This stuff on Obama’s Prayer Breakfast seems to be having a very long shelf life. (I will be publishing a version of my earlier blog post at another website. It should be out soon–stay tuned).
Now Damon Linker has weighed in over at The Week. Here is a taste of his piece: “The Problem with Barack Obama Playing the Professor in Chief.”
The problem with the president’s comments isn’t that they were wrong. As Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have powerfully argued, they were indisputably correct.
The problem is that Barack Obama is the president of the United States and not its professor in chief. It isn’t the president’s role to stand apart from and above the nation he leads, issuing supposedly even-handed, dispassionate, scholarly, objective, or prophetic moral judgments about the sins of America and Western civilization. This is especially true when those judgments are rendered in the context of a comparison with the butchers of ISIS — a bloodthirsty Islamist syndicate the president has accurately described as a “network of death” and pledged to destroy by force of arms.
What Obama’s comments demonstrate is that he lacks a sufficient appreciation of the crucial difference between politics and morality.
Broadly speaking, morality is universalistic in scope and implication, whereas politics is about how a particular group of people governs itself. Morality is cosmopolitan; politics is tribal. Morality applies to all people equally. Politics operates according to a narrower logic — a logic of laws, customs, habits, and mores that bind together one community at a specific time and place. Morality dissolves boundaries. Politics is about how this group of people lives here, as distinct from those groups over there.
Now this certainly overstates the difference between the two realms. In the real world, they overlap in all kinds of ways — and it is one of the great achievements of liberal government to have tamed some of the narrow-minded excesses of politics by more strictly applying moral criteria to the political realm than was common for much of human history before the modern period.
If the president truly believes that ISIS poses a dire threat to the United States — one requiring a military response that puts the lives of American soldiers at risk, costs billions of dollars, and leads to the death of hundreds or thousands of people on the other side of the conflict — then it makes no sense at all for him simultaneously to encourage Americans to adopt a stance of moral ambiguity toward that threat.
Does Obama want us to kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths of ISIS? Or does he want us to reflect dispassionately on the myriad ways that they’re really not that different from the grandfather of my friend from Mississippi?…
A wise president understands that his role is categorically different from that of a journalist, a scholar, a moralist, or a theologian. It’s not a president’s job to gaze down dispassionately on the nation, rendering moral judgments from the Beyond. His job is to defend our side. Yes, with intelligence and humility. But the time for intelligence and humility is in crafting our policies, not in talking about them after the fact. When the president speaks as he did at the Prayer Breakfast, he sounds like a man who believes that executing his own sometimes ruthless policies is too narrow-minded, too partial — a word, too political — for a man as worldly and cosmopolitan as he.
I can’t argue with most of what Linker says here. I think he is right. Most Americans want a president of decisive action, not a president-moral philosopher. But let’s go back to Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Why do so many of us celebrate this speech. Lincoln was being a president-theologian in that speech and it has gone down as one of the greatest speeches ever delivered by an American president. It seems that Americans want both–strong executive action to defend the interests of the United States and someone who can root such executive action in a robust moral philosophy. Perhaps the problem with Obama is that his moral philosophy is too indecisive, complex, and nuances when compared to the way his predecessor, George W. Bush, employed his moral philosophy.
Just some preliminary thoughts here. I need to think about this some more.
Tom Van Dyke says
I had hoped that academic historians from the left [do I repeat myself?] would have stood up for historical accuracy in this case.
Douthat on President Obama's facile if not cynical wielding of history.
Which makes a comparison between the Crusades as a historical phenomenon and various specific institutions — the sort of comparison in which “Crusaders” get casually likened to “slave owners”, for instance — seem, well, not even wrong: It’s just a category error, like putting “Franco-British conflict from the 14th through the 19th century” on the same list of great historical wrongs as South African apartheid.
I’m also not interested in an exercise in historical amnesia where the actual necessities of medieval geopolitics get wiped out of Western memory in favor of blanket condemnation of anyone who took the cross. If you want me to condemn pogroms in the Rhineland or the bloody aftermath of Jerusalem’s fall or the entirety of the Fourth Crusade, I will, and readily. But ask me if I’m sorry that Spain is Spain and not Al-Andalus, or if I regret Lepanto or Jan Sobieski’s gallop to Vienna, or if I wish that Saint Louis had somehow rescued Outremer or that aid had come to Constantinople in the 15th century — I’m not, I don’t, I do. There are parts of Christian civilization’s past that have to be simply judged, rejected, and disowned; that the list is depressingly long, too long for a presidential speech. But the Crusades are nowhere near that simple, and to disown them requires a kind of amputation, a schism with the past, a triumph of forgetfulness over the more complicated obligations of actually remembering.