President Barack Obama spoke as a public theologian in Cairo, one who is confident enough in his own Christian faith to value Islam and to voice the common ground shared by those from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.
In a way, Obama gave muscular wings to the 2007 letter from Islamic religious leaders to Christian religious leaders that said world peace depended on peace between Islam and Christianity based on the shared faith of love for God and love for neighbor.
Albeit of great import, set aside the policy nature of the speech related to the issues of the entrenched Israeli-Palestinian problem, nuclear arms, terrorists and economic development. No matter how urgently these matters demand constructive resolution, change will not happen without the birth of a new set of values and visions. That’s why Obama’s theological clarity is central.
Obama defined himself: “I am a Christian.”
That short, clean statement told the audience he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge his theological commitments—contrary to the smear campaign of some of his Christian opponents. He didn’t allow theological boundaries between Christianity and Islam to evaporate, something that happens too often in interfaith exchanges that seek common cause at the lowest common denominator.
Obama spoke reverently about the Islamic faith. He applied the modifier “holy” four times before the word Koran. Two of those times, he said, “the Holy Koran tells us.” Once he said, “the Holy Koran teaches.” He also referred to the “Holy Bible.”
In sermonic style, Obama confessed “sin,” pointed out the good and called for conversion.
The president confessed Western missteps. He named colonialism and the manipulation of predominantly Islamic countries in the Cold War. He acknowledged Western modernity and globalization had offended many in the Islamic world.
He commended Islam. He praised its past, recognizing “civilization’s debt to Islam” for its many scientific, cultural and moral contributions. He spoke inclusively, saying, “Islam has always been a part of America’s story.” He later said, “Islam is a part of America.”
Next, he called for a new course. “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” he said. “[O]ne based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
Obama said the new partnership must be rooted in what is, not what was. He noted that it was his responsibility “to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” He challenged Muslims to rethink their negative stereotypes of America.
His seven-point policy agenda included religious freedom and women’s rights.
“Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together,” said Obama, reinforcing an aged, well-known argument.
Then he offered the boldest of challenges. He called for a move beyond interfaith dialogue. “We can turn dialogue into interfaith service, so bridges between peoples lead to action—whether it is combating malaria in Africa or providing relief after a natural disaster.”
This call corresponds to a mustard seed conversion among some Baptist and Muslim leaders in America who have been engaging in interfaith dialogue and who know we must engage in interfaith mission projects.
Obama concluded his speech with the Golden Rule.
“There is … one rule that lies at the heart of every religion—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples—a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.”
He quoted peacemaking passages from the Koran, the Talmud and the New Testament.
“The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you,” said Obama.
Was he speaking only to the Islamic world? Not hardly.
He was speaking in the Islamic world to the global community, especially to the United States. His speech was as much about re-educating an American audience about Islam and reintroducing new narratives as it was about reframing the relationship between America and Islam.
Clerics in both religions may be the ones most difficult to move into meaningful interfaith dialogue and then into interfaith service.
Nonetheless, Obama deserves applause from people of faith—Christians, Muslims and Jews. When the clapping ends, we need to put words into deeds.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.