Educating Obama on The Crusades

There are many legends about world history that are based in falsehoods. If you get your notions of what The Crusades were all about from Islamists claiming the Crusades continue today, or from voices in the mainstream media, or even from Monty Python and Mel Brooks bits, then it is not unexpected that you would get it wrong. President Barack Obama showed today that he is misinformed on the issue at best.

At the National Prayer Breakfast earlier today, President Obama made the following remarks while discussing religious extremism:

“And 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,” he said. “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Within a month of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 former President Bill Clinton said something similar at his alma mater, Georgetown:

“Those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless,” he declared. “Indeed, in the First Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with three hundred Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple Mount. The contemporaneous descriptions of the event describe soldiers walking on the Temple Mount, a holy place to Christians, with blood running up to their knees.

“I can tell you that that story is still being told today in the Middle East, and we are still paying for it,” he concluded,

Thomas F. Madden, who wrote about the Clinton remarks in a 2009 book review at First Things, had the following to say (emphasis added by me):

It is generally thought that Christians attacked Muslims without provocation to seize their lands and forcibly convert them. The Crusaders were Europe’s lacklands and ne’er-do-wells, who marched against the infidels out of blind zealotry and a desire for booty and land. As such, the Crusades betrayed Christianity itself. They transformed “turn the other cheek” into “kill them all; God will know his own.”

Every word of this is wrong. Historians of the Crusades have long known that it is wrong, but they find it extraordinarily difficult to be heard across a chasm of entrenched preconceptions. For on the other side is, as Riley-Smith puts it “nearly everyone else, from leading churchmen and scholars in other fields to the general public.”

The book reviewed by Madden was The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam by Jonathan Riley-Smith. Be sure to read the whole review for lots of good information. Madden also points out that all the Crusades met the criteria for a just war.

Steve Weidenkopf, author of a book (The Glory of the Crusades), wrote a piece in 2014 detailing why the Crusades were just wars.

Weidenkopf wrote the following summary on the justification for the Crusades:

The invasion of Christian territory, Muslim persecution of native Christians and pilgrims, plus the threat posed to the Christian Byzantine Empire, were all legitimate reasons to engage in defensive warfare and, and Bl. Pope Urban II cited them as justification for the First Crusade. And so in 1095, at the Council of Clermont, the pope preached an armed pilgrimage to recover the lost Christian territory of the East and specifically the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Urban viewed the Crusade as a pilgrimage, the aim of which was not to conquer but to visit the place of pilgrimage and then return home. Later popes maintained the understanding of the Crusades as just, defensive wars with the central goal of the recovery of ancient Christian territory. Heroic men and women of faith, rooted in love of Christ and neighbor, undertook the Crusades as acts of self-defense and recovery of stolen property. This is the proper understanding of these important events in Church history.

Weidenkopf also noted specific reasons for the justification including 12,000 Christian pilgrims from Germany killed by Seljuk Turks as they approached Jerusalem on Good Friday in 1065. Also noted – the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 638 that included the destruction of over 300 monasteries and churches.

This from Weidenkopf sounds a lot like ISIS today:

The Crusades were also a response to the severe persecution of indigenous Christians living in the occupied territories, whose lives were severely restricted and who suffered constant pressure to convert to Islam. As an example, in the early eleventh century, Christians living in the Fatimid caliphate were subject to persecution during the reign of al-Hakim, who ordered them to wear identifying black turbans and a large cross in public. He also ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, originally built by Constantine and St. Helena in the fourth century.

Another Weidenkopf piece on the “glorious” Crusades last year discussed where the misperceptions came from:

The negative “spin” on the Crusades began in the sixteenth century with the Protestant revolutionary Martin Luther, who saw them as an outgrowth of papal authority and power. Later Enlightenment authors such as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon shaped modernity’s negative view of the Crusades by portraying them as barbaric projects undertaken by greedy and savage warriors at the behest of a corrupt papacy. Modern-day Crusade historians, thankfully, eschew the anti-religious prejudices behind this view, and are bringing to light an authentic understanding of these Catholic events from the perspective of those who participated in them. But such scholarship has not eradicated the popular myths.

