The National Prayer Breakfast (NPB), held annually the first Thursday in February, has been attended by every sitting President since its founding in 1953. It was attended this year by President Joe Biden, whose bipartisan message of national unity and faith was intended to be a counterpoint to the January 6th riot at the Capitol, which Democrats are calling an “insurrection.” Even Fox News highlighted Biden’s call to end “political extremism.”
All living former Presidents, excepting Donald J. Trump, joined President Biden in calling for a future filled with faith and forgiveness. The Washington Post described the general mood as a “return to the event’s historically lofty tone” that “highlighted the president’s effort to restore Washington’s institutions to their traditional pre-Trump form.”
In the wake of all this happy talk about faith, forgiveness, unity, and “lofty tones,” it seemed useful to go back in time – well, really just six years – to some reflections which I published following President Obama’s remarks on history and religious guilt at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast. Mr. Obama is still commenting in the public arena, so what he said in the past deserves some examination.
February 12, 2015. Instead 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. Mr. Obama said “imposters” acting in the name of a great and peaceful religion were committing these crimes. He 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, Presbyterians, or Episcopalians.) 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. (He didn’t exactly say that Christians today were responsible for the Crusades, but it was everywhere implied.)
I understood his frame of reference, since my old alma mater, Wheaton College, had wrestled with the problem of the Crusades in the 1990s. Wheaton is the flagship evangelical school whose graduates included Dr. Billy Graham, the late Chaplain of the Senate Richard Halverson, 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 vicious acts that killed thousands of their fellow citizens? Or did they think Wheaton College might have caused the violence by using that offensive symbol?
I never learned 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, if anyone expressed regret for ditching the Crusader. Whatever the case, the Wheaton Crusader was history.
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 did wonder 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 with Israel more than 3000 years later.
Why didn’t Mr. Obama blame Israel’s long-ago war-mongering 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 have just gotten along? (Full disclosure: I am part Jewish, but which part has never been clear.)
In public remarks, Mr. Obama further argued that terrorism – whether committed by Middle Eastern “extremists” or by militant American Quakers, Mennonites or Holy Rollers – is random and limited in scope. As such, terrorism represents less risk to us than Climate Change, which he believes will affect (and possibly destroy) the whole world.
In his Prayer Breakfast sermon on these matters The Rev-O gave the news media – especially conservative talk radio and Fox News – a severe scolding (and 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.
Mainstream Media hucksters ran to stop the presses and publish the president’s joyful reassurances 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 Dr. Obama’s Prayer Breakfast lesson, equating Islamic terrorism to the Crusades, some Christians 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 piteous 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 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. Muslim armies were repelled at the very gates of Vienna as late as 1683. Militant Islam has been on the march for 1400 years.
Communication in the Dark Ages 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 a few years later.) 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.)1
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, bombs 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 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 today 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 claims, the Crusades didn’t make them do it. Muhammed and his Islamic armies drew first blood.
 A summary of the Crusades, 1096 to 1272.
|Crusade||Dates||Description of Events|
|First Crusade||1096 – 1099||The People’s Crusade to free the Holy Lands. Led by Count Raymond IV of Toulouse and proclaimed by many wandering preachers – notably Peter the Hermit. Jerusalem was captured.|
|Second Crusade||1144 -1155||Crusaders prepared to attack Damascus. Led by Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III and King Louis VII of France.|
|Third Crusade||1187 -1192||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||Led by Fulk of Neuil, French/Flemish armies advanced on Constantinople.|
|Children’s Crusade||1212||Led by a French peasant boy, Stephen of Cloyes. Thousands of children were captured and enslaved.|
|Fifth Crusade||1217 – 1221||Led by King Andrew II of Hungary, Duke Leopold VI of Austria, John of Brienne.|
|Sixth Crusade||1228 – 1229||Led by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.|
|Seventh Crusade||1248 – 1254||Led by Louis IX of France.|
|Eighth Crusade||1270||Led by Louis IX of France.|
|Ninth Crusade||1271 – 1272||Last Crusade attempt. Led by Prince Edward of England (later Edward I). Edward became the “Hammer of the Scots;” fought William Wallace.|