No one wants to stir up controversy regarding an annual gathering meant to unify religious believers, so it’s understandable that press and pundits largely ignored President Obama’s profoundly peculiar remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5th. Nevertheless, his brief prepared talk (the White House released a text of his comments before he spoke) February 5th in the nation’s capital contained so many provocations, contradictions and flat-footed misstatements that they deserve more serious attention than they’ve received.
For instance, the President of the United States (and the speechwriters who undoubtedly helped craft and polish his lines) made a glaring mistake of Biblical attribution. At the center of his speech, Mr. Obama declaimed: “We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’” Actually, it was God the Father, or Moses, or the anonymous compilers of the Old Testament who communicated that commandment at least 600 years before Jesus. “Love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) had been identified by Jewish sages as the central instruction of the Torah long before the Nazarene made it the theme of his challenge to corrupt religious officials of his generation.
Moreover, after giving Jesus credit for the most famous passage in the Torah (Five Books of Moses), the President went on to ascribe to the Torah a line that isn’t even there. After explaining what “Jesus told us” Mr. Obama went on: “The Torah commands, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.’” Actually, these worthy sentiments appear nowhere in the Old Testament. But they do echo a famous passage of the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) in which Rabbi Hillel (who lived in the first century BC) was asked for a quick summary of the Jewish faith and responded: “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Law. The rest is explanation; go and study the explanation.”
In any event, he President’s use of the word “Torah” in this context should have raised red flags among his editors and speechwriters. One of the most toxic misunderstandings concerning the relationship between Christianity and Judaism involves the mistaken belief that Christians center their faith on the Bible, while Jews base their belief on a separate book called “the Torah” which, like the Koran, includes a great deal of distinctive, alien, non-Biblical teaching. In fact, the word Torah (as defined by any dictionary) refers in its primary meaning to the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) rather than any other arcane religious teachings. The Torah scrolls used in worship at all synagogues and temples around the world include the text of those five books, nothing more, nothing less. This is important, because it means that all Bible-believing Christians by definition embrace and revere the Jewish Torah. It’s a point of unity, not division between the two faiths.
Occasionally, Orthodox Jews do use the term “Torah” to refer to the full accumulation of scripture, law, tradition and interpretation – including the Talmudic passage cited by the President- but the Reform and Conservative Jews who constitute Mr. Obama’s most fervent supporters resist and contest that application of the word.
In any event, the President of the United States (and his staff) made a muddle of some of the most basic religious teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition – the sort of confusion that would have brought widespread derision and snickers had the mix-up originated with George W. Bush.
At another point in his two pages of comments, President Obama provided a patently falsified history of the prayer breakfast itself. At the opening of his remarks, he said, “Michelle and I are honored to join you in prayer this morning….It’s a tradition that I’m told actually began many years ago in the city of Seattle. It was the height of the Great Depression, and most people found themselves out of work.” Obviously, even in the darkest days of the 1930’s most people in fact continued to work – no, the unemployment rate never approached 50% -- but the distortion gets much worse. “Many fell into poverty. Some lost everything. The leaders of the community did all that they could for those who were suffering in their midst. And then they decided to do something more: they prayed. It didn’t matter what party or religious affiliation to which they belonged. They simply gathered one morning as brothers and sisters to share a meal and talk with God.”
In reality, the prayer breakfasts that began in Seattle and ultimately spread across the country (and around the world) from the beginning featured a political and pointedly conservative agenda. The movement originated with a Norwegian immigrant and traveling preacher named Abraham Vereide who battled the influence of socialists and radicals among the city’s poor. He understood that suffering workers who didn’t trust in the big G (God) would come to count on the little g (government) – a formulation originated by a much later Seattle clergyman, my friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin. In 1935, Rev. Vereide organized a group known as “The Family” to help the city’s business elite connect with the downtrodden, while conveying powerful anti-Communist and anti-union messages. He soon launched similar efforts in Chicago and San Francisco, before the organization’s leadership moved to D.C. in 1942. At the urging of Christian conservatives in the GOP (in particular Rep. Frank Carlson of Kansas), President Eisenhower spoke at the prayer breakfast in 1953 and all subsequent presidents have followed his example. In any event, the idea that down-and-out believers “simply gathered one morning as brothers and sisters to share a meal and talk with God” is baseless and false, contradicted by the easily available history of The Fellowship Foundation (the new designation of Vereide’s original “Family”) that still sponsors the yearly event.