Add in the Islamist views discussed by Madden and an anti-Catholic media and the mistaken views on the Crusades can be explained, whether it is rooted in ignorance or antipathy.

Weidenkopf on the nature of the Crusades:

The Crusading movement was a Catholic movement. Popes called for Crusades, clerics (and saints) preached them, ecumenical councils planned and discussed them, and Catholic warriors fought them for spiritual benefits. The Crusades cannot be properly understood apart from this Catholic reality. The modern world’s historical amnesia on this point is curable, and the cure begins with Catholics learning the authentic history of their Church and the culture it created. Like the Benedictine monks of old, we modern Catholics can maintain the inheritance of Western Civilization, and correct the errors and biases of our age, through a commitment to learn our history and take pride (where appropriate) for the actions of the men and women who came before us in the Faith.

Madden made similar points:

But the Crusades were not just wars. They were holy wars, and that is what made them different from what came before. They were made holy not by their target but by the Crusaders’ sacrifice. The Crusade was a pilgrimage and thereby an act of penance. When Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095, he created a model that would be followed for centuries. Crusaders who undertook that burden with right intention and after confessing their sins would receive a plenary indulgence. The indulgence was a recognition that they undertook these sacrifices for Christ, who was crucified again in the tribulations of his people.

Madden discusses the sacrifices at length, whether it was death or financial ruin for the Crusaders.

As for the other historical references made by Obama along with the Crusades, I’ll leave those for another day. However, Steve Wiedenkopf has something to say about the Inquisition. More on the Inquisition here.

Since this post relies heavily on Weidenkopf’s writings at the website of Catholic Answers, I’d be remiss in not mentioning a blog post there on the subject of the president’s speech today. The post, “Terrible Deeds and Odious Comparisons“, is by Todd Agliolaro.

Jeff Quinton

Jeff Quinton

Jeff Quinton is an award-winning blogger who has been aggregating and blogging since 1998. He has worked as a reporter, in government, and as a communications professional in Columbia, SC and Washington, DC.

Quinton is a native South Carolinian who has lived in Baltimore since 2006. He is a recent convert to the Catholic Church and is active in the Knights of Columbus. He has been involved in the pro-life movement nationally and locally since 2010.

Quinton is a veteran who served as an intelligence analyst in the Army National Guard. He is also an Eagle Scout.
Jeff Quinton

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  1. Mr. Quinton – I came across your blog when reading about the reactions to Obama’s speech in which he cited the Crusades and the Inquisition. I have several issues with your blogpost, mainly with the sweeping generalizations you have made about the era as a whole.

    As you explain, yes, the crusades were initially a call to arms in reaction to Islamic expansion, predominately upon the lands of the Byzantine Empire after the Emperor’s crushing defeat at Manzikert in 1071. However, I will also mention that many narratives such as yours also imply that the Crusades were a reaction to the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslims, which occurred some 400 years prior (Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099 and to the Muslims in 638). So if they were reacting to this incident, they were a bit late (It is also worth noting that Jews had been banned in Jerusalem until it was returned to Muslim hands in 638 and the new Muslim ruler signed a treaty with the Christian patriarch to ensure the city’s Christian sites were protected).

    Only after the combined Crusader armies marched to Constantinople, did the original intent of the Crusade, to aid the Byzantine Empire in their battles with the Seljuk Turks, get twisted by political intrigue and disputes between the Byzantine Emperor and the various leaders of the Crusades, as described by Anna Komnene, the emperor’s own daughter, to journey to Jerusalem.

