Obama National Prayer Breakfast

President Barack Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2009.

President Obama stirs a little controversy with some words about religious history during the National Prayer Breakfast.

At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama took the opportunity to discuss the effects of religion on the modern world. While he noted that many religious causes use their faith for the sole purpose of helping others, he mentioned a more sinister side of religion that is causing controversy. Courting controversy, President Obama mentioned that there are cases, like those offered by ISIS, where religion is used to justify terrible acts of violence against other people.

The National Prayer Breakfast

The National Prayer Breakfast is an annual meeting that has been running for the last 63 years. It is attended by politicians, religious leaders, and other people who have significant interests in the world’s religion. This year the Dalai Lama was in attendance and was specifically mentioned by President Obama as an example of a person who is using their faith to help others throughout their lives. A driving force behind the annual breakfast is to try to promote religious understanding in a diverse world where that concept is easier to say than to embody.

Understanding One’s Place In History

One of the major concepts that the president talked about during his speech was that all religions need to be mindful of their actions in the present day as well in the past. Speaking about his own religion, Christianity, President Obama took time to ask people to humble themselves and understand that even their religion has a dark history. Specifically, the president spoke about the actions of Christians during The Crusades as well as during the Inquisition.

He also said that people should not judge an entire religion on the merits of a few, especially those that use religion as a justification for harming others. These words appeared to be directed against the elements of Islam that are causing so much unrest in the Middle East. However, many people took offense at the president’s words, implying that he should not use the past as a lens through which to view this particular case.

Religion For The Modern World

President Obama used the remainder of his speech to focus on how to improve the actions and image of religions as a whole. He said that he believes that the key is having humility in faith. He outlined this idea of humility as being able and willing to doubt that a person’s faith is the only correct answer, where one religion is in sole possession of religious truth. The president believes that this basic level of humility is enough to start meaningful dialogue about religion while helping it become a thriving, helpful part of the world community.

The Media Reaction

The media have had a lot to say in response to President Obama’s words at the National Prayer Breakfast, especially those affiliated with right-wing news outlets. Eric Bolling of Fox’s series “Cashin’ In” seemed particularly offended. He suggested that Obama would have to apologize for his lumping “Christians and murderous Islamic terrorists together” if the president did not want his words to “follow him for the rest of his presidency and legacy.” Bolling insisted that religiously motivated acts of terrorism have only been committed in the name of Islam, and not other religions, particularly Christianity.

Ta-Nehisi Coates responded to those with such disregard for history explaining Obama’s historical references: “[Slavery’s] moral justification was not ‘because I said so,’ it was ‘Providence,’ ‘the curse against Canaan,’ ‘the Creator,’ and ‘Christianization.’ In just five years, 750,000 Americans died because of this peculiar mission of ‘Christianization.'” As commentary continued over Obama’s comments, Coates wrote again in defense of the president’s historical facts: “The Spanish Inquisition included the executions of thousands, and led to the expulsion of Jewish communities from the country. I do not believe one needs a degree in medieval studies to deplore pogroms and ethnic cleansing, any more than one needs a degree in Middle Eastern studies to deplore the taking or beheading of hostages.”


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