Our Crusading President

Last week President Obama mentioned at a national prayer breakfast that although ISIS is bad, we can’t get too smug, because Christians have committed evil in the name of their religion too, like during the Crusades and the Inquisition. Medievalists, always starved for attention and grateful for any scraps of it thrown their way, leaped into the breach with their commentary on the President’s use of the Middle Ages. As one might expect, whether a medievalist sees the comparison as apt has a lot to do with his politics – those on the left seeing it as more or less legitimate, and those on the right much less so. For a representative division, see this Guardian column by David Perry, a grad school friend of mine, and this NRO column by Tom Madden, my wife’s undergraduate mentor (see how connected I am!). I agree with Perry that us-vs.-them ideology is dangerous no matter who is holding it, and I have reservations about Madden’s idea that the Crusades were defensive (well, they were in the very long run, but Muslims had held the Holy Land since the 600s – liberating it was quite aggressive on the Crusaders’ part when they arrived there in 1099). But I fully concur with Madden’s idea that we should leave discussions of the Middle Ages out of discussions of the current Middle East. Obama’s invocation of the Crusades strikes me as especially sophomoric. Whether those wars were or were not a distortion of Christianity, and whether they were or were not as bad as everyone thinks, they happened several hundred years ago! ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda are happening right now! If you want to say how “we’re just as bad,” talk about drone strikes or Yankee cultural imperialism. And if these are hard to pin on Christianity as such, maybe you shouldn’t try to.

3 thoughts on “Our Crusading President

  1. The Middle Ages are over. Christians are not killing people now. We wised up and realized you can’t kill those who do not agree with you. So how in the name of sanity can that period of time be brought up to defend the ongoing war against Christians by Islamist extremists? What an ignorant reference to justify horrific actions. I am German, but I don’t excuse Hitler or use him as an example of the atrocities committed by a man who claimed to be a Christian.

  2. I think the thing that annoys me about this is just the general ignorance and lack of understanding and amount of times this one gets thrown around, like every time a Muslim radical does something now it is almost justified, because, well, you know, the crusades and all.

    The truth is just much more complex. They were different times, different belief systems, and different worldviews. It is naive to paint the Muslims as innocent victims of evil, opportunistic popes and crusaders, though. Were there some evil, opportunistic popes and crusaders, sure! They were people. Were they all bad, were their motives all bad? Absolutely not! It is undeniable that Muslim expansionism and persecution of Christian locals and Christian pilgrims was an important factor in the early crusades. Also, as you say, in the Long Run, the wars and battles in Eastern Europe, and Spain, and at Malta and Lepanto were very much defensive. It’s just a shame that all of it gets painted with the same brush and used so flippantly to almost excuse or justify modern day terrorism.

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