In his recent speech to the United Nations, President Obama has shown that he is every bit as capable of the type of soaring rhetoric that distinguished President John F. Kennedy. But where Kennedy inspired to service and aspired to put a man on the moon—things easily observed—Obama has set his lance toward the windmills of religious and ethnic chaos.
Whether Obama is a good politician, is a judgment best settled by his peers in politics and the longer-to-come verdict of history. But I will hazard this: he is a bad theologian, or at least someone who imagines that saying something makes it so.
We all decry beheading and the assorted brutalities that ISIS and dozens of Jihadist groups around the world perform in the name of their religion. I like to imagine that most Moslems find these things distasteful. But I doubt many readers of the Koran are willing to say these actions are not Islamic in origin—even if cruelly applied.
I do not think it does much for any religion to deny what that religion contains. Yes: the Koran mandates submission to Allah. Yes: the Koran specifies particularly bloody punishment for apostates and the infidel who opposes the faithful. But think a little further afield. Yes: the Bible is in both testaments clear that certain practices like homosexuality are morally unacceptable. Yes: the Bible condemns any mercantile system that trades profits for a concern for the poor. Yes: the Bible applauds all who give their life away rather than compromise. In one religious universe the individual may be more encouraged to literal, violent defense of faith than the other—but both and indeed other belief systems usually set faith higher than any secular system and the individual is required to commit all to the faith.
The President is right to declare the Islamic State outlaw, as its actions defy norms of civilized behavior; but he is playing with fire in attempting a theological whitewash. Is he implying that we accept and allow only those religions that are acceptable within our norms? A separation between church and state should mean just that: the state allows religious faith—any faith—and punishes secular evil-doing like murder and violence. There should be no religious freedom to commit these civil evils.
Further, and more immediately dangerous to general civil liberties is a developing international initiative joined to this coalition against extremism. Many countries, including my birthplace Australia, are about to take citizenship from anyone going overseas to fight for Islamic State and other like causes. At first blush it seems an appropriate and prudent move. However, it flies in the face of long-held norms—one wonders how the American revolution would have fared if LaFayette and others had been made stateless! Many young Americans went to Spain to fight with the Republicans in their civil war. Are we to build a new Berlin Wall to keep citizens from travelling. And what proof of involvement is required: word is that it will be on the level of suspicion. Few remember that by executive order we already have a system of indefinite imprisonment for those who are determined to “pose a threat,” even where there is not enough evidence to bring charges.
Much food for thought in this new “long war.”
And it will be a long war. A war that carries in its train the Crusades, the hubris of Sykes Picot, and jostling for influence and oil. The president dismissed any “clash of civilizations” as suggested by the late Samuel Huntington. What he should be more careful of is a clash of religious vision and secular vision.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."