President Obama and Whig History

tags: Obama, Whig

Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for

Finishing up business left undone last week, I’m grateful to Ta-Nehisi Coates for taking the time to critique my own critique of President Obama’s prayer breakfast speech. A few thoughts in response, working my way around his points.

1) Coates suggests that in noting the historical “complexity” of the Crusades and their era, my column implicitly made “a plea for context and nuance on behalf of the murderers of Jews—one I would not “make on behalf of ISIS.” My over-long Crusades post last week dealt with this issue more exhaustively, but briefly: No, no plea for context or nuance is being made on behalf of the perpetrators of the Rhineland massacres, or any other Crusades-era pogrom. Yes, a plea for context and nuance is being made on behalf of the many people — churchmen, soldiers, rulers, saints, ordinary medieval Christians — who were not involved in those pogroms, who opposed and condemned them, and whose support for, stake in, and participation in the Crusades was connected instead to the geopolitical and religiously-existential stakes involved in the long see-saw conflict between Islamic empires and Christian Europe.

If you want to compare ISIS to Emicho of Leiningen or any of the various Christian villains of the Rhineland, by all means make the analogy. But Coates’s language — “the first Crusade was anointed with a pogrom against the Jews of the Rhineland” — implies a world where that massacre was ordered by church and crown and greeted with official hosannas and public garlands for the perpetrators, which is not at all how things fell out. And reducing the entire “raise armies/forge alliances/take the cross on behalf of Christendom” project and era to just those crimes seems as reductive as it would be for me to reduce, say, the entire complicated history of Arab nationalism and Muslim populism to its Bin Ladenist and Islamic State expressions, or to condemn the entirety 20th century history of pan-Africanism and African nationalism because those ideas were often exploited by would-be tyrants, used to justify ethnic cleansing, etc. (This is something that some right-wing commentators do, or flirt with doing, but I hope that I have not, and if I did I would expect Coates to call me on it.)

As I’ve also said, I don’t think the president’s remarks were explicitly that reductive. But I do think that the juxtaposition of the Crusades with Jim Crow, chattel slavery and the Inquisition, and the juxtaposition of all four with ISIS, carried a reductive implication … which is why the pro-Crusades (often, yes, to a fault) response was not surprising. And the response to that response, from Coates among many others, confirms that the Crusades arewidely seen in a reductive light … which is not at all surprising in a society historically Protestant and liberal, but a view from which I respectfully dissent.

2) Pushing back against my suggestion that the president’s public reckonings with past American sins have a way of letting his own worldview off the hook, Coates writes:

More importantly, Jim Crow and slavery were not merely the sins of Southerners and the religious right, but the sins of America, itself. Enslavement was not merely a boon for the South, but for the country as a whole. (During the Civil War, New York City was a hotbed of secessionist sympathy mostly because of its economic ties to the South.) And there is simply no way to understand segregation in this country without understanding the housing policies of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt and the G.I. Bill signed by Democratic president Harry Truman. Barack Obama is a Christian and the president of the United States and thus the inheritor of the full legacy of that grand office. He is neither, as Ross tries to position him, an outsider to American sin nor Christian sin. It’s his heritage too, and Obama is wise enough to know that he can’t simply charge off the bad parts of that heritage to intransigent Southern bigots.

One can assume that the president would agree with part or most of Coates’s analysis if it were raised in private conversation, but nonetheless a dense vision of history’s knots and liberalism’s guilt is precisely not what was offered in his speech. Yes, there was a “we” in his “lest we get on our high horse,” but it wasn’t backed up with case studies of how people other than Catholics out of the Black Legend and white Christian bigots in the South were implicated in religiously-justified murder and ISIS-level crimes. Instead we had presidential shorthand, with no room for digressions about how New Deal liberalism made its peace with Jim Crow or how the liberal Christianity of the Victorian and Progressive Eras often went all in for “scientific” racial hierarchies or how progressive clergymen became fascinated with eugenics … or any other examples that would have actually gestured at the “full” legacy that Coates discusses. And yes, shorthand is normal in political remarks, and as readers can probably tell I found the president’s Jim Crow/slavery references in this particular speech more historically appropriate than his collapse of the Crusades into the same category. But when you’re dealing with something as fraught as Western/American analogies to people committing mass murders of Christians and other religious minorities right now, it’s a good idea to show your work: Otherwise, as I said in the column, you just end up “complicating” one issue by introducing what seem like another set of simplifications, calculated to get people’s backs up rather to persuade.

No doubt there’s some oversensitivity in that bristling, on my part and the part of other critics. At the same time, there are some good reasons why people might stiffen at this particular kind of simplification, at this particular moment, from this particular president. For one thing, like the Ted Cruz affair last year it’s reminder of the bipartisan tendency to change the subject (to Israel then, to the Crusades/Inquisition now) when the global persecution of Christians is suddenly in the headlines. And then where Obama specifically is concerned — well, look: This is a White House that reliably falls back on Whiggish blather about history’s “sides” when confronted with a foreign policy threat. It’s an administration that is conspicuously determined not to emphasize the Islamic element in actual-existing terrorism, for grand-strategic reasons but also, I suspect, because Team Obama shares the widespread elite-liberal anxiety that conservative Christians in the West are always one provocation away from a pogrom or new crusade. And then the president himself comes from a religious background (liberal Protestantism mixed with black liberation theology) that’s not exactly friendly to theologically conservative Christians, and his relationship to co-believers to his political and theological right is not exactly characterized by the warmest of sympathy … at least not on the evidence of his policy choices, his unguarded comments and his occasional use of religious-conservative arguments to consciously deceptive ends.

So when he unburdens himself of a “Niebuhrian” aside about Christian guilt that mostly just feels pretty Whiggish, liberal Protestant, and capital-P Progressive — that identifies fanaticism and folly with people, traditions and ideas that are safely on the other side of History from the president’s own worldview — I’m not sure we’re obligated to assume that he really meant something awesomely nuanced and radically complex.

3) Finally, Coates argues that the president has offered more public criticism overall toward “groups to which he is sympathetic” than my column acknowledged. He cites the specific example of the African-American community, the target of a number of critical/exhortatory presidential comments on personal responsibility, parenthood, etc. — comments that Coates himself has frequently criticized, from the left, as unnecessarily hectoring. This is a fair point: I didn’t think enough about those issues when I was working on the column, and I should have, given that I’ve made my own forays into that debate. In general, I’ve found Obama’s public rhetoric on race more impressive and more nuanced than his rhetoric on religion (a view not universally shared on the right, obviously), and the fact that his speeches to African-American audiences in particular have been nuanced and critical enough (or unfair enough, from Coates’s perspective) to draw fire from his left means that they do offer a plausible counterpoint to my critique. So I’m glad that Coates raised it, and I’m sorry I didn’t raise it myself.

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