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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No Surprise Obama Is Checking Out

By Lauren Gillespie

“The degree to which Barack Obama is now phoning it in – sleepwalking perfunctorily through his second term, amid gold rounds and dinner parties – is astonishing,” writes Matt Lewis for the British Telegraph. “The only thing that makes sense is that he is exhausted and, perhaps, has checked out of the job early. If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, then Obama is dining out, golfing, and raising money while the world collapses.”

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It’s a pretty damning indictment, and just one of the many pieces written in the last month expressing concern at our commander in-chief’s bizarre detachment from the serious problems flaring up around the world and at home.

Now I don’t claim any special powers of clairvoyance; I’m just a humble historian who believes in using past experience to predict future behavior. In the timeless words of Sublime, “I ain’t got no crystal ball.” But I hope you will excuse me in saying that I am not at all surprised. In fact, we really should have seen this coming.

Most people seem to have forgotten this, but when Obama first took office, his 68% initial approval rating was the highest since Eisenhower. Even Republicans and conservatives were afraid to say anything overly critical about the first African-American president. You didn’t want anyone thinking you were a pessimist or, worst of all, a racist.

But even as the talking heads predicted Obama would govern from the center and enjoy success in office, I had a strong feeling that Obama’s presidency would be just as liberal as the rest of his political career, and that the goodwill so much of the country had extended to him would not last.

I knew Obama would fail to live up to the hype because at a certain point he would have to stop talking and actually start governing. This means making decisions and taking actions. Candidate Obama presented himself as a blank canvas upon which diverse groups could project their often-conflicting dreams. He appealed to a broad swath of the electorate by speaking in vague terms of hope and change. But where words can be general, actions are concrete. They invite judgment. There is no way to please all people at all times, except by doing very little. Even this will offend someone, somewhere, who wishes you had done more. And then there was the matter of Obama’s past.

In his two autobiographies (seriously, who else is this narcissistic?) Obama confessed to a certain degree of laziness in high school and college. He was ambitious for sure, but lacked focus. Yet he was able to get himself elected editor of the Harvard Law Review, the first African-American to hold this honor. Obama took the notoriety and book deal that came with the position, but contributed none of his own work to the publication. There is even credible evidence to suggest that much of Dreams from My Father was actually written by Bill Ayers.

After a stint as a community organizer in Chicago, a job that doesn’t come with a great deal of accountability, Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate. He voted “present” 129 times. For those of you who might be understandably confused as to what this means, Obama could not bring himself to vote “yes” or “no,” so he simply stated that he was there.

Obama launched himself into the national spotlight in 2004, not with any meaningful policy or achievement, but with a speech – the DNC Keynote Address. When his opponent was forced to withdraw in disgrace, Obama cruised into the United State Senate. He failed to sponsor any major legislation, seeming to find the whole political process boring and beneath him.

2008 provided a magical opportunity for Obama. George W. Bush was incredibly unpopular. The country was craving a breath of fresh air, and Republicans – ever attuned to the mood of the electorate –chose John McCain. Suddenly, Obama’s lack of experience became an asset. He may have had few accomplishments of which to speak, but neither did he have much of a record to defend. Clinton had to explain her decision to vote for the Iraq War, but Obama could point to a speech he made as a state senator opposing it.

Obama won enough early primaries and caucuses to seal the deal, but not before the first serious challenges to his narrative were finally raised. The Jeremiah Wright story broke, along with other questionable connections to shady characters (Ayers, Rezko). Obama refused to actually condemn or support his former mentor, but once again delivered a speech about unity as he threw his octogenarian grandmother under the bus. Are you sensing a pattern yet?

Democrats had almost started to realize their error, but too late. He was the candidate, and the pro-Hillary folks in the media who had once challenged his experience rallied to protect him. John McCain was gaining in the polls until the entire financial system crashed just weeks before the election. While McCain came off as erratic after suspending his campaign and rushing in to broker a deal, Obama appeared cool and collected on the sidelines.

