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Obama was right about the Crusades, but his point says a lot more about anti-Muslim violence today.

If there is one thing we can learn from the Christian Right’s continued response to President Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast speech, it is that religious prejudice isn’t limited to any specific religion. Ironically, the online effort by social conservatives to rebut Obama’s most controversial point—namely, that we “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ”—wound up demonstrating precisely why he was correct in making it. By distorting not only that landmark historical event but its implications for the modern world, Christian conservatives betray a fundamentalism and intolerance not terribly dissimilar from the Islamic variety they’re so quick to condemn.

“Obama’s defense of Islam was combined with repeated efforts to criticize Christianity, which provided the intellectual foundation for America’s culture of self-reliance and its small-government Constitution,” wrote Neil Munro of the Daily Caller. Characterizing the speech as “an attempt to deflect guilt from Muslim madmen,” Bill Donohue of the Catholic League published an online response that the “Crusades were a defensive Christian reaction against Muslim madmen of the Middle Ages.” Erick Erickson of RedState.com agreed, accusing Obama’s speech of “reeking with contempt for faith in general and Christianity in particular” before claiming the Crusades “started as a response to Islamic invasion.” 

“Obama is using his #NationalPrayerBreakfast remarks to defend Islam – without actually mentioning Islam,” tweeted Fox News’ Todd Starnes, later adding that “Obama reminds people at the #NationalPrayerBreakfast about the violence done by Christians during the Crusades.” Former Rep. Allen West was more succinct, tweeting “the Islamopologist-in-Chief is at it again trying to conflate Christianity with ISIS, at the prayer breakfast no less.” According to Louisiana Congressman Rep. John Fleming, though, he wasn’t just trying to conflate the two. Fleming argued, “Not only did he vilify Christianity, but he actually made a case to defend radical Islam, that’s killing people around the world.”

In fact, the Christians who slaughtered thousands of innocent Muslims and Jews during the Crusades were very much motivated by religious zealotry. “From a Western perspective, there was a growing interest in the Holy Land,” explained Jay Rubinstein, author of Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse, in an interview with Bloomberg. Depending on the historian, the motives ascribed to those who joined ranged from a desire for power or profit and “penance and the opportunity to have sins forgiven” to “a real sense of prophetic mission,” all stemming from the religious conviction that the Christian god would consider it holy to capture the Holy Land from the Islamic world. 

Importantly, as historian Will Durant noted, the chief legacy of the defeat ultimately suffered by Christendom in the Crusades was that “the beaten West … wandered out on the high seas of reason, transformed its crude new languages into Dante, Chaucer, and Villon, and moved with high spirit into the Renaissance.”

As such, when members of the Christian Right attempt to defend the Crusades, they are doing more than rewriting history. They are perpetuating the very bigotry that caused that terrible event in the first place. As Vox’s Max Fisher argued, “Let’s be clear: The Obama Crusades controversy is over whether it’s OK to hate Muslims.”

On an immediate level, the revisionism is a poorly concealed attempt to simultaneously advance both the case for Christian exceptionalism and the prejudice that Islam is inherently more violent than other major world religions. By falsely inferring that the Crusades were a response to immediate Islamic aggression (even though four centuries separated the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land from the First Crusades), Christian conservative leaders are encouraging their followers to see the Muslims of a thousand years ago as no different than the so-called “Muslim madmen” in ISIS and al-Qaeda. Similarly, by arguing that the Christians were liberators instead of aggressors, the Right is playing on the “messianic” strain in American foreign policy that has fueled unwanted foreign interventions from the heyday of Wilsonianism to George W. Bush’s visions for Iraq.

If you dig deeper, however, the parallels between the Christian fundamentalists and Muslim counterparts like ISIS become even more troubling. “[ISIS] presents itself as an apocalyptic movement, talking about the end of days, the return of the caliphate and its eventual domination of the world,” said Hassan Hassan, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, in an interview with Israel National News. He argues that these beliefs of Islamic religious privilege are “mainstream”: “They are preached by mosques across the world, particularly in the Middle East. ISIS takes these existing beliefs and makes them more appealing by offering a project that is happening right now.”

Of course, many American conservatives do identify with Christian sects that openly proclaim that their faith is destined to conquer the world, including Dominionists like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Many others, by erroneously insisting that the founding fathers intended for America to be a Christian nation, add an undercurrent of religious imperialism to their rationalization for American geopolitical interventionism. Even those who don’t overtly preach global conquest, however, often betray a level of intolerance for non-believers that would make them quite at home with ISIS if they happened to be Muslim instead of Christian. Indeed, the keynote speech at the Prayer Breakfast delivered by NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip declared that “if you don’t know Jesus as your Lord and Savior” and “you’re just a pretty good guy or a pretty good gal, you’re going to go to Hell.”

In short, what you believe matters far less than your ability to accept and respect differences of opinion, especially in an Internet age where everyone’s viewpoints are given a public platform. For an authentic American perspective on this subject, we can best turn to Thomas Jefferson. “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others,” the author of the Declaration of Independence famously wrote. “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. … Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”

As the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter trends on Twitter in the aftermath of an alleged hate crime that took the lives of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C., Jefferson’s words are more important than ever. In his Vox essay, Fisher reminded us, “A number of Americans, it seems, are clinging desperately to their anti-Muslim bigotry and are furious at Obama for trying to take that away from them,” and that bigotry, whether religiously motivated or otherwise, costs lives. Just as zealots like those in ISIS have been found in Christendom as well as amongst other faiths, they are finding a home today, as they crusade for hate in the name of justice.

Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC.