Pre-modern religious violence has been thrust once again into the political spotlight in the United States this week. The Islamic State (ISIS) diffused horrific videos and photos of its execution of a Jordanian pilot by immolation. People around the world have deplored this terrifying act of violence, but many journalists have described the immolation as “medieval” brutality.
President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast responded to the fear and anxiety about the terrifying violence against civilians and the brutal executions of prisoners by ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq.
President Obama tried to assure the public that the ISIS militants do not represent the majority of Muslims worldwide and that Islam is not inherently violent. The President stated: “Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” referring to religion’s capacity to inspire compassion, but also violence. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
An article in the Christian Science Monitor interprets these comments, arguing that Obama “was taking the ecumenical setting of the prayer breakfast to try to reiterate something that’s been a US talking point since the Bush administration: America is not at war with Islam. It is fighting individuals who use distorted versions of faith as a weapon.”
Nonetheless, the speech immediately provoked a wave of condemnation by Republican politicians and conservative journalists. Jim Gilmore, a former Virginia governor called President Obama’s speech “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.” Gilmore claims that Obama “has offended every believing Christian in the United States.” Ta-Nahisi Coates and Bill Moyers both offered responses to this criticism, pointing out that Ku Klux Klan and other racist militants in the United States used immolation and other brutal forms of violence to lynch African-Americans. Clearly, the so-called “culture wars” are still raging.
The political controversy soon extended into the realm of historical interpretation and historiography, however. The National Review, for example, published an article by Jonah Goldberg entitled “Horse Pucky from Obama.” Goldberg asserts that “the Inquisition and the Crusades aren’t the indictments Obama thinks they are. For starters, the Crusades — despite their terrible organized cruelties — were a defensive war.” Goldberg argues that the violence inflicted by Latin Christians during the Crusades was therefore completely justified. He then goes on to excuse the various Inquisition processes, declaring that “most were not particularly nefarious.” Goldberg presents an ahistorical, sanitized, and simply incorrect view of medieval religious violence, citing Professor Thomas F. Madden’s work on the Crusades.
Madden, a medieval historian who is a specialist on the Crusades, weighed in on the controversy himself in an article of his own in The National Review. Madden chooses to focus on the issue of religiosity as a motivator of violence: “How is it that the president of the United States, or any other world leader for that matter, is able to separate true from perverted religion?” Madden then assesses the Crusades and the Inquisition, finding them to have been mainstream expressions of medieval Latin Christianity. In that since, they were presumably “true” religion, not “perverted.” In this way, Madden finds the comparison of ISIS violence to medieval Latin Christian violence to be inappropriate. He concludes: “In general, world leaders would do better to focus on their own age, which they tend to understand better. Judging the purity of modern terrorists’ Islamic faith will not make them less dangerous. Let’s leave the Middle Ages out of it.”
Professor Scott K. Taylor, an early modern Spanish historian, criticizes Madden’s portrayal of the Crusades and the Inquisition, however, underlining that “many people, for example Jews, would criticize Madden’s portrayal of the crusades and Inquisition (eg, ‘The work of the Crusader, who put his life at risk and underwent enormous expense, was to save Christian people and restore Christian lands.’) as incomplete at best.” Taylor concludes: “We all fight to defend the past from today’s simplistic assumptions that medieval people were barbaric and ignorant, but that’s not really he’s doing here. It’s Madden who is manipulating the past, not Obama.”
This debate highlights the need for more awareness of the pre-modern past in contemporary political discourse. Serious comparative study of the dynamics of religious violence is needed to assess specific aspects of medieval violence that may (or may not) be relevant to contemporary situations in Syria and elsewhere. Avoiding broad historical analogies and instead focusing on specific motivations, rationales, justifications, discourses, practices, and forms of religious violence can provide the tools to consider religious conflict today.
President Obama’s comments at the National Prayer Breakfast are available online. The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, NPR, and the Washington Post report on the National Prayer Breakfast.
Jonah Goldberg’s article is at the National Review. Ta-Nihisi Coates’s article is in The Atlantic. Bill Moyer’s piece on a lynching in Waco in 1916 is at his website. For historical context on lynching in early twentieth-century United States, see: David Krugler’s 1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African-Americans Fought Back (Cambridge, 2014).