As many of you may already be aware, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast this past Thursday, a tradition of U.S. presidents going back to President Eisenhower in the 1950’s. The Prayer Breakfast itself is a rather interesting subject on its own, since it seems to be a sort of pan-Christian, and perhaps even pan-religious group, with the Dali Lama receiving invites along with social gospel liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis. In other words, it is a rather large tent with a variety of different Christian and even non-Christian groups represented. This means that to expect orthodox Christianity from it is a bit of a stretch. While it is true that historically Christians (especially evangelicals) have been the most prominent backers and speakers, there has always been a sort of pseudo-civic religion aspect to the entire experience. This also implies that in an era in which we worship pluralism (everyone is basically the same, which goes for religions also), and “tolerance” is the buzz-word of popular culture, orthodox Christians in the U.S. should not exactly be shocked when things are said and spoken there that either make little sense or are typical of the age in which we live.
Enter President Barack Obama, who professes a form of Christianity, was raised in an Islamic madrassa for a time in Indonesia, and seems to be aligned with the typical academic “elite” view of social gospel Christianity that is professed in Ivy League divinity schools and the like. When you create the environment above with President Obama and mix them together, you get statements like this:
“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ…” Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast, 2015
Now this statement followed a listing of a litany of crimes committed by Islamic hardline groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and the like. Because of this context, it seems (however rightly or wrongly) that Obama is comparing ISIS and Boko Haram to the medieval crusaders as some sort of “corruptive” equivalence. Not surprisingly, the response from the blogopshere and talk radio was swift. Some of this response was of course a bit over the top and full of “red meat” for certain constitutes. This “shock” really shouldn’t be much of one, since this sort of thinking has been dominant in post-Enlightenment and anti-Christian circles (and even some Christian ones) since 18th century France and in Protestant polemics against Rome. And this is key, as Obama’s comment’s here seem to simply come out of the typical historical and sociological ignorance that is reflected in popular culture:
Part of the problem here is that the president knows little, perhaps nothing, about the Crusades or the Inquisition. He is not alone in that, of course. Medieval historians have long lamented the gulf between fact and popular perceptions when it comes to these events. The Crusades were not brutal wars of colonial oppression or zealous attempts to spread Christianity by the sword. The First Crusade was called in 1095 by Pope Urban II in response to desperate appeals from the Christians of the Middle East, who had lately been conquered and continued to be persecuted by the Turks. And these were only the latest in more than four centuries of attacks on Christian peoples by Muslim powers. At some point Christianity as a faith and as a culture had to defend itself or else be subsumed by Islam. The work of the Crusader, who put his life at risk and underwent enormous expense, was to save Christian people and restore Christian lands. This was no perversion of Christianity. Christ had commanded his followers to be like the Good Samaritan, hurrying to bind up the wounds of their brother who had been robbed and beaten. This was the same Christ who said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” That is how Crusaders honestly saw themselves following their Christian faith.
– Dr. Thomas F. Madden, St. Louis University, Medieval History department
ABC News quotes a different Crusades historian in addition to Madden:
(Thomas) Asbridge said he doesn’t have a problem with the president reminding the world that the Christian Church “advocated violence, and at times even encouraged its adherents to engage in warfare” but to suggest a causal link between ISIS and the distant medieval phenomenon of the Crusades is “grounded in the manipulation and misrepresentation of historical evidence.”
Of course we could add quotes about the Crusades in general from other historians and sociologists of religion, many of whom have been quoted on this site (See here and here). The point here is that in spite of the good work done by many, the Crusades still remain as one of the most woefully misunderstood events in the history of the world (the Inquisition a close second). When the presumed leader of the western world, while dealing with an almost weekly account of some act done by ISIS or Boko Haram, seems to use historical ignorance to make some sort of relativistic statement about religion, we have work to do.