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Humility and Fear, Wisdom and Contradiction: The National Prayer Breakfast

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AndrewSeidelPressKitPhotoUpdate Humility and Fear, Wisdom and Contradiction: The National Prayer Breakfast

I expected to spend a good bit of this blog tearing apart President Obama’s entire address at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast. But I couldn’t make it past his topic sentence without cringing and as the bible says, “gnashing my teeth.”

Prior to Obama’s remarks there were prayers and bible readings and religious music. Lots. The readings, as befit the Christian bent of this insincere gathering, were mostly from the New Testament. In the Smarmiest Performance of the Year category, Steve Green, a Christian recording artist, sang “He Holds the Keys” which begins with this savage imagery: 

Death rides blackened clouds across the sky
The Son of man lays down to die
With every pounding blow upon the nail
Thunder rumbles all through hell
And from death’s barren womb the captives cry
Who is there to free us should He die

It’s a good thing the presidents of Albania and Haiti were on hand to hear that message.  National Prayer Breakfast Co-Chairman and theocrat Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said of Green that “the only thing that exceeds his incredible voice is his humility.”

President Obama picked up the humility thread and ran with it. He began by saying the prayer breakfast was an occasion to do two things: “[1] to pause with humility before an Almighty God. . . [2] to remember the admonition from the Book of Romans, which is especially fitting for those of us in Washington: ‘Do not claim to be wiser than you are.’”

President Obama proposes that we come with “humility before almighty god.” This is interesting because in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the word “humility” does not appear. It often speaks of being “humble” or “humbled” before god, but the biblical use of this word does not have the unpretentious or respectful connotations we think of today.

In the bible, to be humble before god means to fear god. God will punish those who don’t fear him.  For instance, in Deuteronomy 8, god “humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you.” Like the good totalitarian he is, Yahweh starves you, and then comes to you as a savior, thereby breeding the sickly love of master that religion thrives on. And again, God put “you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you. . .”

When King Ahab discovers that his wife Jezebel was thrown from a window and eaten by dogs (at the command of the god President Obama felt he should honor using his government office), “he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly.” Not content with simple punishment, Yahweh brags to Elijah, “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.” 1 Kings 21:29. Breaking Ahab is God’s idea of humbling. Oh, and for good measure God is going to punish Ahab’s innocent son, because the religious concept of justice involves punishing the innocent — it’s even in the Ten Commandments.

Even if the biblical god did mean humility in the sense that President Obama used the word, nothing about religion is humble. Religion claims to know the ultimate truth to the universe on the basis of no evidence, only faith. What could be more arrogant than claiming an answer to the ultimate questions — how did we get here, are we here for a reason, etc. — without any evidence whatsoever?

Indeed, religion itself seems to conflict with the second prong of President Obama’s theme (don’t claim to be wiser than you are). If we should not claim to be wiser than we are, how can one claim to know the ultimate truths and origins of the universe without evidence? It’s a wonder the brain doesn’t explode trying to deal with this doublethink.

While religion and humility do not go together, religion and fear certainly do. After all, Proverbs 9:10 says, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

President Obama began his remarks by, as Martin Luther King Jr. once put it, “merely mouth[ing] pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” This terrible, fearful, and internally inconsistent message marred what no doubt intended to be a positive overall message.

To his credit, President Obama did acknowledge freethinkers, noting that “freedom of religion” includes the freedom “to practice no faith at all.” But that uncontroversial statement was spoiled, not only by his contradictory first lines, but the forum in which it was delivered. Freedom of religion does not truly exist without freedom from religion — and both require a government that is free from religion. The positive parts of Obama’s message rang hollow in the room full of conservative Christian politicians at an event organized by the shadow Christian organization dubbed “The Fellowship” that began during the Red Scare of the 1950s. See Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

As is now the fashion, the president concluded by quoting the words of that bastion of morality, Richard Nixon­ — the first president to end a speech with that now hackneyed canard: “God bless America.”  Of course, like every other president, President Obama neglected to credit Nixon with first using the phrase on April 30, 1973, to distract from the growing Watergate scandal.

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