Washington (CNN)How President Barack Obama discusses the fight against ISIS -- pointedly refusing to call it a war on Islam or a religious war -- has led to consternation and criticism from conservatives.
Obama sees religion as key tool against extremism
But it was a comparison he drew at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday that is receiving the latest criticism, proving just how potent language can be, particularly when it comes to religion and war.
"Remember that during the crusades and the inquisition people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ," Obama said, condemning the hijacking of Islam by ISIS and challenging Americans to see extremism in the past.
Pundits and politicians said the President offended Christians by comparing them to terrorists. But those close to the President say these critics are playing politics and choosing to misinterpret Obama's remarks.
"Anytime you engage in religion in history with anything more than the simplest reflections partisans will jump on that and skew your remarks for partisan ends," former White House aide Joshua DuBois told CNN. "I think in both instances he was saying that it was individuals who were skewing religion who were at fault, not the faith itself."
DuBois managed faith-based initiatives and partnerships for five years at the White House and was considered an informal spiritual adviser to Obama, who said the daily Scripture clips he 'd get via email from DuBois "meant the world" to him.
"I think the President's job is not to make everyone feel good all the time, but to express his personal beliefs and also to advance difficult conversations on the role of faith around the globe," DuBois told CNN.
The freedom to practice religion is linked inextricably to free speech, said Obama in his speech. He argued that these two rights, written into the Constitution by the founders of the United States, represent a paired defense against extremism around the world.
"If, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another's religion, we're equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks," Obama said. "To infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both."
These remarks are the latest brick laid in the construction of his approach to counter terrorism. It is part of a national security strategy he described in remarks to the U.N. General Assembly in September, and also at last year's breakfast. Obama told delegates at the U.N. that respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms is an "essential part of successful counterterrorism efforts."
"History teaches us that the failure to uphold these rights and freedoms can actually fuel violent extremism," Obama said at the U.N. "When it comes to America and Islam, there is no us and them, there is only us -- because millions of Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of our country. So we reject any suggestion of a clash of civilizations."
The sentiment is an echo of an unlikely predecessor: President George W. Bush.
A little over a week after 9/11, Bush stood on the South Lawn and delivered a speech meant to galvanize the American people, but it set many on edge with the use of one religious term.
"This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while, and the American people must be patient. I'm going to be patient," he said.
The use of the word "crusade" brought to mind wars that fanned the flames of religious conflict for hundreds of years during the Middle Ages. But after the comments, Bush was careful to show that he was not pitting one religion, or society, against another.
"The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them," Bush said in an address to a joint session of Congress.
Both Obama and Bush have been careful to separate the faith of Islam from what terrorists do in its name. They have praised religious tolerance and freedom while also condemning terrorists who wield their weapons in the name of religion.
According to Mathew Schmalz, professor of religious studies at the college of the Holy Cross, this can be a tricky like to walk but its also a topic that presidents will not be able to avoid.
"We're at a special point where America is finally coming to terms with its religious diversity. We're not just Christians, we're Muslims, Hindus," said Schmalz. "It shows President Obama is a lightning rod of the differing perceptions of what it means to be an American president."
"We are experiencing a very strong reaction against religion, against an assertion of traditional religious identities. There is a lot of social tension," it is a good time for sober voices, Schmalz said.
In his remarks last week, to a mostly religious audience, Obama argued it is important for Americans to be open in the face of different opinions. One of the central tenets of American society, separation of church and state, is the very reason why the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world, Obama said.
"There's wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility," Obama said. "Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, and bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred."