conservatives outraged at Obama's call for religious tolerance

President Obama recently made some remarks that were obviously designed to increase tolerance for those of other faiths. Speaking of Islamic terrorism at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, he made the fairly innocuous point that religion can be "twisted and abused in the name of evil."

“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,” Mr. Obama said. “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

That seems to me like a pretty obvious point: a religion with which many Americans are familiar has been used to rationalize morally indefensible acts, yet few of us write off the entire faith on that basis. Similarly, perhaps Americans should not allow the actions of a small number of extremist zealots to define the entirely of the Muslim religion. That strikes me as inclusive, tolerant and so on: a nice message for a prayer breakfast.

Yet people actually got mad about this! (And by "people" I mean, of course, "conservatives.") Rush Limbaugh said that the president's comments insulted the "whole gamut of Christians" and Jim Gilmore, the Republican former governor of Virginia, called Obama's comments the "most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime."

I absolutely cannot understand why anyone would be offended by this. Obama's statements were obviously factually true. The entire thrust of the president's remarks was against making global generalizations about religions with billions of members. What he said could be construed as insulting only to those who have used Christianity to defend white supremacy in the U.S. and who justify beheadings and terrorism by reference to Islam.

The president's point just wasn't that complex, so it seems unlikely to me that these conservatives simply misunderstood it. I am having difficulty avoiding the conclusion that they get something out of feeling offended and insulted. That is hardly a novel point, but I generally resist it because it is an ad hominem conclusion to draw. But it's hard to see the outrage generated by these innocuous, even banal, generalities as evidence of anything else.

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