Interpreting Obama’s History Lesson on the Crusades

President Obama recently made headlines with some off-the-cuff historical commentary at the National Prayer Breakfast. In discussing the challenge posed by terrorist groups like ISIS, Obama cautioned: “Lest we get on our high horse and think (violence in the name of faith) is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

The responses to this statement from both the Left and the Right were predictably divergent. Liberals considered the statement unremarkable. (Religion has often led to violence and extremism no matter which group wields it; who could object to such an obvious truth?) Conservatives, however (especially Christian ones) took offense to the comparison as both historically inaccurate and irrelevant to the present conflict: what could be gained by the President of the United States appearing to draw a moral equivalency between the obvious present evil of ISIS and the possible sins of a handful of Christians committed almost a thousand years ago?

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Of course, it is always useful to recognize that no one person or group of people has a monopoly on morality; I have never met a Christian who would argue otherwise. We know Jesus’ message of humility and forgiveness was more often directed at hypocrites like the Pharisees who went about proclaiming their good deeds, unlike the prostitutes and tax collectors who made no such pretensions. There is plenty of biblical and historical evidence that good and bad individuals (or if you prefer, behaviors) exist in all groups.

However, if this was Obama’s intended point, it failed for several reasons.

First, the Crusades were morally ambiguous. They provide neither a clear-cut case of Christian vice and Muslim virtue, or the reverse. The Crusades were also not a single event, but rather a series of rather disorganized and disparate military campaigns that occurred over a period of centuries. This makes them especially difficult to teach, and even more difficult to employ as straight-forward lessons in morality.

Contemporary historians have often failed to understand what motivated individual Crusaders. Many western Christians sacrificed their fortunes to go and do battle against the enemies of Christendom, believing wholeheartedly in the rightness of their cause and the promise of receiving indulgences for their sins. Though some have imagined them to be harbingers of 19th century European imperialism, the Crusades were not motivated primarily by economic and political greed dressed up in religious justifications.

Some Crusaders did commit atrocities, most notably the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland Massacres. But according to Wikipedia:

The massacre of the Rhineland Jews by the People’s Crusade, and other associated persecutions, were condemned by the leaders and officials of the Catholic Church. The bishops of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms had attempted to protect the Jews of those towns within the walls of their own palaces, but the People’s Crusade broke in to slaughter them. Fifty years later when St. Bernard of Clairvaux was urging recruitment for the Second Crusade, he specifically criticized the attacks on Jews which occurred in the First Crusade.

The Fourth Crusade was the most infamous failure, as Latin Christians sacked, pillaged, and plundered the already-Christian Constantinople. The full story is a lot more complicated than that, but it is important to realize that there was no single leader, not even the pope, directing the actions of the Crusaders. In fact, they were so disorganized it is almost a miracle that they even arrived at their destination, much less established short-lived Christian kingdoms.

Adam Gopnik writes a thought-provoking article in the New Yorker about the nature of history, though I disagree with some of his conclusions. History simplifies, he observes, but “restoring complexity doesn’t always make things clearer.” Gopnik writes: “the forces in history are always multiple, complex, and contingent, much more so than the fables make it seem. The forces in any particular historical event are always almost infinitely divisible into smaller and often contradictory parts, with a lot of fuzzy cases and leg room.” The Crusades are a perfect example of this.

Second, historical context is especially important here. If one is determined to use the Crusades to illustrate some contemporary political point, one must first understand where they fit into the larger pattern of interaction between Christians and Muslims that has been unfolding for the past fourteen hundred years.

For over four centuries prior to Pope Urban II’s call, Christians had been fighting a series of defensive battles against Muslim expansion, and losing more often than not. Charles Martel did lead the French to victory at the Battle of Tours in 732, halting the Muslim advance into Europe, but only after all of Spain had been lost (Over 700 years would pass before it was reclaimed.). When the recently converted Seljuk Turks (and not the original Arab carriers of Islam, who had controlled the Holy Land for centuries) began threatening the safety of Middle Eastern Christians and the survival of what was left of the Byzantine Empire, this prompted Pope Urban II to call for Roman Christians to assist their brothers in the East, reclaim the Holy Land, and make the birthplace of the Christian faith safe once again for Christians. They failed on nearly all accounts.

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It is hard to see why a failed Christian campaign to retake their faith’s holiest sites could continue to anger present-day Muslims, as most Christians that I know have forgiven Muslim victories in the Middle East, Spain, the Balkans, and Anatolia, to the extent that they were even aware of them.

While Christians and Muslims have coexisted peacefully at several times in history (usually under Muslim rule, with Christians paying for the privilege), Islam has more often than not acted as the aggressor. Even after the threat of the Seljuk Turks abated (the ones who provoked the Crusades), the Ottoman Turks continued to threaten and enslave European Christians for centuries until a couple key defensive victories halted their advance, most notably at Vienna and Lepanto.

