President Barack Obama’s remarks during his visit to a Maryland mosque this week were as uplifting as the immediate reaction to them was wearily depressing.
Like the best of his addresses on race, ethnicity and religion, the president’s address to the congregants of the Islamic Center of Baltimore was thoughtful, humane, generous in spirit and faithful to the realities of our national history. It is in settings such as the mosque that Obama’s appeals to the better angels of our nature are most persuasive. This one is worth reading at length, and you can read the full text of his remarks on the White House website.
Obama denounced all expressions of religious prejudice abroad in these tormented times with a special emphasis on those endured by Muslim Americans in the wake of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, who he condemned. The essence of those sentiments is captured in this part of the address:
“So none of us can be silent. We can’t be bystanders to bigotry. And together, we’ve got to show that America truly protects all faiths.”
“Which brings me to my next point,” Obama told the crowd. “As we protect our country from terrorism, we should not reinforce the ideas and the rhetoric of the terrorists themselves. I often hear it said that we need moral clarity in this fight. And the suggestion is somehow that if I would simply say, these are all Islamic terrorists, then we would actually have solved the problem by now, apparently. (Laughter.) Well, I agree, we actually do need moral clarity. Let’s have some moral clarity.
“Groups like ISIL are desperate for legitimacy,” Obama said. “They try to portray themselves as religious leaders and holy warriors who speak for Islam. I refuse to give them legitimacy. We must never give them that legitimacy. They’re not defending Islam. They’re not defending Muslims. The vast majority of the people they kill are innocent Muslim men, women and children.
“And, by the way,” he added, “the notion that America is at war with Islam ignores the fact that the world’s religions are a part of who we are. We can’t be at war with any other religion because the world’s religions are a part of the very fabric of the United States, our national character.”
Indeed, the hijab no more threatens American life than do the religious attire of the Amish, Hasidic Jews or traditional Catholic nuns.
But by now we’re all aware that no matter what President Obama says about anything, there are those on the Republican right who will disagree with whatever he said.
If Obama took the podium in the White House press room and declared that the sun rises in the east, a dozen congressmen and six radio talk show hosts would denounce him for trying to foist a tyrannical and sinister cosmology rooted in biased science on the American people. By the next week, we’d have books out titled “The Eastern Dawn Hoax” and “The Daybreak Conspiracy”, or perhaps “Copernicus and the Caliphate.”
Following the president’s visit, Florida Sen. and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio quickly decried Obama’s Baltimore remarks as divisive. “He gave a speech at a mosque, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims,” the junior senator said. “Of course there’s discrimination in America, of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam. This constant pitting people against each other, I can’t stand that. It’s hurting our country badly.”
GOP frontrunner Donald Trump returned darkly to his birther days, hinting in his usual snide way that Obama’s visit to a mosque—the first of his presidency—suggested that he is, in fact, a Muslim: “Maybe he feels comfortable there.”
Others on the more vulgar the-only-good-Muslim-is-a-dead-or-distant-Muslim front went further into the now familiar Islam is incompatible with American citizenship swamp. There’s a receptive audience for that sort of thing: The most recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that more than half of all Americans—56%–now feel that “the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life. Three quarters of all self-described Republicans feel that way, though only 43% of Democrats do.
Look, there’s no doubt—and I have written at length about it elsewhere—that Islamic believers must wring a long-standing tolerance for intolerance out of their religious community and root out customs incompatible with modern pluralism. Cultural misogyny, female circumcision, arranged marriage, honor killings or an insistence on societal accommodation of Sharia law just won’t wash—and no appeal to “tolerance” or fellow feeling can make it otherwise. As the philosopher Richard Rorty once put it, “Some ideas, like some people, are no damn good.”
That said, we Americans have been here before. In the 19th century anti-Catholic Nativists made the same sorts of claims about incompatibility with the American republic about Irish and German immigrants—often asserting them violently. An entire political party, the Know Nothings, had anti-Catholicism as its organizing principle. Leading social progressives, like many of the most prominent abolitionists, were fervently anti-Catholic. As unconscionable as their bigotry was, there also was a problem within the Catholic Church of that era: At its highest levels, the church was profoundly antagonistic to freedom of conscience, religious liberty and democracy itself.
Pope Gregory XVI wrote that, “Now we arrive at another cause of the evils with which we suffer at seeing the Church afflicted at this moment, to wit, this “indifferentism,” or this perverse opinion spread everywhere by the devious action of bad men. According to it, one could achieve eternal salvation by any profession of faith, as long as the customs are upright and honest. . .
“From this infected source of ‘indifferentism’ flows that absurd and erroneous maxim, or rather this delirium, that it is necessary to grant everyone ‘freedom of conscience.’ This most pernicious error has its way prepared by a full and immoderate freedom of opinion that is widely spread for the ruin of religious and civil society.”
Pope Pius IX denounced not only freedom of religion, but also freedom of speech and democracy itself. His successor, Leo XIII, whose great encyclical “Of New Things” is the foundation of all progressive Catholic social teaching, nevertheless found it necessary to assert the right of church to a privileged place in society ahead of all other creeds and to denounce the American notion of separation of church and state as heresy.
What the Nativists in their prejudice could not see was that Catholic Americans came from all sorts of cultures—not only Irish and German, but Polish, Italian, Latin American, Portuguese and, yes, Middle Eastern. Their attitudes toward Roman authority varied from indifferent to ultra-Montane. Most important, the experience of living and prospering in democratic, capitalistic, pluralistic, meritocratic America changed the Catholic Church. In the person of that great theologian of pluralism, the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, the American notion of religious tolerance was carried back into the heart of Roman Catholicism, when it was adopted by the prelates of the Second Vatican Council.
It is ahistorical to imagine that something similar will not happen with contemporary Islamic Americans, which is why Obama is right and his critics on this profoundly and wickedly mistaken.