Obama's UN Speech: 'Defining Deviancy Down,' Foreign Policy Edition

In Obama's speech at the UN, he asked less of Muslims than he asks of members of his own faith and, critically, less than he himself has said is required of those embarking on a path to real democracy. That's not just my opinion, that's Obama's opinion as recorded in a 2006 speech on the topic of faith and politics.

The core of Obama's speech to the UN was a call for tolerance. It started reasonably well, with a challenge to Islamists who target Christians and women for abuse. These are political/social issues about which America should have a strong opinion:

The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt – it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted “Muslims, Christians, we are one.” The future must not belong to those who bully women – it must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons.

But Obama's next paragraph is a stunning exercise in category error:

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied.

We've moved from a discussion of recent events (Tahrir Square, treatment of Copts and women) to a discussion of faith and back again in the span of two sentences. Did the film slander the prophet of Islam? If you revere Muhammad, i.e. if you are Muslim, you probably think it did. But that is not a view shared by non-Muslims including, obviously, the filmmakers.

Similarly, Jesus can not be "desecrated" unless he is first made sacred, i.e. by Christians who believe he is God. Speaking as President in an address to the world, Obama should not be arguing against desecration or slander of the Prophet any more than he should be arguing for the holy Trinity. To paraphrase something he once said about abortion, these issues are above his pay grade.

Of course what is really going on here is that Obama is giving Islam the kid glove treatment. Obama has never uttered a word in defense of Christians' feelings when they were hurt by videos or books harshly critical of their beliefs. He has never said, for instance, that South Park is "crude and disgusting" for its treatment of Jesus. He has never condemned Andres Serrano for his "piss Christ," not even after a protest against it by Catholics got out of hand last year in France. Some mobs are more equal than others.

If you want to know what Obama really believes when he doesn't feel the need to condescend to his Muslim audience, consider a speech he gave in 2006 on the intersection of faith and democracy:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal rather than religion-specific values...Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality...

At some fundamental level, religion doesn't allow for compromise...We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac...now we know things worked out...but it's fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on the roof of a building raising his knife we would at the very least call the police and expect the department of family services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we don't hear what Abraham hears...the best we can do is to act in accordance with those things we all hear and all see.

Contrast that with what Obama said today at the UN, and there's almost no overlap at all. Obama expects Christians to behave like adults when insulted and, for the most part, they do. But when it comes to Islam, he offers excuses (a hateful, provocative film) and comfort (critics of the Prophet are on the wrong side of history).

Lowering the bar for Muslims as Obama did Tuesday at the UN is the foreign policy equivalent of defining deviancy down. This was Sen. Moynihan's phrase for an effort to explain away or tune out unwelcome information. He was talking about murder statistics and family breakdown, but it applies to the unwelcome news coming out of the Middle East as well. When the President considers the death of an Ambassador and three other Americans "bumps in the road," we've defined deviancy down. And when he stands before the world and offers religious excuses for Muslim outrage rather than demanding Muslims step up the requirements of real democracy he himself laid out, we've gone pretty far down that path.

Follow John on Twitter.


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