It is beyond the scope of this post to adequately expand on this point, but Islam and Christianity have very different beliefs and histories. Jesus never led men into battle or governed an empire, while Mohammad did both. Jesus famously instructed his followers to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” while Mohammad established a caliphate with no distinction between religious and political authority. Early Christians were severely persecuted for their beliefs with many dying as martyrs for their faith, while Islam from its inception spread by the sword and attracted converts seeking political, social, and economic advancement. While Christianity developed within the cultural context of Judaism and the Roman Empire, Islam incorporated many of the pre-existing traditions of the Arab people. All this context matters if we are to really learn from the past. We can’t just cherry-pick isolated events, neglecting the bigger picture.

Third, when attempting to draw lessons from history, it is important to ask whether this is the right time to bring that back up. Is Past Event A really the right parallel for Current Situation B?

Imagine a married couple having a fight. A wife has just discovered that her husband is having an affair. He counters that yes, he has been cheating on her for years, but remember that time a decade ago when she forgot his birthday? The wife’s oversight might be true in the historical sense, but clearly not helpful at the present moment and no excuse for his greater misdeeds.

So is Obama the right person, the Prayer Breakfast the right place, and our current conflict with radical Islam the right occasion to bring up the sins of a relatively small number of Christians operating largely independently of any central control over 800 years ago? I would have to answer no on all accounts. In fact, that Obama did so shows a great lack of understanding of our present crisis.

Do we think ISIS cares about all the times in history that Muslims have murdered Christians and Jews, or even other Muslims? Of course not; they are too busy beheading all enemies of their radical totalitarian ideology.

Can we imagine FDR bringing up America’s past sins of slavery and broken treaties with Native Americans, just as he was trying to inspire Americans to fight the Japanese and Germans? Didn’t think so.

President Obama is the wrong messenger to get Christianity off its supposed “high horse,” just as Mitt Romney proved an ineffective messenger in championing the middle class. Here are just a few other statements from the president that provide the context by which Christians now judge his remarks.

Obama on Islam:

“The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam.”

“Islam has always been part of America.”

“As a student of history, I know civilization’s debt to Islam.”

“Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance.”

Obama on Christianity:

“Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation.”

“We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.”

The list goes on. After so many statements downplaying or criticizing Christianity, with so many others appearing to celebrate and excuse Islam, many Christians aren’t cutting him any more slack.

My fourth and final point about the failure of Obama’s Crusades comparison is this: bad historical analysis runs the risk of obscuring truth by promoting cynicism and moral relativism.

Gopnik claims:

We welcome complexity because it makes the moral points stand out more clearly against their background… The President’s point turned out to be not just exactly right but profoundly right: no group holds the historical moral high ground, and no one ever will. But this is not because a moral high ground doesn’t exist. It’s because we’re all still climbing.

Again, I would counter that while no group has an absolute monopoly on morality, there is such a thing as a historical moral high ground. No one is perfect, but this does not mean we are all the same.

During World War II, the United States was not perfect. We dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing tens of thousands of civilians, and humiliatingly interned in camps thousands of Japanese-Americans thought to be untrustworthy simply because of their race. Even as we fought dictatorship abroad, we denied African-Americans and women equal rights at home.

Did we still occupy the moral high ground? Absolutely. We were fighting an enemy in Japan that carried out the infamous Rape of Nanking and had imperial designs on all of Asia. In Nazi Germany, we fought an enemy that systematically killed eleven million innocent people, including six million Jews. After the war, instead of exacting revenge, we invested millions of dollars in rebuilding both countries to help the Japanese and German people whose soldiers had just claimed thousands of our own.

Despite all our mistakes during the Cold War, we most certainly occupied the moral high ground in our fight against the Soviet Union and its dehumanizing communist ideology. Only one side of this fight had to build walls to keep their people in.

Despite all our mistakes in the Middle East, we most certainly occupy the moral high ground in the current struggle against ISIS, which isn’t saying much, as they seem determined to discover ever deeper lows.

Yes, we are all “still climbing,” but some of us have come further than others, and it is important to recognize this. Societies that still condone female genital mutilation, pedophilia, torture, and draconian limitations on individual freedom have much further to go. We should assist them so far as we can, while resisting any and all attempts to erode the liberties we have fought so hard to secure.

Occasionally, calling to mind the sins of our ancestors provides a valuable inoculation against self-righteousness, as well as hope for those who would like to make similar social and political progress. But sometimes it does nothing more than provide our enemies with ammunition to use against us. It creates ambiguity and doubt, when what we really need are moral clarity and resolve.

Finally, some parting thoughts on recent events:

Even as I wrote this post, two things have happened that tragically serve to illustrate some of my points. First, ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians. In the official Obama administration statement, these brave martyrs were identified merely as “citizens.” The fact that they were Christians who died for their faith was not mentioned.

Second, more information has come out about the man who killed three Muslim young people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. While many in the media were eager for a story featuring a Christian extremist as the bad guy and clamoring for a hate crime investigation, the killer has been identified as a militant liberal atheist. This counters the pervasive fallacy that religion is the primary cause of violence both past and present, one that will require a separate blog post to refute.

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