The Nobel Committee decided to award Obama the Peace Prize just days into his first term, based on the incredible accomplishment of not being George W. Bush. (They now want it back.) But simply looking and sounding different than his unpopular predecessor was never going to achieve meaningful results. Obama squandered his initial goodwill from Republicans and moderates on an unpopular and ineffective stimulus package. He promised unemployment would not top 8% if Congress passed the bill, and it soared past 11%. He later joked about the whole idea of “shovel-ready,” but a trillion dollars in new debt is no joke. I guess he couldn’t bother to verify the facts of his own law before selling them to the American people?

Obama didn’t reach out to Republicans because he didn’t need them—he had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. Then, with the country still reeling from the Great Recession, he decided to tackle healthcare. He gave speeches, and speeches, and more speeches. Then he turned over the actual crafting of the bill to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who presumably delegated the responsibility to Democratic staffers and lobbyists. The country hated it, but Obama signed it into law. Perhaps we just needed him to explain it to us one more time.

After the “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms, Obama refocused his energies on his greatest political skill: campaigning for president. While 2010 seemed to signal an uphill battle for Democrats, it also provided Obama with a new tactic – denouncing Republican “obstruction.” Yes, from the same people he refused to listen to for the previous two years. (“I won,” and so on.) His lack of attention to the business of governing continued. The day after four Americans were killed in Benghazi, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Obama delivered a few obligatory remarks before jetting off to a Las Vegas fundraiser.

Again, he benefitted from Republican division and unforced errors. No one of any real stature rose to challenge him except for Mitt Romney – a great man for sure, but not a great campaigner. Romney suffered from being a moderate Mormon millionaire who had passed a mini-Obamacare in Massachusetts. I’m mostly happy we escaped a President McCain, but I still regret that our country passed on such a capable and serious leader as Romney. Apparently, a majority of Americans now agree with me and would choose Romney if given a second chance. (How prophetic, incidentally, was Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” routine?)

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Okay, you might be thinking. Lots of people predicted Obama would fail to live up to the messianic expectations of 2008, but what about 2012? Many thought Obama might be liberated by having won his last election. He could focus on his legacy, which might involve more outreach to Republicans and serious progress on policy issues like immigration.

The most telling predictor of Obama’s second term malaise was the fact that he failed to offer anything remotely resembling a second term agenda. He couldn’t campaign on “Hope and Change 2” or the even more hilarious “Yes We Can, But–.” “You Didn’t Build That” had a nice ring and revealed his true disdain for private sector job creators (I mean, greedy capitalists), but it was never going to carry him across the finish line.

So Obama campaigned on Mitt Romney being a mean, nasty rich guy who doesn’t care about you or your family, his heroic take-down of Osama Bin Laden, and the excuse that any lingering economic problems were Bush’s fault. These might have made for effective political strategies, but they have proven difficult to translate into actual policies.

Now here we are in 2014, with two and a half years left of Obama’s presidency. He claims he didn’t know about the IRS scandal, the VA scandal, the Benghazi scandal, or the fact that there were serious issues with the implementation of his healthcare law. He doesn’t have time to go to the border. He’s too busy to stand up to Vladimir Putin (to whom he promised “more flexibility”) or to defend the thousands of Christians and moderate Muslims facing persecution as Iraq and Syria collapse. He has failed to capitalize on the one thing that would almost certainly revive a still-dismal economy – America’ great energy wealth – and has put off a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline for five years now. Voting “present,” perhaps?

It looks like Obama is preparing to ride out his second term, just like he rode out his first term as president, his four year stint in the U.S. Senate (two of which he spent campaigning for president), his unremarkable time in the Illinois State Senate, and most of his academic career.

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Yep, we should have seen this coming.

It is too late to hope for Obama to become the unifying leader so many hoped he would be. He is simply not that guy. But in many ways the events of the next two and half years remain unpredictable. The big unknowns are the 2014 elections, the high probability of more global catastrophes, and how Obama responds to new criticism from the Left. My gut says that with Obamacare’s future in doubt, he will look to the one area where he can change public policy through executive action – immigration reform. He could decide to grant a presidential pardon to all 15 million or so illegal immigrants currently residing here. This might be unpopular with the American people, but Obama is no longer trying to impress us. He has surrounded himself with sycophants eager to preserve his narcissistic view of the world, and he is certain that history will judge him kindly.

The problem is the rest of us don’t have time to wait for the history books; we must live our lives in the present. America does not have another two and a half years to waste.