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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We Need More than a Strategy for ISIS

By Lauren Gillespie

In what may come to be regarded as a low point in his presidency, Obama admitted at a press conference last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with ISIS. It’s bad enough to witness the leader of the free world golfing and fundraising while barbarians are beheading American journalists, persecuting Christians, and clearly signaling their intent to strike the homeland. The thought that he would do so in the absence of a clear strategy to defeat (degrade? contain?) them is beyond comprehension.

Much could and has been written about the shocking level of incompetence necessary to produce such words. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that our problem with Islamic supremacism in general and ISIS in particular goes beyond having a clear strategy to defeat them (though this is certainly important) and cuts to the very core of our identity. It’s not enough to oppose the mission of ISIS; we need to have a greater one of our own.

This starts with recognizing what it is that makes radical jihad appealing, even to certain segments of our own population. This is necessary not to excuse or emulate their ideology, but rather to understand it. Something attracts young men in particular to their cause, or else 100 Americans (that we know of) and 1,500 Britons would not be fighting alongside an enemy that has sworn our destruction. It’s not wealth. It’s not the promise of a long, comfortable life. So what is it?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a George Orwell review of Mein Kampf from 1940. In it, he rightly condemns Hitler as a lunatic, but also notes the underlying appeal of Nazism. Orwell observes that Hitler “has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude” and the progressivist view that “human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain.”

Like Nazism, Islamic extremism offers neither comfort nor security — the ostensible goals of the welfare state — but rather sacrifice in the name of a sacred mission. In the end, the differences between Aryan supremacism and Islamic supremacism are minor. Both are fascist, as they meld religion and government into one and the same thing. Both call their members to fight for a glorious cause, to be part of something greater. Both view themselves as liberators from an enemy that is both decadent and despicable, grown weak and soft in nature and yet wielding a power disproportionate to its merits. In other words, the jihadists view us the way the Nazis viewed the Jews.

ISIS is a militant ideology. To defeat them, we need both a better military (check) and a better ideology. What do we stand for? What are we willing to die for?

These questions are perhaps not as easy to answer as they once were. We seem to lack even the language necessary to frame such a cause, so afraid are we to give offense. Diversity and tolerance are good to a certain degree, but who would lay down their lives in the name of multiculturalism, or even libertarianism? No soldier ever charged into battle crying: “I risk my life for the right of everyone to do whatever they want, no matter how perverse, so long as they don’t directly harm anyone else!”

This is not to say that our culture need be monolithic. The Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War and the brave men who stormed the beaches of Normandy had ancestors who hailed from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and West Africa. But while their backgrounds and origins were diverse, the vast majority accepted Judeo-Christian principles of freedom, inclusiveness, and the intrinsic value of human life. Like our Founding Fathers, they acknowledged the existence of good and evil, as well as the human temptation to choose the latter. You don’t have to be a Jew or a Christian to share these values, but it helps to recognize that they arose in a specifically Judeo-Christian context.

In Turkey, Obama famously declared: “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.” A few days ago, Alveda King called him out on this, asking that he bring us back to God and supply some righteous indignation. This goes beyond politics. When it comes to rallying a population in the face of an existential threat, even the dollars and cents capitalism favored by so many fiscal conservatives falls short. If we are all just here by accident, if our goals in life are merely material and temporal, then what does it matter if a community thousands of miles away is tortured, displaced, and persecuted?

Like Orwell observed, people desire more than material comfort. On a fundamental level, we yearn for a higher purpose– for truth and justice. But in the place of our traditional values, new beliefs have seeped into our culture that divide Americans by class, gender, and race, eschewing the very notion of a common purpose. In order to ignore the gross injustices that abound in the world and our own society, we seize upon the slightest perceived offense. We waste ink and breath debating the name of the Washington Redskins and the existence of a “war on women” while studiously ignoring the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East and the unborn in our own communities. Western feminists do nothing to address the atrocities committed against women in Africa and Asia, including genital mutilation, acid attacks, and rape, while devoting themselves to the causes of free birth control and unlimited access to abortion. It’s embarrassing.

Many Americans today, especially in my own generation, would rather adopt an attitude of “don’t judge me and I won’t judge you” than expose themselves to increased scrutiny and charges of hypocrisy. But multiculturalism, consumerism, and moral relativism will not be enough to defend ourselves against Islamic supremacism and other fascist incarnations. Neither will adopting our own “convert or die” extremist mentality. We defeated Nazism and Soviet communism in large part because we believed our values of freedom and democracy were worth fighting for. We need to figure out how to fight ISIS. But we also need to remember why.

We Need More Compassion, Less Government

Compassion is a term that seems to get tossed around with increased frequency these days. We are told to show compassion for Central Americans illegally crossing into the United States and Palestinians being killed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza, as well as the poor and suffering in our own communities. But what does it actually mean to be compassionate? Is it simply giving people what they want? Leaving them alone? “Tolerating” them?

