Barack Obama has drawn fire from the Christian right over his attempt to criticise Muslims who are offended by slander of the prophet Mohammed while desecrating other religions.
Right-wing critics turned on the president over his speech to the United Nations in which he sought to dampen the backlash against the anti-Muslim film that prompted violence across the Middle East earlier this month. They accused him of saying that the foundation of Christianity is itself a slander against Islam.
Obama told the UN that the modern world presents a unique challenge because "anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button". He said the notion that the flow of information can be controlled is obsolete and so the question is how to respond to offensive material.
The president said that there is no justification for violence and the killing of innocents in response to an offending video or hate speech because that "empowers any individual who engages in such speech to create chaos around the world".
"We empower the worst of us if that's how we respond," he said.
Obama returned to the theme later in the speech when he implicitly noted the hypocrisy of those who resort to violence because they believe their religion is offended while refusing to respect the beliefs of others. That's when he upset some on the Christian right.
"The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims and Shiite pilgrims," he told the UN.
"It's time to heed the words of Gandhi: 'intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.' Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, that's the vision we will support."
The backlash was almost immediate with some on the right saying the president was launching a thinly veiled attack on Christians.
"It is an orthodox Christian belief that Mohammed is not a prophet," wrote Erick Erickson, the editor of the conservative website Red State. "Actual Christians, as opposed to many of the supposed Christians put up by the mainstream media, believe that Christ is the only way to salvation. Believing that is slandering Mohammed."
Erickson also saw a double standard in Obama condemning the slander of Mohammed while condemning only the desecration of the image of Christ.
"Note he says we cannot 'slander the prophet of Islam' but it's only the image of Christ in the next sentence – not actually Christ himself desecrated. If this is so, why does Barack Obama's government continue funding the National Endowment for the Arts, which funds Christ in piss, the Virgin Mary painted in dung, etc.?" he said.
Another conservative site that pushes an interpretation of Christian values, Sword at the Ready, accused the president of the apparently contradictory aims of "an all-out attack on faith" while also attempting to appease the Muslim world.
"Since all Islam demands everyone recognize Mohammed as God's true prophet – for the Salafists, Sufis and Shia – anyone who does not acknowledge the prophet is considered not only an infidel – but slander the prophet by their refusal to submit to him," it said. "Obama knows this having been raised a Muslim in Indonesia. His speech at the UN was an all-out assault on not only freedom of speech, but of faith. In cleverly cloaked words to deceive ignorant Americans, key phrases ping the ears that the Muslim world will understand what Obama really means."
John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN and arch conservative, derided Obama for "moral equivalence" for allegedly suggesting that the anti-Islam film was equally as offensive as the killings that followed it.
"It was like a great big warm fuzzy blanket. The president comes out in favour of tolerance. There's your breaking news," Bolton told Fox News. "The problem with the speech was that it was infused with the fallacy of moral equivalency – that there's sort of extremism and intolerance everywhere and it's all the same."
Obama also sought to defend the US from criticism in the Arab world that it did not ban the offending video on the grounds of the constitutional protection of free speech.
"Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offence. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. Moreover, as president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views – even views that we disagree with," he said.
While that statement may be open to challenge on several levels, including the claim that the US has defended free speech around the globe, Erickson attacked it on the grounds that in criticising the offending video the president was intruding on the rights of those who made it.
"Just words, Mr President? You say 'there is no speech that justifies mindless violence', but all last week you condemned a ridiculous video trailer for a movie that does not exist. Your government ran advertisements in Pakistan denouncing the video. What of free speech, Mr President? Last week you were saying the violence was understandable given the offensive film and this week you are trying to claim it was mindless," he wrote.