President Obama stirred up some controversy among the conservative community last Thursday with remarks he made at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, an annual interfaith gathering held in Washington, D.C. Among other things, the president discussed the atrocities being committed in the name of religion by the Islamic State, calling them “a brutal, vicious, death cult that…carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism.” This, on its face, would seem to be a sentiment that commentators on the Right could unequivocally endorse. Of course, it just couldn’t possibly be that simple. The president followed up by attempting to put these remarks in a broader historical context, saying:
“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. 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.”
This, understandably, led to some indignant reactions among prominent conservatives. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore even went so far as to call the president’s comments “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.” While I certainly think Governor Gilmore’s remarks are wildly overblown, and even as I won’t join commentators like Jonah Goldberg or Mollie Hemingway in apologizing for the Crusades as a “defensive war” against Muslim aggression, I nevertheless feel the need to comment on the general absurdity and underlying false equivalency of President Obama’s take on the danger of Christians casting the first stone.
The first and most obvious problem with this premise is that the crusades ended over 500 years ago—never mind that the First Crusade came to a close over 900 years ago. The same goes for the Inquisition, which (assuming President Obama is referring to the more atrocious Inquisitions that took place in Spain even as he overlooks the historical fact that there was no single event called “the Inquisition”) officially came to a close nearly 200 years ago after a long period of declining influence. His inclusion of these particular historical events is somewhat baffling to me, not merely because they ended well before any of today’s Christians were even born, but also because they were more a product of their times than of the religion they sought to serve. The Crusaders were brutal and bloodthirsty because they lived in medieval times—an era dominated by barbarism, despotism, intolerance, and violence—not because they were Christian. The Spanish Inquisition was created by Ferdinand and Isabella as a tool to help unify Spain under their absolute control. Just like the dictatorial monarchs of old Europe, they aimed to use religion as a cudgel with which to enforce and legitimize their iron rule. This had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with power.
In that sense, at least, President Obama is correct to compare ISIS to medieval Christians. But that is also precisely why invoking these events is so out of place—the Islamic State is engaging in the kind of religiously-justified barbarism that Christians did centuries ago. As Bill Maher (who, apparently, is suddenly a big ally of mine) puts it, “The problem with Obama making this statement is that he doesn't make the follow-up statement that I always do: we did it then, they're doing it now.” Granted, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that slavery and Jim Crow are historical atrocities that hit much closer to home, having happened much more recently and within our own country. It is also true, however, that Christianity was the impetus for undoing both slavery and legalized discrimination. Religious leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the Christian faith in the way it was intended to be and in so doing dismantled one of the great injustices of American history. This is just one of many historical examples of how those who use their faith for the betterment of their fellow man always emerge victorious over those who would distort it to perpetuate oppression.
I have written in this blog before about how Leftists like President Obama are inexplicably bound up in the past, as they believe that today’s white people need to answer for the crimes of their ancestors or that modern-day states’ rights advocates are somehow racist because people using similar arguments to achieve different ends over a century ago were racist. This is one of the inherent contradictions of “progressivism”: even as they claim to look ever forward toward some grand liberal utopia, they spend most of their time obsessing about things that happened centuries and sometimes millennia ago. Even the laws that they champion as paragons of liberal virtue, such as social security and the New Deal, are quickly approaching 100 years of age.
President Obama, as I’ve noted before, is no exception to this backward-looking school of thought. Rather than tackle the tough questions about the violence being perpetrated today by radical Islamists in the name of their faith, he would rather bind the hands of today’s Christians with the sins of their forebears. What’s really appalling to me is that his allies on the Left seek to silence not only Christian critics of Islam, but Muslim ones as well. The president’s remarks last week are merely the latest example of the Left’s continued refusal to have an honest conversation about the numerous despotic governments and terrorist organizations that distort Islam to bloody and barbarous ends today.
One of my favorite Ridley Scott movies, Kingdom of Heaven, paints a very interesting picture of the Crusades, displaying in gory detail the atrocities committed by both sides. It shows, as President Obama reminds us, that terrible deeds were done in the name of Christ in those days. I find to be particularly poignant one scene where a young Italian priest greets a large group of Crusader knights who are arriving in the port city of Messina on their way to the Holy Land. “To kill an infidel, the Pope has said, is not murder,” he beams. “It is the path to heaven.” I would ask President Obama to consider who you tend to see using such rhetoric today: Christians or Muslims?