High Horses

“The Foolish, Historically Illiterate, Incredible Response to Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech,” is how Ta-nehisi Coates characterizes the outcry which greeted president Obama’s remarks at a National Prayer Breakfast at which said in part:


Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Speaking with the assurance of someone who knows who those they address are, whatever they may think of themselves, Coates reminds Christians of their sins, citing Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens to makes sure you understand what Christianity has historically been all about: apartheid and racism.

[T]he first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society … With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so.


When Alexander Stephens became an authority on Christianity is something of a mystery. Possibly at the same time Barack Obama did. Politicians seem to know lot about religion these days. They can, like Coates not only inform people of their true beliefs, as opposed to what they believe they believe, but can do something even more remarkable: tell who belong to other faiths. Journalists and politicians with no discernible religious training have the astonishing ability to declare with confident certainty that individual persons are “not Muslims” or that particular acts have “nothing to do with Islam”. They can do this while somehow remaining Christians themselves — if that’s what they are.  You might think the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia might hesitate to say who or who is not a Christian, but evidently the difficulty does not go the other way.

It would not be the first time politicians have ventured into religion. The first chapters of St. Augustine’s City of God are devoted to rebutting the exact opposite of the Coates/Obama thesis. In those days Christianity was accused of making Rome too gentle; of enervating its martial qualities such that the Empire was no longer able to defend itself.  Too bad they didn’t get the memo from Stephens.

The New York Times wrote that the president was only trying to “add context” to the debate on terror by deliberately pointing a finger. “Mr. Obama’s aides said … the president wanted to be provocative in his remarks, they said, urging people to see how the current brutality of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, fits in the broader sweep of a global history that has often given rise to what he called ‘a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.'”


Yet if the president’s perspective is breathtaking in its temporal breadth, going all the way back to the European Middle Ages and the Confederacy, it is remarkably provincial in geographic scope. He seems to think of Christianity as a white man’s religion. But the facts are otherwise. Not only did Christianity originate in the Middle East, most of them live outside of Europe and North America.

“Today, only about a quarter of all Christians live in Europe (26%). A plurality – more than a third – now are in the Americas (37%). About one in every four Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa (24%), and about one-in-eight is found in Asia and the Pacific (13%).”  Furthermore, most Christians in the Americas are from Central and South America. There are more Christians in Ethiopia than France, three times as many in Egypt as are in Ireland, one and half times more in Nigeria than either Italy or Germany, and three times as many in the Philippines than there are in the entire United Kingdom.

Most attacks on Christians occur in exactly places like Ethiopia, Egypt, Nigeria,  Philippines,  Iraq and Pakistan. Given these circumstances one might politely wonder: what exactly qualifies Barack Obama or Ta-nehisi Coates to speak on their behalf? Where exactly do they get the moral standing to tell Christians — remembering where they live —  to get off “their high horse” or to consider how in their pitiful illiteracy they have forgotten their origins as spawn of the Confederate devil?   There aren’t many horses in the Philippines, let alone high ones.


Christians are the most persecuted religious group on earth today and since the majority of the dead and dying are Egyptians, Ethiopians, Nigerians, Sudanese, Iraqis or Filipinos it is hard to see how Obama or Coates can speak for them.  Even if it is the Christian custom to forgive, neither man, living safe in the First World, has the obvious right to dispense absolution on behalf of desperately poor men trying to survive and keep their faith.

There is something grotesque about the cultural leaders of the Western left, most of whom are atheist or lapsed,  finding the effrontery to don the mantle of religious authority to counsel people dying in distant lands to sit back and take it in atonement for their non-existent sins.  Maybe First World Politicians and journalists should stick to what they know.  I won’t tell them what they know if they won’t tell me what I believe.

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