck which tempts you so mightily.

George Nixon Shuler

No one who believes The President is a Mooslem is making that conclusion rationally. I suspect Faux and Friends and such are quite aware of same, but find is useful in their never-ending quest to make the timorous want to beat their chests.


How ironic that it is Mr. Obama who is responsible for much of the polarization. This arsonists–criticizing–fire routine is getting old.

George Nixon Shuler

What’s tiresome is the perpetrators of agression claiming victimhood because…..well, they can’t say.

The threat of terrorism exists in America, but there’s nothing Islamic about it. It’s the same force that gunned down George Tiller and killed four little girls in a Birmingham, Alabama, African-American church.

Wes Andrews
Wes Andrews

Mark you are correct. Our President is polarizing. Not because of his racial make up, or how he was raised, nor because of what he claims to believe regarding faith. He is polarizing because he is a progressive. Progressives love to pit people against one another. Progressives are neo-racists who “racialize” thoughts and opinions. They point at those thoughts and ideas and call the people who think those thoughts devils. We have a fellow here on this board who is a perfect example of this. He would be very successful if he had a show MSNBC.

George Nixon Shuler

If unity means desiring to sidestep reality, it is not a useful goal. One could make an equally valid argument the forces of reaction seek polarization as well. Reactionaries thrive on demonizing “the other” meaning the nonwhite, the poor, the female, and any other already marginalized segment.


Not sure what to make of this pointless article. A lecture on religion from our President, a man who is believed to be a follower of the Prophet by many people. Can’t imagine why people think that simply because his father was Muslim and his step father raised him as a Muslim in Indonesia. If our President actually attended church services his words might carry a little more weight, maybe. BTW who does President Obama pray to since there is no power greater than him? Oh well. I think I will wait and hear what Mark Levin has to say… Read more »

George Nixon Shuler

.”From the article: “What’s different today, Domke said, is the speed of the Internet and social media, and the velocity of the anger from evangelicals who feel their cultural clout is slipping “so they are fighting harder…” UMC Reporter comments are certainly a microcosm of that: as the far right continues to lose ground, their remnant fights harder, like the Gauls under Vecingeterox’ fury against Caesar as he ultimately subdued them and hauled the V-man off to Rome for exhibition before execution. Thus we hear all sorts of hyperbole about “a war on Christianity” which is more correctly a war… Read more »

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