By Christopher Cruz
President Obama recently came under fire for statements made at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5. Speaking about ISIS and the ongoing question of religious extremism, he said, “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.”
Conservatives have balked at the way in which he invoked Christianity in relation to today’s extremism. Some pundits and public officials have called him “un-American,” a phrase that has been invoked countless times to disparage the President. Others have accused him of supporting Muslims, a not-so-subtle way of suggesting the president is too soft on ISIS.
Others have gone a different route entirely, choosing instead to attack the way in which President Obama invoked Christian history. Conservatives such as Jonah Goldberg from the National Review have tried to defend the Crusades, calling it a defensive war against Turkish invasion. This, in fact, is not the case. The Crusades were military campaigns sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church which last nearly 200 years.
As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig at the New Republic states, “There were multiple Crusades, and each of them were distinct affairs. Some, for example, were initiated by the papacy; others were initiated by kings against the wishes of the Church, and some, like the Children’s Crusade, now appear to be at least somewhat mythological.”
The question of where the decisions are made and by whom power is held is key to understanding the history of conflict. For long periods of time, the close relationship between Church and state meant that power, and the authority to wage war, lay in some way with those tied to the Church. European empires at this time were led by a convergence of the state and the Church, with the papacy acting as the head of the latter. The pope didn’t really have the authority to wage war, but had the authority to deem a war a “just” one, and rally the people behind any given cause. Conversely, if the head of state wanted to wage war, it would be in the best interest of the head of the state to get the approval of the pope. This deeply interwoven relationship is why the Crusades and other religiously justified acts of violence took place with the sanction of religious authorities.
Leaders of any powerful institution can be wrong, and Christianity is no exception. It is important that those of faith not look to leaders as answers to ultimate questions, because ultimately any institution will falter. As much as I appreciate Pope Francis, I know that one day he’ll probably do or say something with which I do not agree. And that’s OK. But these letdowns do not negate the good he has done. This nuance and complexity is inherent in life, and finding ways to embrace this diversity is critical for people of all religions.
There has been much violence in the name of religion, and it extends to many different faiths. Muslims have the extremism we see today. Christians had the Crusades or racism during the antebellum South. But it isn’t just monotheistic religions that have extremism. Buddhism has had its day of violence, as recently as 2013 when the 969 group, an extremist Buddhist group, attacked Muslims in Burma. Hindu extremism, under the neologism Saffron Terror, has committed acts of violence in the name of nationalism.
That is why I won’t try to defend Christianity from the Crusades, or any other event that has happened in the name of religion. Just because it took place doesn’t mean that it was Christian, Muslim or Hindu. President Obama brought up the Crusades to make the same point. Muslims do not need to apologize for the extremist violence that ISIS does because ISIS merely uses religious rhetoric to justify their atrocities. Their actions do not reflect the whole of the people of the religion, much like the past actions of Christians do not reflect Christians today. Contrary to popular belief, religion can be a force for good in society, especially when people of different religions are able to act in harmony with one another.