Fighting the Extremists Within

One of the things that I find interesting in the conservative outrage over President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast is that most of it is focused on his inclusion of the Crusades (and occasionally the Inquisition). It is an attempt to dismiss what the President said because the events he referred to happened such a long time ago.

All of that ignores that he also included the more recent events of slavery and Jim Crow (the latter of which was still alive and well during my lifetime). For those who suggest the Christian community did not sanction slavery, Ta-Nehisi Coates provides us with a quote from Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens showing that the secession of the Southern States over the issue of slavery was defended based on their religious beliefs.

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…

It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.

Of course there were also Christians who were part of the abolitionist movement – initially a small minority confined mostly to the Quakers. But the question eventually came down to Christians vs Christians over the question of slavery – to the point of a Civil War.

When the issue of Jim Crow actually comes up in these recent discussions, it is usually conservatives appropriating the mantle of Rev. Martin Luther King as a Christian minister who led the Civil Rights Movement. For example, here’s Tucker Carlson:

And by the way, who ended slavery and Jim Crow? Christians. The Rev. Martin Luther King. Christians.

He’s right, of course. Rev. King based his objection to Jim Crow on his Christian faith. But as we saw with slavery, a lot of white Christians firmly planted themselves on the other side. And it wasn’t just the KKK with their burning crosses. I am reminded of the fact that Rev. King’s most famous written document – Letter from Birmingham Jail – was penned in response to eight white religious leaders in the South who objected to his activities.

What we see from both of these examples is that on the question of slavery and Jim Crow, there were Christians on both sides of the divide. After a lot of suffering and death, the “Christian extremists” in our country were defeated by those who held fast to a faith that practiced what it preached.

That is exactly what President Obama’s foreign policy is attempting to accomplish in the Muslim world today on the question of ISIS. Over and over again he has said that the people of Iraq are going to have to lead the way.

In other words, just as our history shows with slavery and Jim Crow, the best way to defeat ISIS extremists is for the Muslim world to organize against them. Conservative attempts to malign all Muslims for the actions of those extremists actually distract and block that from happening.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .