Dan Philpott and I both have posted on how to think about the relation of ISIS to Islam, and noted that President Obama has presumed to declare that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’” The President has made similar proclamations since – saying last month at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism that: “They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists. (Applause.) And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” President Bush made similar statements, e.g., on September 17, 2001: “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.”
Nor has the Obama administration limited its doctrinal pronouncements to Islam. Early in 2012, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, President of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, published a letter reporting discussions the Council had with White House staff over the “Obamacare” mandate that employers pay for contraception and other procedures to which the Catholic Church has grave objections. According to Dolan, White House staff “advised the bishops’ conference that we should listen to the ‘enlightened’ voices of accommodation …. The White House seems to think we bishops simply do not know or understand Catholic teaching and so … now has nominated its own handpicked official Catholic teachers.”
As Reihan Salam wrote in a trenchant article last month at Slate, it really is not for an American President to say what is or is not Islamic. It is not simply because Obama is a Christian and hence an outsider to Islam. No more does the Head of State of the United States have any business telling Christians what is true Christian teaching, or which clergy are authoritative. It is for the faithful to decide, without state coercion, what they believe and who their authorities are.
When a President tells the faithful what does and does not constitute a particular religion, he would seem to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Statements such as those of Obama and Bush also are likely to be self-defeating. Ultimately, the faithful – Christians, Muslims, and others – will see state attempts to establish religious doctrine as illegitimate, and they will side with their religious institutions over the American state.