“TAKING THE LIFE OF AN INNOCENT HUMAN BEING”
In addition to the odd misstatements and distortions in his remarks, President Obama offered a series of contradictions and platitudes that count as puzzling, if not pernicious. Speaking of himself, he declared “I know this breakfast has a long history in Washington, and faith has always been a guiding force in our family’s life, so we feel very much at home.” A few paragraphs later he provided a more honest summary of his own religious history, explaining, “I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known.”
Far more significantly, he took this same notion of moral equivalence for all religions (and no religion) to a dubious and in fact dangerous extreme in his talk’s most noteworthy single passage. “We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we’re going next – and some subscribe to no faith at all. But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.”
With this sweeping simplification, the President of the United States offered instant exoneration to those who follow the false Gods of fanatical Islam or, for that matter, bloodthirsty Marxism.
“No God who condones taking the life of innocent human beings”? Three days after the National Prayer Breakfast, British MP John Whittingdale, Chairman of the House of Commons Media Select Committee, condemned Al-Jazeera’s English language network for broadcasting live sermons by esteemed cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi “celebrating the Holocaust and praying for the killing of all Jews.” Every Friday without exception, radical mosques in various corners of the planet conduct prayerful services not only condoning, but demanding, the massacre of innocents – services often followed by riots and violence. If President Obama paused to consider the nineteen deeply devout hijackers who slaughtered 3,000 Americans on 9/11, and if he reflected on the tens of millions of Muslims around the world who celebrate these killers as “the Magnificent Nineteen,” could he honestly conclude “that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate”?
And in view of the continuing nightmare of Communist tyranny (from Cuba to North Korea), and the murder of at least 100 million human beings in the name of various Marxist utopias, would the president truly insist that it’s “no matter what we believe”? If Communism truly represents “The God That Failed” (as the title of an indispensable 1949 essay collection famously proclaimed) then wasn’t that system precisely the sort of God who sanctioned the mass murder of the blameless?
Moreover, there’s another problem with the President’s conclusion that “there is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being.” Days before delivering this resounding declaration, Mr. Obama re-authorized the expenditure of US taxpayer money to finance abortion providers abroad. In a recent case in Florida, the operator of an abortion clinic cut the umbilical cord of an unintentionally delivered baby and, while the infant writhed and gasped for air, placed her inside a biohazard bag which was promptly tossed into the trash. Wouldn’t this constitute “taking the life of an innocent human being”? If “no God” condones such killing, why would the President and his supporters insist on a Constitutional right to partial birth abortion under strikingly similar circumstances?
These questions amount to more than nit-picking for a president who wants to win the trust and support of religious believers. When speaking to Washington’s biggest religious event, his misattribution of both Biblical and Talmudic citations displayed the sort of sloppiness and disrespect that would have brought stinging denunciation of George W. Bush, or of Bill Clinton, for that matter.
He also offered a fraudulent summary of the history of the prayer breakfast which disguised the event’s original, inconveniently conservative message—that trust in God represented a more liberty-loving and life-affirming alternative than trust in government.
His suggestion that “faith has always been a guiding force in our family’s life” combined with recollections of his “skeptical” mother as the most “spiritual person I’ve ever known,” underlined the long-standing position of smug secularists that “organized religion” bears no connection to “spirituality.”
Finally, by absolving all faiths of preaching “hate” or condoning senseless mass killing, President Obama not only ignored but denied the core difference between the United States and our Islamo-Nazi adversaries. He pointedly refused to acknowledge the religious fanaticism at the very heart of the deadly forces that threaten us.
Yes, the president earns credit for choosing to appear at the prayer breakfast—overriding demands by separationist militants that he become the first chief executive in fifty years to shun the occasion. He also took pains with his mostly devout audience to express sympathy and support for the general role of religion in American life. But the substance of his remarks deserves more examination than their style, and in this regard the President of the United States served up a breakfast repast with no nourishment at all and even a sour hint of toxicity.