I would define compassion as acting in a way that recognizes the common humanity of others. To embrace the Bill Clinton cliché, it involves “feeling their pain”; we have to both suffer with them and endeavor to alleviate their suffering. Compassion is not tossing a few crumbs from the table and saying, “Here is something to you more comfortable down there.” Rather, it is bending down to pick each other back up.

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Compassion is one of the central messages of the Gospel. Christ calls us to serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized—as He Himself did. Christians understand that this obligation extends into the public and political spheres. We have a duty to elect leaders and support policies that promote our values. But Christ’s message was not intended for governments or kings; it was directed at individuals.

Compassion is not a policy. Policies are the means we choose to achieve our ends. Compassion helps shape these ends, and eliminates certain “means” as immoral and unjust, but to arrive at policies that are both compassionate and effective, we need to realize the limits of what government can and should do. Government can impose taxes and then redistribute income in the form of welfare programs, but it cannot embrace the pain of a homeless man, the desperation of a single mother, or the hunger of a needy child. Neither can bureaucracies, those impersonal agencies that reduce real human beings to numbers and statistics as a matter of course. (See the recent Veterans Administration scandal.)

Only individuals are capable of showing true compassion. Only fellow human beings can break down the material distances that separate our bodies—the superficial differences of appearance and circumstance that make some lives seem more worthy than others. We do this when we give freely of ourselves, sometimes with as little as a smile, a hug, or a home-cooked meal.

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I have been overwhelmed with gratitude when people in my family and community have reached out to help me, especially when my son was born with a life-threatening heart defect. But I have never felt this way about government assistance. I have been filled with joy while serving people in my family and community, but never when paying taxes.

Anyone who has ever suffered a serious illness or trauma will tell you that while they needed the experience and expertise of medical professionals, they also needed to be reminded of their basic humanity. The right doctor or nurse can give a patient love and hope, while the wrong one can make them feel less than human, like a piece of malfunctioning equipment on an assembly line.

Very few doctors intend to hurt their patients, yet many do, or we would not have so many medical malpractice lawsuits. Sometimes even well-intentioned policies have the unintended consequences of harming the very people they are designed to help. Foreign aid can prop up corrupt regimes and stifle the development of local economies. Certain welfare programs have been shown to discourage initiative and breed dependency. Opening our borders will invite terrorists and gang members to harm our people and hurt the middle class. Denouncing Israel for defending itself will embolden Hamas to continue their attacks on Israeli civilians and to cynically use their own people as pawns to enflame Anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel around the world.

Typically, the closer we are to someone, the more we will do to ensure their well-being. But we have a responsibility to show compassion even to suffering people in distant lands. Millions of Christians are being killed or forced to flee from all over the Middle East. Since 2003, Iraq’s Christian population has dwindled from 1.5 million to 400,000. Just this month, ISIS purged Christians from Mosul whose ancestors have worshiped there for 2,000 years, burning ancient churches and marking the homes of Christians as targets for looting and persecution.

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Yousef Habash, bishop of the Syriac Catholic Church asks, “Where is the conscience of the world? Where is the United Nations? Where is the American administration to protect peace and justice? Nobody has said a word.”

Our government will not speak out until we do. Disasters and crises can galvanize us into action, providing ample opportunities for compassion, but only when we are willing to pay attention to them. Government has an important role in promoting peace and justice, but too many people look first to politics for solutions when they should start by looking in the mirror. Our individual efforts to show compassion are not as limited as our search for effective policies. As Gandhi said, we have to “be the change (we) want to see in the world.”

Pope Francis has shown us how one man’s compassion can inspire millions. When he washes the feet of a Muslim woman and kisses the face of a disfigured man, his actions recognize their common humanity. He reminds us that serving others is an honor and a privilege. What we do for the least of God’s children, we do also for His Son.

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When Pope Francis criticizes the flaws of global capitalism or opposition to immigration, he does so not to advocate for the alternatives of socialism or open borders, but to remind us of our common humanity. Poverty, illness, imprisonment, and war are all conditions that degrade the dignity of the individual. We have an obligation to show compassion to those most in need of being reminded of their worth.

Many on the Left sincerely believe their policies are necessary to help the poor and oppressed in the United States and around the world. They may even see it as their Christian duty to support socialist redistribution and amnesty at home and to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. But certain politicians in America and radicals abroad have found that they can win more support by dividing people against each other than encouraging them to unite with a common purpose. They stifle compassion by dividing us into camps, and in its place grow resentment and contempt.

I have stated before that liberals do not have a monopoly on compassion, and neither do conservatives. Neither do Christians. We are just as prone to sin as anyone else, and in just as great need of God’s grace. Even as we defend our borders, we cannot dismiss illegal immigrants as “parasites.” Even as we denounce Hamas, we must empathize with the victims of violence in Gaza. When it comes to helping others, we can never give enough, serve enough, or care enough.

Compassion does not mean using the powers of government to give each group what it wants. Rather, compassion is reaching out to the suffering and having the courage to stand up for the persecuted. It requires us to see people not as members of racial, religious, or social groups, but as fellow human beings. Compassion means accepting that the responsibility to help others rests primarily with us and not with government.