A little background here: I originally wrote this piece in the wake of President Obama's comments at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, 2015. But by the time I got around to actually writing it, the news cycle had moved on and I never published it. And my ground had already been better covered by people like Ta-Nehisi Coates here and, before the speech even occured, by the rather wonderful Matthew Gabriele here. But, hey. I tried. Here's my take:
President Obama’s comments on Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast amounted to a well-intentioned swipe at American exceptionalism and was directed toward the laudable goal of breaking the link between Islam and terrorism in the public’s mind. To do so, as commenters have since noted, he made explicit recourse to history. Yet in this, he has less to be proud.
In noting the tension between compassion and violence that religion can produce, he said, “Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.”… an immediate warning-flag for any historian that a gross generalization is about to erupt. “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. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
Despite the totally uncontroversial nature of such a statement among historians, criticism came quickly, with some Christian groups finding such chiding offensive, even though the President was careful to distinguish these as “a tendency in us, a sinful tendency, that can pervert and distort our faith.” Yet that’s where the President was wrong, or, at least, not right enough. For the fact is that the Crusades, it turns out, were less perverse than anyone wants to believe.
While the medieval and early modern campaigns of Christian holy war we call the Crusades did indeed have their critics, the best and most recent research on crusading has shown just how mainstream, how imbued with genuine Christian piety, it was and how support for crusading, abroad or on the home front, was understood as fully consonant with proper Christian belief. Far from a delusion of a perverse few—as terrorism is among Muslims—crusading was part of the warp and weft of medieval Christian society.
But that was then, and this is now. Religious traditions, all of them, are complex systems with complex histories. This is why academics—believers or not—insist on understanding religion in its own context. The fact that Medieval Christians and Muslims resorted to violence for reasons that contemporary Christians and Muslims find hard to grasp suggests that religions today are not the same as they were in the past--and that they will change in the future too. That should be comforting to both the President and those offended by his comparisons.
It is one thing to make recourse to history in the course of a debate; it is another to throw it under the bus to score points. The fact is, this desire to look back and declare some aspects of the Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish…) past as perverse or distorted, just like the desire to reclaim other aspects we find more palatable, is an easy way to avoid some hard truths. As a historian, I laud the President and his audience’s grappling with history in such a setting; yet one wonders whether the medieval past might have been better left out of the discussion, when there is no scarcity of contemporary American examples of violence undertaken in the name of God that might be used to chide us all.