President Obama’s U.N. speech on the way out of violence

On Tuesday, President Obama spoke before the United Nations General Council. Whether you support him or not, I recommend you watch this half hour speech to understand his view. What the president presented, in the wake of the recent violence and death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, is a vision of the way out of this cycle of violence.


President Obama’s key points in the speech are firmly grounded in America’s founding principles of free speech and free religion, and in a beautifully nonviolent and universal spiritual vision this is rooted in the president’s own Christian faith. (I say that not to suggest that other faiths lack identical views, but only to say that’s where they come from in the president.)

These principles exist alongside and because of our diversity. Free religion and speech may have mattered deeply when religious diversity meant various types of Christians tolerating each other. It is essential today, and in the president’s vision, our own success in navigating this path can be a template for the world:

“We are a country that has welcomed people of every race and religion. We are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them.”

The president knows that a speech or increased military presence cannot stop extremism. The only thing that can defeat hatred is love, not more hatred. The only lasting change will come when hearts are changed:

If we are serious about upholding these ideals, it will not be enough to put more guards in front of an Embassy; or to put out statements of regret, and wait for the outrage to pass. If we are serious about those ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of this crisis. Because we face a choice between the forces that would drive us apart, and the hopes we hold in common.

Today, we must affirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers. Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.

Lauren Markoe in Religion News Service calls the speech the “Obama Doctrine on Religion” and boils it down to five bullet points:

  1. Blasphemy must be tolerated, however intolerable
  2. Religious respect is a two-way street
  3. Turn the other cheek
  4. One nation under God
  5. The danger of extremism

One of the biggest applause lines in the speech came when the president quoted Nelson Mandela on the true meaning of freedom:

…the turmoil of recent weeks reminds us that the path to democracy does not end with the casting of a ballot. Nelson Mandela once said: “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

The line that jumped out to me the most was President Obama’s recognition that anger and division taints everything, not just the targets. A cycle of violence pulls everyone down.

A politics based only on anger — one based on dividing the world between us and them — not only sets back international cooperation, it ultimately undermines those who tolerate it. All of us have an interest in standing up to these forces. Let us remember that Muslims have suffered the most at the hands of extremism.

This speech represents what I would hope would be the role and view of the United States on the world stage. Does it drift into American exceptionalism a few times. Yes. But it’s a kind of exceptionalism that promotes positive change. I am profoundly gladdened seeing our president saying these words. It makes me proud.

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