What the President Really Said

What the President Said

The hyper-reaction of some folks on the religious right to what the President said at the National Prayer Breakfast reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Col. Jessup in “A Few Good Men.” It’s when he shouts, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Maybe a thoughtful reflection on historical and theological truth is more than most folks expect at an event that often turns out to be little more than a polite recognition of religious tradition or, at worst, a self-righteous celebration of American civil religion. If all you hear is the shouting, you’d think the President went on an all-out attack on Christianity. But if you actually listen to the speech, you have to wonder if these folks were in the same room. I encourage you to watch it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_9qPMqE_TQ&feature=youtu.be&t=1h1m20s) or read the text (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/05/remarks-president-national-prayer-breakfast.)

The President actually expected religious people to think. Instead of offering pious pabulum that would go down as easily as the scrambled eggs, the President invited his listeners to wrestle with the question: “How do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?”

It’s a good question, even when it is an unwelcome one.

In no uncertain terms, he gave a blistering condemnation of the Islamic State as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yazidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”

But then, he dared to speak truth. “We’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.” It was like pointing out that gravity pulls down.

He reminded us that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” and that “in our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” He could have added the Salem Witch Trials, the English Reformation, the Holocaust and Apartheid in South Africa, all of which were endorsed or passively accepted by some branches of the Church or by faithful Christian people.

Naming the dark side of our history doesn’t justify evil behavior in the present. But it does call us to humility.  That was the theme of the rest of the message. Unfortunately, humility is not a welcome guest at these events, either.

Abraham Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will” was lurking in the background when the President said, “If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. ‘We see through a glass, darkly’ — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”

When it comes down to it, the hostile reaction to the speech says more about the opponents than it says about the President. We can debate whether it is the role of a President to function as a theologian or preacher. But the challenge to name what Wesley called “our bent to sinning” and the call to some measure of humility is a central, if often unwelcome, part of the gospel.

It is, in fact, what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about.

Grace and peace,


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15 thoughts on “What the President Really Said

  1. Well said, Jim Harnish ! Your additions to the darker sides of Christianity in the U.S. and in the world add more illustrations to the President’s message at the Prayer Breakfast. Thank you.

  2. Jim, Thanks so much for your thoughtful post. If I have had one problem coming to Florida it is the prevalence of the religious right. Your sermons had always been a welcome relief-one that I cherished and now wish I had availed myself more of them. I am glad to see you are preaching with a different venue. I eagerly look forward to reading them. One request. As you know I am following you into retirement. Can you change the email address you have to Wbaugh1022@Aol.com. I will be retiring this Friday so sometime this week they will be taking me off the TGH email. Thanks, I am so glad you are doing better. I had lunch with Bernie last week. He is doing very well. Take good care and blessings to you. Bill Baugh

  3. Loved the speech and love this post!

  4. Thank you for this, Well said and full of Grace!

  5. Well said, Jim. I had a similar reaction when listening to the President’s speech. The opposition is not oriented to listen but only to enrage their constituents against anything varying from their biased and uninformed positions. “Don’t think, just follow me” seems to be the prevailing message of the right.

  6. I love your thinking process and your courage in sharing it with us. It gives me a “voice” to share
    with others. Blessings and thanks. Flossie

  7. Well stated, Jim. Thank you.


    Brett Opalinski

    Senior Pastor


    4845 NE 25 Ave | Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308 | 954.771.7300 x203 | http://www.echristchurch.org



  8. Yes!!! The person who denies we have used Christianity to do horrible things to others would havecto also deny thatvthecKu Klux Klan ever existed.

  9. hi jim.. my wife, ann would like to get on your blog.how does she do that? Haven whiteside hw931@aol.com

  10. Thanks for putting into words how I was feeling about the “opposition” to the President’s speech.

  11. Thank you Jim for giving me a different way to process this. From: Jim Harnish To: gcaron8@yahoo.com Sent: Monday, February 9, 2015 8:53 AM Subject: [New post] 209 #yiv7133514522 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv7133514522 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv7133514522 a.yiv7133514522primaryactionlink:link, #yiv7133514522 a.yiv7133514522primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv7133514522 a.yiv7133514522primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv7133514522 a.yiv7133514522primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv7133514522 WordPress.com | jimharnish posted: “What the President SaidThe hyper-reaction of some folks on the religious right to what the President said at the National Prayer Breakfast reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Col. Jessup in “A Few Good Men.” It’s when he shout” | |

  12. Sally Campbell-Evans February 10, 2015 — 11:51 am

    Thanks, Jim. This is very well stated and will be helpful as I “discuss” this topic with a few extended family members who are among those who lit into the President. Grateful for you and your continued ministry!

  13. Well spoken, Jim. Thanks for your willingness to speak truth to power.

  14. Excellent Jim, I agree especially with the challenge to hear the truth. Mr. Wesley’s sermons on Sin in Believers and Repentance in believers, set the classic Methodist attitude we need to claim.

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