    From there, the crusaders proceeded south and the rest is history. I will also note, however, the sources you mention and defend also cite Islamic barbarity against Christians as the reason to go on Crusade. Again, this is fact that is beyond doubt, however I must add, that the Crusaders also chose to match that barbarity with their very own, which is not in tune with the message of Jesus Christ. There was the wholesale slaughter of the Muslim families in the Turkish camp after the Crusader victory at Dorylaeum (1097) and some Crusaders resorted to cannibalism after the Siege of Maraat (1098). The entire Muslim population of Jerusalem was put to the sword and the Jews were burned alive in their synagogue, confirmed by first-hand accounts of the crusaders themselves (the account of the Jews being burned in the synagogue is from a Muslim account from the time, but largely accepted as legitimate). War in the Middle Ages was brutal and violent, and to slight one party for engaging in barbarity and not the other is just hypocrisy. Also note some crusaders did not simply complete their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and return home. Many of these crusaders, for one reason or another (some cite the Greedy Younger Son theory that Madden discounts) stayed and wasted no time in carving out their own kingdoms and making war upon one another, as did Bohemond of Taranto, who became Bohemond of Antioch at the end of the First Crusade (Count Reynald of Chatillon is another name of a later generation, who made war on Christian and Muslim alike to advance his gains).

    I suppose my largest grievance with your narrative is that you seem to lump in all the Crusades with the intent of the First Crusade: to combat expansionist Islam. You and the authors you cite (or perhaps the ways you have cited their works) have chosen to ignore other Crusades that were directed at fellow Christians either out of ignorance or the fact that it simply contradicts your narrative. Weidenkopf says “negative spin” and you mention “anti-Catholic media” in regards to today’s views of the crusades, but have you thought that the basis for much of those views may be due to the fact that subsequent crusades were also carried out against Christians? Facts that you have precisely ignored in your piece where you speak of radical Islam and the sacrifice and hardships of these crusaders fighting it?

    What say you about the Crusade against the Cathars, otherwise known as the Albigensian Crusade? Unlike the Muslims, the Cathars (who were Christians) did not commit violent acts upon their fellow man. They did openly challenge the authority of the pope, in which they were met with a Crusade, which more or less became one of the largest land grabs in Medieval European history, with the nobility of Southern France siding with the Cathars and the nobility of Northern France coincidentally siding with the Pope and the crusaders. 20,000 Christians alone were massacred at the Siege of Beziers, by the Papal Legate’s own estimation. This of course succeeded the Fourth Crusade, in which the crusaders, due to an odd storm of politics, intrigue, and economics sacked not one, but two Christian cities in Zara and Constantinople. Later religious wars were sponsored by the church and carried out against the Hussites by the Teutonic Knights. All military actions brutally enacted against fellow Christians.

    So while the Crusades did start out as a reaction to expansionist Islam, they devolved into being a blunt instrument used against anyone who would question the sanctity and authority of the Catholic Church, be it Christian, Muslim, or Jew. To ignore this evidence and claim the intent of each of the Crusades was to solely combat Islamic barbarity all the while as you openly assert that someone else speaking of the Crusades (in this case the President Obama) is misinformed, is not only downright ironic, but also disturbingly disingenuous.

    I am also very familiar with Madden’s good work (who doesn’t agree with Runciman in some ways) and I think you have either misquoted him or generalized his comments, as his explanation you cited was for the Crusader’s mentality for going to war, especially for the First Crusade, essentially getting into the mind of the would-be Crusader. However, it does not describe, nor does Madden ignore (who has authored several books on the Fourth Crusade), the fact that later crusades took on a darker twist in that this fervor and passion was directed at fellow Christians. So if your intent was to describe the reasons the initial crusade began, then you have made gross generalizations about the Crusading Era in general and your piece should be updated to correct the errors, or if you seem to think that all the crusades began for the same reasons as the first, then you are simply misinformed.

  2. Obama has been very successful in proving that he is sn ignorant ass…. and he thinks all of us are. Maybe the fact that he is still the president is his proof? He might have a case there.