President Obama has received a lot of well-deserved criticism for his recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. After condemning terrorists who “professed to stand up for Islam,” he told the largely Christian audience:
“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. … So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”
Obama’s comments were patronizing and somewhat beside the point given that almost all of today’s religious violence is committed by radical Muslims and almost none of it by devout Christians.
His remarks about slavery and Jim Crow also left out an important fact. While many Americans did attempt to use Christianity to justify slavery and Jim Crow, true Christian teachings played an important role—and I would argue an essential role—in eradicating those two scourges.
Christianity was the driving force behind abolition. Many American abolitionists were inspired by the anti-slavery movement in Great Britain, which outlawed slavery thirty-one years before the United States.
Nobody played a bigger role in that movement than William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a Conservative Party minister of parliament who for decades was a lonely voice for abolition. He was also an evangelical Christian who drew strength from his faith.
At a time when many argued that slavery was the will of God, Wilberforce believed he had been called upon by God to help end slavery.
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