Friday, March 18, 2011

Do we still want to be fighting the Crusades?

CHAPEL HILL -- During a visit to the Oakbrook Preparatory School in South Carolina last month, Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and a 2012 Republican presidential hopeful, fired a salvo against "the American left," this time for its failure to understand the crusades and its hatred of Christendom.
"The idea that the crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical," Santorum is quoted as saying. "And that is what the perception is by the American left who hates Christendom. They hate Christendom. They hate Western civilization at the core. That's the problem."
The ridiculousness of playing the blame game for the crusades more than 1,000 years after the fact should speak for itself. Santorum, however, is not the first person to evoke medieval holy wars as part of a "Clash of Civilizations" between Islam and the West. Especially since 9/11, fear-mongers have darkly proclaimed that the crusades provide a history lesson about the age-old and inevitable struggle between Christians and Muslims.
Santorum's defense of the crusades echoes others who insist that Muslim aggression, including the seizure of Jerusalem in the seventh century, demanded an armed Christian response. By calling for the First Crusade in 1095, Pope Urban II declared a Just War for the protection of Christians and the recovery of what rightfully belonged to them. (Never mind the fact that Muslims had ruled over the Holy Land for more than 400 years by that point, longer than the United States has been in existence.)
It is hardly "anti-historical" to see that both Christians and Muslims perpetrated horrible acts of violence in God's name during the era of the crusades. Ironically, Santorum himself sounds like medieval popes who described the world as one of "Christendom versus Islam" to rally their supporters.
In his sermon that launched the crusades, Urban roused listeners to action by describing alleged crimes against Christians by Muslims, including the slaughter of pilgrims, the rape of virgins, the defilement of churches and other unspeakable acts - many of which were exaggerated or fabricated. One can almost hear him saying "you're either for us or against us."
Yet other popes maintained diplomatic relations with Muslim rulers. European merchants traded with Muslims in luxury goods and even weapons. Christian clerics engaged in religious debates with their Muslims counterparts. Crusaders negotiated truces with the so-called infidels, forging alliances with certain Muslim kingdoms against other ones.
Upon closer inspection, the world of the crusades, much like our own, breaks down into a constellation of individual and collective actions, political decisions and moral choices - relating to how people define themselves through their religious faith, as well as how they treat others who believe differently from them.
By accusing the American left of hating Christendom, moreover, Santorum identifies his real enemy, a fifth column who despise Christianity and Western civilization so much that they will even stoop to blaming Christian aggression for the crusades. In the same address, he also declared that the separation of church and state in the United States has had "disastrous consequences" for our nation.
Apparently, "the left" needs to realize that they are not living in a modern civil democracy, but in Christendom, facing the same enemies as the crusaders!
Here, we might draw a history lesson from the crusades. Despite their reputation for fighting Muslims, crusaders also turned their swords against other Christians, whom they defined as heretics. Santorum echoes these sentiments with his comments about the American left being the problem.
As the crusades teach us, when religion infuses politics, defining "us" and "them," swords (or in this case dangerous words) are invariably turned inward toward the enemy within.
Not to mention, implicit in Santorum's defense of the Christendom and the crusades is the sense that the crusaders left unfinished business for America to complete, a disturbing proposition that recalls the polemical language of the past that less responsible Christians and Muslims labored to create. That, Mr. Santorum, is "the problem."
In the light of recent developments, Santorum's priorities are (once again, he's done this before) amazingly misdirected.  Misdirected?  Rather, on target for a medieval holy warrior.

Image:  Pope Innocent III, who declared crusades on everyone he could think of, including Markward of Anweiler, "another Saladin" and "an infidel worse than the infidels."


  1. This would be perfect coverage of Mr Santorum's idiocy if Mr Whalen, who in this respect is like about half the students I've taught Crusades too, had taken on board that we don't know what Pope Urban II preached at Clermont when he 'launched' the First Crusade. As you're aware of course, but Mr Whalen isn't, there are at least five versions of Urban's speech, which only partially overlap (even the eye-witness accounts) and to get the full list of topoi Mr Whalen quotes there you'd need all of them, including the non-contemporary ones. His assessment of Santorum is bang on of course, and there's no doubt that Santorum knows almost nothing about what he's saying (and doesn't, sadly, need to know any more for it to reach an audience) but all the same, when someone tells me what Urban II said at Clermont I reach for a red pen. It would have cost only half a sentence to be accurate here.

    (Posted w/o OpenID authentication because Blogger doesn't like that today, again.)

  2. Wood and trees, Jon. Wood and trees. Professor Whalen (why downgrade him to Mr and liken him to an undergraduate? That sounds more than a little arrogant to me) doesn't actually tell us that we know what U2 said. Nor does his argument rely on that for its force. It only relies on a source saying that that is what he talked about. It's not, after all, a foot-noted journal article. If you check out professor Whalen's web-page at Chapel Hill I think you'll agree that it's unlikely that he doesn't know that we don't know what U2 actually said on the day. Tsk.

  3. Brett Whalen2:34 pm

    If I may, I am quite familiar with the various versions of Urban's "crusade sermon," and scholarship surrounding it ranging from Munro to Penny Cole: but the op-ed word limitations don't allow for such details!

  4. Good point. Even if they give you 800 words you can hardly make more than one major argument, and that in it's simplest form.