It isn’t unusual for the president’s words to be analyzed and criticized. The propensity of Americans to routinely invoke their First Amendment rights against their chief executive makes it seem like a national pastime. As the leader of the nation, the president’s statements and actions not only represent his individual beliefs, but also have a broader national and international significance. Due to his status, the president’s words are often perceived as a synecdoche for the speech of the United States as a whole. It comes as no surprise, then, that President Obama’s recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in mid-February have been the subject of a storm of national criticism and debate. During his remarks at the breakfast, he mentioned the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Jim Crow Era as evidence that Christianity is not impervious to the kind of twisted ideology put on display by ISIL and other terrorist groups around the world. Not long after the event, his comments elicited a veritable cyclone of print and web commentary, proving that the events he mentioned, especially the Crusades, haven’t lost their relevance in America or abroad.
Reactions to the President’s remarks have varied, and considerable ink has been spilled in analyzing, criticizing, and supporting his words. Many conservative commentators opine that his remarks were deeply offensive to all Christians. Commentators cried foul for what they perceived to be a comparison of ISIL with Christianity, the president’s use of long past events to vilify a population, and his false description of the Middle Ages. According to Jim Gilmore, a former Republican governor of Virginia, “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” Gilmore’s animosity towards the president may be particularly strong, but many Americans seem to agree with his sentiments. On the other hand, some commentators supported the President’s statements, saying that the comparison was valid and correctly highlighted the universality of religious violence. They also laud him for deconstructing a popular conception of terrorism as a conflict between two societies that have intrinsically competing understandings of justice. All of the president’s words caused quite a stir, but his mention of the Crusades attracted the most attention. It is a particularly notable comparison given the relevance of religious violence to current events and the ever-present “war on terror” that has become a permanent fixture of the American psyche.
President Obama isn’t the only global figure to bring up the Crusades in reference to recent conflict between the United States and extremist groups in the Middle East. On the contrary, allusions to the Crusades have long been used in discussions of present conflict. In 2001, in the wake of the national crisis surrounding the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, President Bush remarked that, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while,” which was interpreted as a reference to the historical Crusades and, like President Obama’s remarks, generated intense national discussion. Interestingly enough, mentions of the Crusades and the use of crusading rhetoric come not only from figures in the US government, but also from their stated enemies. On the other side of the conflict, terrorists have often used the word “crusader” to refer to Western countries, especially the United States, which they see as threats. Osama Bin Laden, for example, issued an infamous fatwa entitled “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.” ISIL has also portrayed the Western world in a similar light, drawing upon crusade-related imagery to talk about their situation. These varied mentions of the Crusades among world leaders and radical terrorists highlight the fact that the Crusades are still relevant as political rhetoric among a diverse array of populations nearly a thousand years after the event. They also display the divide in popular interpretation ranging from viewing the Crusades as an act of Christian aggression and Muslim defense or the opposite, with a large interpretive gray area in between.
Just as the Crusades left an indelible mark on European culture, they also continue to exert their influence on modern culture. A number of colleges and high schools, predominantly Christian ones, have “Crusaders” as their mascot. Apparently, these are not found to be offensive. Religious missions, civil disobedience, and any type of struggle fueled by an ideological commitment, religious or not, is referred to as a “crusade.” The College Crusade of Rhode Island, an organization that provides college counseling for Rhode Island high school students, proves this point. To top it off, popular culture is saturated with books and films about the Crusades. It seems that after nearly a millennium, the Crusades are still an important, if contested, part of American culture.
Debate about the motivation behind the Crusades and the role of religion in the conflict has been ongoing since the Crusades themselves, and has hardly reached a conclusion today. Like any historical event, the Crusades are inherently difficult to analyze. Though there is generally some measure of agreement among historians, historical writing and theorizing is always conjectural and can never account for the mindset and intentions of every person involved in the conflict. But, in practice, the work of trying to understand the Crusades isn’t exclusive to historians. Due in large part to the strong religious currents of the conflict and their potential use as a critique of religion or western aggression, popular commentary on the Crusades has been widespread among the public in America and throughout the world. Unsurprisingly, popular histories of the Crusades diverge even more than the accounts of historians. While many Americans would look to the Crusades as a period of unfortunate religiously sanctioned violence, there are a number of Catholic apologists who take a more positive view. Depending on who is talking, the Crusades are a justified act of defense against aggression or an example of Christianity gone awry.
Historical interpretations are closely tied to ideology, and collective historical memory and the popular understanding of history both depend upon the worldview of individuals and groups. The concept of history and historical thinking has morphed and evolved over time, adopting new mindsets and a more empirical, rational bent, emphasizing the effort to look at the past on its own terms. Nonetheless, the essential project of history remains by and large the same—to understand the past and how it relates to and explains the present. Questions of history are still tied to ideology and identity, particularly in the popular eye, as evidenced by recent tension over US history curricula in American public schools. The Crusades follow this pattern to the letter. They continue to hold sway over popular culture, feeding into different groups’ understandings of themselves and providing a framework for viewing modern events. Interested parties make use of disparate readings of Crusade history or emphasize different aspects to support their own agendas.
Are the Crusades still relevant? By virtue of their use in contemporary America and the political power of crusade references, the answer is clearly yes. But are the Crusades relevant in the sense that they inform current events and provide a clear lens to view conflict in the Middle East? In addressing this question, it is troubling that the Crusades as popularly understood feed into many cultural tropes surrounding current events: the idea of the Christian West fighting the Muslim East, the idea of a just war sanctioned by God, the idea of religion as inherently violent or as an antidote to violence. It seems the Crusades are too contested and carry too much cultural baggage to be used safely in reference to current events. Regardless of whether the Crusades have any historical explanatory power, drawing parallels between the Crusades and today’s world runs the risk of portraying the United States as involved in a holy war and simply adds fuel to radical interpretations on both sides. The conflict between the United States and terrorist groups is not a war between the two religions. In understanding the world today, citizens and leaders of the United States should shift their focus away from the Middle Ages, and look towards history and current events in a more tempered light.