My wife and I were lazing in bed on this Saturday morning, and she was reading a bit from a news post on Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast that seems to have outraged quite a few folks. We’ve been thinking about the whole issue of Islam and Christianity that seems to be coming to a head again these days as people keep putting stakes in the ground for one position or another. One of the remarks made by someone on the “Christian right” about the speech had something to do with the President needing to lay out more of a “moral framework” for the country. That got me thinking about the Golden Rule and how that might really be the only moral framework needed. So, I had to go poking around a little bit myself as I’m drinking my coffee this morning to see what all the hullabaloo is about.

I found a couple of videos with excerpts from the speech and a whole hell of a lot of writing on the topic on both sides and in the middle, and a few things struck me. I’ve long puzzled over the human propensity to form tribes of one sort or another and put a tremendous amount of energy into building up walls around the tribe, giving them an identity, and seeking battle with every other tribe that might seem to infringe. We do it with our ethnic identities, with our families, with our sports teams, with our churches, and with anything else we can define to distinguish ourselves from others. We put our energy into understanding our tribe to the exclusion of understanding any other tribe. What struck me this morning in reading about and listening to Obama’s speech is that tribalism and racism are essentially synonymous.

I don’t exclude myself from a propensity toward tribalism, and therefore, I can’t exclude myself from an ability to be a racist, either. I don’t give a hoot about sports or quite a few other things that people use to define tribes, but I nevertheless identify with and put my energy into particular groups of people to the exclusion of other groups. I’m a pretty solitary person, overly focused on my job, so I don’t actually know and socialize with all that many people. But I live in a mountain suburb of an American city that we jokingly refer to as “Everwhite.” I don’t know or associate with very many people of other ethnic backgrounds, I don’t think I know any practicing Muslims, I don’t know very many gay people, and I don’t talk with very many people about the things that we identify with and build tribes around. Thinking of myself as a racist is pretty abhorrent, but pretending that it’s not true is counterproductive to doing anything about it. So, I have the ability and even a very basal drive toward tribalism and racism, but I also have a strong desire to step beyond my evolutionary makeup to think and act in a different way.

So, it was Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, that made the comment that what we need is a “moral framework from the administration and a clear strategy for defeating ISIS.” Apparently, Obama had been thinking along the same lines when he brought the golden rule in his speech. He went on to cite several authoritative sources for the rule:

  • Torah – Love thy neighbor as thyself
  • Islam, Hadith 13 – Love for your brother what you love for yourself
  • Colossians 3:14 – Put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity

That seems to be a pretty decent and bedrock moral framework to me. I don’t see that anything else is really needed. All of these statements of a fundamental principal really call us to look beyond what our evolutionary human nature may drive us toward – to look beyond ourselves and our own tribe to consider what someone from another tribe may think and feel. I tend to think that creating a moral framework any more complicated than that will likely lead to exactly the opposite result – more time and energy spent investing in the nuances of our own particular moral framework to the exclusion of everyone else who we determine to be living under a different framework.

So, what I think Moore really wants is exactly the opposite of what Obama also reiterated in his speech, our commitment to separation of church and state. From what I can see, the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission is a Washington, DC lobbying firm committed to the abolishment of that founding American principal, effective enshrinement of tribalism and racism in our culture, and the preeminence of one particular tribe – the reported 16 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention. Their approach seems to be to create a complicated enough moral framework with a platform of political planks that their mission will be achieved.

So, I think Obama did describe a perfectly sound moral framework, one of sufficient strength for nations and for individuals. For me, I hope to think about it some more and use that framework to discover more of my neighbors. Perhaps I can open my eyes a bit more toward those beyond my immediate circle to develop relationships with people who have a different worldview wrought in the cauldron of the Middle East and the equally foreign Southern Baptist Convention. I honestly don’t have much of a clue as to how to go about meaningful conversation with either of those groups, but I won’t find one without trying.