Obama: Religious Educator-in-Chief

Religion Dispatches examines President Obama’s speech in Cairo. Are we capable of learning the nuanced view of world religions and culture of which the president speaks?

President Barack Obama has been called commander-in-chief and [basket]baller-in-chief, but with his speech at Cairo University the former law professor has acquired the unlikely credential of religious-educator-in-chief. This task is a daunting one since our hopes for world peace depend largely on it. His speech gave religious educators a demo of how to teach religion in our globalized world.

First, you have to establish rapport and disarm suspicion. By greeting his audience with the simple Arabic, as-salam alaykum (peace be upon you), the president demonstrated that he knew the audience and the cultural rubric, and that he was not simply speaking of religion in the abstract.

The President taught that we have to avoid negative stereotypes about people of other faith traditions, providing a history of the long trajectory of the interaction between Muslims and the West. Religion was not treated as a timeless and reified subject, but embedded in historical, cultural, and political development of particular locales. In an age of sound bites and Twitter, he demonstrated the importance of historical knowledge, critical analysis, and fair judgment. He trusted that his audience could reason and negotiate complex data and perspectives, and not resort to knee-jerk reactions.

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