Last week, President Barack Obama addressed the nation to outline the measures the United States is using to deal with the latest terrorist threat, the Islamic State (“ISIS” or “ISIL,” as the Administration calls it). Here is where he veered off path, early in his speech:
My fellow Americans, tonight I want to speak to you about what the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL. . . . Now let’s make [this] clear: ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents.
Actually, Mr. President, ISIS is a religion, and to label it in any other way is to underestimate its drive and determination to destroy nonbelievers, or infidels, or, as we call it, Western culture.
I am sure you are familiar with European and American history. It was religion that “condone[d] the killing of innocents” during the Spanish Inquisition and the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation. The Tower of London is a monument to killing infidels, whether the throne was occupied by Catholic Queen Mary or Protestant Queen Elizabeth. The Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts led to the execution of nonbelievers for supposed “witchcraft.” The Massachusetts Puritans killed Quakers, Mr. President, because of their beliefs.
Our founding fathers were familiar with the dangers of religiously fueled violence. In fact, the framer of the First Amendment, James Madison, in his justly famous Memorial and Remonstrance, explicitly cited the Inquisition when he decried the Virginia bill to use state funds to support Christian teachers. He believed state financial support for religion was the first step toward intolerance, persecution, and the Inquisition:
Instead of holding forth an Asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution. It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority. Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance. The magnanimous sufferer under this cruel scourge in foreign Regions, must view the Bill as a Beacon on our Coast, warning him to seek some other haven, where liberty and philanthropy in their due extent, may offer a more certain repose from his Troubles.
But long-past history is not the only marker of the capacity of religion to kill innocents. How about our own home-grown American citizens who view killing as the straightest path to salvation and integrity? The murders of abortion providers are religiously motivated. The murder of ordinary citizens last April by a Neo-Nazi white supremacist in Overland Park, Kansas, which I discussed here, was motivated by his religious worldview.
You lead the United States down a primrose path when you attempt to paint ISIS as anything other than an organization that is religious. Sure, it is not composed of mainstream Muslims. But that is not the only category to check off. There are good religious actors and bad religious actors, and it is time this Administration abandoned the mistakes made by Presidents Clinton and Bush, who publicly bought into the Pollyanna view of religion as a way of appeasing religious lobbyists. We were burdened with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as a result and continue to pay the price for treating religion as a collection of mild-mannered folks who would never hurt anyone.
Just say the truth, which is that religion can be a force for transcendent good and gargantuan evil. That is why we have the rule of law, the separation of church and state, and the Supreme Court has never applied the warped reasoning of RFRA in its First Amendment free exercise cases. Religious actors are humans who do wrong in the name of their God or gods, and who must be named as criminals and terrorists when they are.
There is no force in the history of the world like religious believers who see destruction of nonbelievers—infidels—as the only path to goodness and virtue, and that is what we face in ISIS. You, as Commander in Chief, are facing irrational, implacable believers. Name them honestly, Mr. President, and then destroy them.