Barack Obama: High Priest-in-Chief?

George W. Bush may have vacated the White House, but his spirit remains. In what has to rank among the most ironic Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speeches in history, Barack Obama has reestablished the foundations for an American global crusade against the forces of evil.

“Just wars,” Obama tells us, are rare, while brutal religious wars are not. “The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible,” as has humans’ “capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God.”

We Americans, however, have been different. “The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades,” Obama opined. “We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest.” Ah yes, that old American enlightened self-interest. Why can’t the rest of the world just see that?

After the president explained to his Norwegian audience why the U.S. has gone to war, he turned to America’s enemies.

What of Al Qaeda? Why do they fight?

Not self-interest, apparently, and certainly not enlightenment either.

According to Obama, they launched a Holy War. “Religion,” he warned, “is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan.”

Change we can believe in or Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld speak?

The Prophet did not leap off of the pages of the Qur’an and command Osama bin Laden to wage war against the United States. No, the United States has worked for generations to control the Middle East, supporting the Shah, backing the Mujahideen, arming Saddam Hussein against Iran, and stationing thousands of soldiers in Saudi Arabia. This, as Obama well knows, is the primary (though certainly not the only) reason Al Qaeda has targeted the United States. The religious diatribes of a handful of zealots are secondary. They provide window dressing for what is at its root a conflict over land, influence, and oil.

Maintaining American influence in the Middle East has been (and likely remains) in the best interests of the United States, certainly of Israel, and perhaps of the rest of the world. Bin Laden, however, disagrees. Vehemently. Violently. Nevertheless, this does not make the war—formally known as “on terror”—a religious conflict.

To say that it is echoes the kinds of over-simplified religious ignorance we came to expect from the bumbling previous administration. Obama was supposed to be different. He promised change. And the Nobel Prize committee expected it. This ain’t it.

Obama called on his audience and the world not to lose faith. “For if we lose that faith,” he preached (and I do mean preached), “then we lose what’s best about humanity.” Amen. I don’t want to lose faith, but it’s slipping. And fast.

“Let us reach for the world that ought to be,” Obama concluded, “that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.” That spark of the divine? Is this, or is this not a religious war? Who is the crusader? Who is invoking God to justify his foreign policy?

Obama finished his speech with one final bit of sloppy theologizing. Absurdly reducing all religions to one, he claimed that “the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” And there, my friends, is the money shot. Our faith is better than yours, truer than yours, and right. Hey, it even is yours.

This is not a good way to wage a war.

Barack Obama is the commander-in-chief, not the arbiter of true faith. He carries the sword, not a clerical collar. Trying to play high priest from the Oval Office is exactly the kind of thing that has inflamed the non-Christian world in the past and it is the very thing that will continue to fuel the anti-Americanism that he so hopes to quash.

The president needs to spend a little less time worrying about matters of faith and a little more time on the political realities of the Middle East. Rather than letting the religious zealots—on both sides of the conflict—determine the parameters of the debate, Obama needs to give his Bible and his Qur’an a rest. Whether the holy books teach jihad or turning the other check, both provide lousy models for crafting foreign policy. This is a war decades in the making about territory, about influence, and about oil. It is not about faith.

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