There was a time when the 63-year-old National Prayer Breakfast was a rather mundane affair. It rarely made news. Speakers -- evangelist Billy Graham spoke at most of the early ones -- talked about Jesus and salvation. Presidents, beginning with Dwight D. Eisenhower, would follow with unremarkable comments mostly ignored or relegated to the religion page by the secular press.
In recent years the breakfast's higher purpose has sometimes been tainted by politics from a lower kingdom, not by the choice of the Senate and House members who alternate organizing the event, but by some speakers who have used it to promote personal agendas.
Mother Teresa spoke against abortion at the 1994 breakfast and announced that any pregnant woman who didn't want her child could send the child to her. That made headlines and I wrote approvingly of her remarks, noting they fit into a moral-spiritual framework.
Two years ago, retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson spoke and used the occasion to lecture President Obama on The Affordable Care Act. The notoriety his remarks brought him has led to a potential presidential candidacy. I wrote a column agreeing with his position, but thought it the wrong venue.
At last Thursday's breakfast, following a powerful personal salvation talk by NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip, President Obama counseled the world by linking radical Islam to the Crusades of the 11th century and the Inquisition of the 15th century. He said Christians shouldn't get on their "high horse" about fanaticism, asserting that people acting "in Christ's name" used religion to justify slavery and Jim Crow laws. That's partially true, but the difference is that Jesus never justified violence or discrimination. The Koran records that Mohammed did, as do growing numbers of his radical followers today.
The Crusades were a response to the violent Muslim takeover of what we call the Holy Land. What does that have to do with today's Muslim "death cult," as the president correctly called Islamic extremists? These are beheading and flogging people, oppressing and raping women, promoting child marriage, and jailing or discriminating against anyone who practices another faith, or no faith, including some who practice a different brand of Islam. It was similar behavior that spawned the Crusades.
Modern Jews and Christians aren't known for such behavior, and though it may be true that it is not unprecedented for Christian and Judaic faiths to use religion to justify violence and repression, it is radical Islamists who have taken violence, repression and extremism to a new and dangerous level.
One cannot compare religions based in peace and love with the religion of radical Islamists and their propagation of atrocities against those who do not believe as they do.
Yes, as the president said, religion was used to justify slavery and Jim Crow laws, but religion also played a major role in the liberation of the slaves. Abraham Lincoln quoted Scripture in his 1858 "house divided" speech. Northern preachers filled their sermons with righteous indignation against slavery. In the South, it was the faithful who came down on the wrong side of history, not God's word, not His entreaty that we love one another.
The Bible did not command us to wage war against infidels and slaughter innocents. Are these commands not found in the Koran? The Middle East Forum writes, "...in its fatwa justifying the burning of the Jordanian captive, the Islamic State cites Muhammad putting out the eyes of some with "heated irons" (he also cut their hands and feet off). The fatwa also cites Khalid bin al-Walid -- the heroic "Sword of Allah" -- who burned apostates to death, including one man whose head he set on fire to cook his dinner on."
I don't recall Jesus taking similar actions, do you?
Whatever the president's intent, he engaged in a kind of historical guilt by association, presenting an incomplete and distorted picture, as well as bad history.