Really, the crusades don't fit our politics

March 17, 2011 

— 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."

Brett Edward Whalen is an assistant professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill and the author of "Dominion of God: Christendom and Apocalypse in the Middle Ages."

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