woody zimmermann 120Instead of offering prayers at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Barack Obama threw the Crusades and the Inquisition at Christians, who he thought were unjustifiably on their “high horse” about recent terrorist atrocities. He said imposters acting in the name of a great and peaceful religion were committing these crimes. Mr. Obama didn’t say which “peaceful religion” had been hijacked by the villains who are lopping off heads and burning innocent people alive. (For all we know, they could be Hindus, Hottentots, Mormons or even Presbyterians.) But he made sure we all knew that terrible past wrongs were committed in the name of Christ. (He was still pretty steamed about the Crusades, which went down in the ‘90s – the 1090s, that is.)

The president said he wasn’t excusing current violence, but he wanted Americans – especially Christians – to understand that they had no reason for righteous indignation over today’s extremism, considering their past misbehavior. In his mind, the horror of the Crusades was still an offense to “great religionists” – particularly Muslims – everywhere.

I knew exactly what he meant by that, for my old alma mater, Wheaton College, had wrestled with the problem of the Crusades as early as the year 2000. Wheaton is the flagship evangelical school whose graduates included Dr. Billy Graham, the late Richard Halverson (Chaplain of the Senate), former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Senator Dan Coates.

In my student days (1962-’64), military pride and tradition were still very much alive at Wheaton. Our president, Dr. V. Raymond Edman, was a World War I veteran. He was extremely proud of his service in the Great War, and he never tired of relating his experiences during chapel talks. I know he believed – as did Christian apologist C. S. Lewis – that the Christian soldier was “one of the great ideas of history.” All of Dr. Edman’s sons served in the U. S. military in World War II.

For many years, the mounted, lance-bearing Crusader was Wheaton’s sports “mascot.” Students proudly wore the heroic Crusader’s image on their sweatshirts and sports uniforms. But in 2000 the school ran into an “identity crisis” when some vocal alumni – including a few nationally known Christians – denounced the school’s Crusader symbol.  Some said they felt embarrassed to wear a Wheaton sweatshirt in the company of their Muslim friends. Others argued that a warlike figure – especially one from the controversial Crusades – was not a proper symbol for a Christian school. Under this pressure, the school dropped the Crusader and adopted “The Thunder,” as their sports teams’ nickname. (My son and I – both Wheaton grads – suggested a chamber pot as the Wheaton Thunder’s new symbol, but the idea did not catch on.)

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon – barely a year later – I wondered what those alumni thought of the warlike Crusader and their “peace-loving” Muslim friends. Did they revise their view of the Crusader in light of the acts that killed thousands of their fellow citizens? Or did they think Wheaton College might have caused the violence by its use of that offensive symbol?  I don’t know what they thought, since not a whisper was heard about any of this in the alumni magazine that had prominently featured the anti-Crusader campaign a year earlier. (Perhaps they feared that Wheaton might be next on the suicide-bomber target-list.) The Wheaton Crusader was gone for good, however.

Conditioned as I was by this early encounter with Crusades-guilt, I wasn’t surprised to hear our Head Theologian’s remarks at the Prayer Breakfast. But I wondered why he didn’t reach back even farther into the historical record to denounce other outrages committed by religious people in God’s name. For instance, what about the mistreatment of the peaceful Philistines by Jewish strongmen Samson, Saul and David? The terribly persecuted Philistines have morphed into modern-day “Palestinians,” who are still fighting Israel more than 3000 years later. Why didn’t Mr. Obama blame Israel’s long-ago violence for today’s turmoil? We can now see how the tree of violence bears the bitter fruit of current strife. Really, couldn’t they all just have gotten along?  (Full disclosure: I am part Jewish, but I’ve never figured out which part.)

In public remarks this week, Mr. Obama further argued that terrorism, whether committed by Middle Eastern “extremists” or by Americans – perhaps by violent Quakers or Holy Rollers, etc. – is random and limited in scope. As such, it represents less risk to us than the Climate Change he believes will affect (and possibly destroy) the whole world.

In his latest sermon on these matters the president gave the news media – especially conservative talk radio and Fox News – a severe scolding (and evidently no supper that night) for “hyping” terrorism. “If it bleeds, it leads,” he said, by way of mocking media’s fixation on the minimal threat of terrorism. We shouldn’t fear it any more than we fear accidents or other random events. Liberal Mainstream Media ran to stop the presses and publish the president’s joyful assurances that Climate Change is far more dangerous than the odd religious bomb-thrower.  (What a wonderful relief to know this! We knew he would set things right.)

After Prof. Obama’s Prayer Breakfast lesson equating Islamic terrorism (although he did not label it thus) to the Crusades, some Christians have returned a few volleys. Several public figures called his comments “despicable.” But most critics overlooked his historical shortcuts that swept various inconvenient truths under the proverbial Prayer Rug – notably, his broad characterization of Crusaders as the aggressors and Muslims as pitiable victims. It’s easy to get away with that today, since most modern Americans have no idea what went down in the late 1090s, and wouldn’t know a scimitar from a weed-whacker.

In examining long-ago dustups – especially between cultures – it’s always valuable to understand who did what to whom – and when and why.  Mr. Obama’s Prayer Breakfast remarks might lead one to infer that Christian armies invaded Israel and knocked the place over for no other reason except that Christians are naturally bad guys who hate Muslims. In fact, the Prophet Mohammed received his militant vision of Islam around AD 610. By the time of his death in 632, Islamic armies had conquered much of the Middle East – not by preaching, teaching and building hospitals, but with fire and sword. Over the next 450 years, Islam spread across North Africa, Spain, and other parts of Europe.  Muslims took Constantinople in 1319 and renamed it Istanbul.

Communication in the 11th century being less rapid than today, it took some time for European Christians to learn that Muslims had control of Israel, including Jerusalem. This realization spawned a movement in France and Germany to free the Holy Land. By 1096 it had become a military expedition involving a Crusader army which captured Jerusalem in 1099. (The city reverted to Muslim control after the Crusaders pulled out.) Over the next 200 years, eight more Crusades invaded the Middle East – nine, if the Children’s Crusade of 1212 is included – but none achieved the military success of the First Crusade. (See summary table in footnotes.)

There is no doubt that war in 1096 was a bloody affair. Thousands of people were hacked to pieces in hand-to-hand combat, but – as Dr. Edman would have affirmed – they were no deader than the millions killed by machine guns, shells and poison gas in the Great War. Historians say most of the inhabitants of Jerusalem – including Muslims, Jews and Christians – were slaughtered during the Crusaders’ capture of the city. Obviously it was a totally wretched business, even if it had a religious motivation and objective.

The principal fact to recognize is that there is no “equivalence” between the Crusades and the actions of villains who are murdering people to terrorize populations that they wish to destabilize and defeat. Nothing about 11th century religious politics informs what is happening today, except that Muslims were involved then, and they are still involved now. In his recent article for the Washington Times (“Let us Prey;” 2/10/15), columnist Cal Thomas observed:

“The Crusades were a response to the violent Muslim takeover of what we call the Holy Land. What does that have to do with today’s Muslim “death cult,” as the president correctly called Islamic extremists? They are beheading and flogging people, oppressing and raping women, promoting child marriage and jailing or discriminating against anyone who practices another faith, or no faith, including some who practice a different brand of Islam. It was similar behavior that spawned the Crusades…”

Alexander Pope wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Mr. Obama and his speechwriters have reminded us of that again, as they have so many times before. Today’s Muslim terrorists are vicious killers of innocent people. Despite The Rev. Obama’s apologies, the Crusades didn’t make them do it.


A summary of the Crusades, 1096 to 1272.

Crusade Dates Description of Events
First Crusade 1096 - 1099 The People's Crusade - Freeing the Holy Lands. 1st Crusade led by Count Raymond IV of Toulouse and proclaimed by many wandering preachers, notably Peter the Hermit. Jerusalem captured.
Second Crusade 1144 -1155 Crusaders prepared to attack Damascus. 2nd crusade led by Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III and by King Louis VII of France.
Third Crusade 1187 -1192 3rd Crusade led by Richard the Lionheart of England, Philip II of France, and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. Richard I made a truce with Saladin.
Fourth Crusade 1202 -1204 4th Crusade led by Fulk of Neuil French/Flemish advanced on Constantinople.
The Children's Crusade 1212 The Children's Crusade led by a French peasant boy, Stephen of Cloyes. Thousands of children were captured and enslaved.
Fifth Crusade 1217 - 1221 The 5th Crusade led by King Andrew II of Hungary, Duke Leopold VI of Austria, John of Brienne.
Sixth Crusade 1228 - 1229 The 6th Crusade led by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
Seventh Crusade 1248 - 1254 The 7th Crusade led by Louis IX of France.
Eighth Crusade 1270 The 8th Crusade led by Louis IX.
Ninth Crusade 1271 - 1272 The 9th Crusade led by Prince Edward (later Edward I of England). Last Crusade attempt. Edward became the “Hammer of the Scots,” fought William Wallace.