the imaginative conservative logo


One of the more ignorant bits of political correctness subverting our cultural memory is the movement to ban the Crusader mascot from schools. A number of schools already have caved in to the pressure to eliminate such a “divisive” or even “racist” mascot, and some, I am quite sure, were happy to lead the way toward cultural surrender. The argument, of course, is that the Crusader is an emblem and representative of oppression and intolerance. By keeping the mascot, we are told, schools are perpetuating the aggression of Christian Europe against Muslims.

The proper response to such arguments is a snort of derision, followed by the suggestion that the person so arguing go out and read an actual book on the subject. Unfortunately, these days one can find numerous books peddling all kinds of untruths, in the name of kindness and understanding, that just happen to undermine the legitimacy of our Western Civilization. Still, anyone who takes even a small bit of time to study the subject would soon discover a few important facts that, to say the least, tend to undermine the equation of the Crusades with murderous religious hatred.

crusadesObviously I do not have the space, here, to go into a detailed discussion of the Crusades—their genesis, purpose, or course of development. For an overview I recommend Thomas Madden’s A Concise History of the Crusades. What seems relatively clear is that the Crusades at issue in this dispute were a series of military campaigns by which European Christians fought during the Middle Ages to regain and control lands in what we now call the Middle East, and the Levant in particular. Other Crusades—including ones against heretics and pagans within Europe, broadly conceived—also were fought during this era, but are not what people generally think of in this light. One usually hears of eight Crusades undertaken from the 11th through the 13th centuries and fought in the Middle East.

Hostility toward Crusaders rests on the myth that they were invaders who raped and pillaged peaceful peoples out of religious hatred and the desire to plunder and dominate the area. The picture is of religiously intolerant aggressors seeking to kill or enslave all infidels out of a hatred born of religious intolerance, buttressed by greed. In a particularly ignorant treatment of the Crusades hosted by former Monty Python comedian Terry Jones (and televised, of course, by the BBC) there is much snickering about how the Crusaders killed a lot of people they apparently did not know were themselves Christians. The snickering is based on willful ignorance of the confused and conflicted nature of the actions and motivations of particular groups involved in the Crusades. But that confusion goes much deeper.

The first question one should ask in assessing the moral status of the Crusades ought to concern whose land it is that we are talking about. And that question requires that we ask “who was there first?” As with all questions going back too far in time, the answer is somewhat muddied by the fact of conquest, re-conquest, and new conquest. When it comes to the area of central concern, the area around present-day Israel, we might begin with the Israelites. Then again, the Israelites themselves conquered a pre-existing, polytheistic people and were in turn conquered more than once, eventually falling under Roman rule. The rise of Christianity changed the religious affiliation of much of the population in the area and there eventually was rule by the Byzantine Empire. I am skipping over a lot of history here, but you get the idea. We know one thing for certain, the Muslims were rather late to the conquest game (taking the Levant in the 7th century) and they took the area, by force, from a pre-existing people and civilization.

ConstantinopleMore often than not it was the Byzantine Empire that, beginning in the late 11th century, asked, cajoled, and paid Europeans into coming to their defense in fighting Muslim invaders. The Byzantines generally preferred to have Europeans help them fight for control of lands closer to their “home” of Constantinople. But the Europeans tended to want the honor of fighting more directly for the control of the Holy Land. The First Crusade, for example, was begun after the Byzantine Emperor requested that Pope Urban II send help in fighting Muslim invaders who had taken much of his territory in the Levant and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). The request came in 1095 and in 1096 a powerful force was put together with the purpose of winning back access to holy sites and reuniting the recently split elements of Christendom. The result was re-conquest of territory stretching from Anatolia all the way to Jerusalem.

As has often been remarked, Popes during this era encouraged participation in the Crusades in part by assuring people that service would win them forgiveness of sins. One also hears that Popes were desperate to get rid of “second sons” who would not inherit lands in Europe and so were constant sources of violence and other troubles. The latter is not actually true—first sons and lords themselves (even Kings) did much of the fighting. There were a variety of secondary reasons for this service having to do with honor and reputation, but the central reason was religious conviction and the desire to secure access for pilgrims to Christian holy sites. Service also fulfilled the feudal duties of lesser lords and more than one nobleman found himself sent on crusade as a means of avoiding punishment at home for his misdeeds. Holy vows were involved in becoming a Crusader, as were religious benefits important to religious peoples, even if they sound odd to many secularists today.

It is clear that the Crusades were not purely holy wars waged by purely virtuous soldiers whose piety led them to acts of pure self-sacrificing bravery. Like all wars, the Crusades involved a mix of good and bad conduct and motivations. There was much greed, pride, cruelty, and slaughter on both sides. Moreover, there often were more than two sides, with infighting among Christian and Muslim forces far from uncommon. There was, after all, conquest, re-conquest, and re-reconquest during these years, which ultimately saw the rise of a new Islamic empire that would threaten Europe itself, only being stopped at the gates of Vienna in 1683.

crusadersThere is much to criticize in the actions of the Crusaders, and no doubt even in the motivations of many of them and their leaders. But this is merely to recognize that, being made up of human actions, the Crusades involved the actions of sinners—hence many sins. But to defend one’s ally against invasion, to seek to re-open holy sites to pilgrimage, and to defend one’s civilization against leaders of another civilization, bent on conquest, is no sin, but rather an act of pious bravery. It is especially odd that so many today are anxious to defend Muslim extremists who claim to be defending their civilization, while rejecting those who defended their own. That peace is a better tool than violence, that toleration and cooperation are crucial sources of stability and the makings of a decent life, are important points. But we who must face massive brutality ought not to focus only on the sins of our forebears. Rather, we should seek to respect and even capture the piety and courage of an era whose violent proclivities we fool ourselves into thinking no longer exist. We should seek, like Crusaders, to stand for our faith and defend our right to live out that faith, including by defending our co-religionists so woefully abandoned to intolerance and outright murder in the Middle East of today. Our means must change, but our current refusal to stand for the right and the just, and to defend Christians suffering martyrdom on a regular basis, is a stain on our character—and one that the Crusaders never bore.

Our schools and our Catholic schools in particular should be proud to associate with those who fought and died to ensure that pilgrims might have access to the holy sites of their faith, that Christian nations might survive in the face of a powerful invader, and that they might serve their Church and their God. We can build on this pride an understanding of other peoples’ actions, even when they are extreme, only if and to the extent that we retain our moral compass, which means respecting the dictates of our own civilization and refusing to cede the moral high ground to those who reject it for us all.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
18 replies to this post
  1. Only if you feel compelled to do so, do so. Once you recognize you compelling need, make sure you have accurate information about them before uttering one word in this highly politically charged times regarding same. Otherwise, you may make some options that are daily taken seem just and not to our benefit. God bless. Ginnyfree.

  2. This is one of those issues that requires us to read books on differing viewpoints to fully understand, unless someone has written an unbiased, objective book on, which itself presents different sides.

    During a faculty meeting/devotional in a start-up Christian school, I quoted a rabbi who called the Crusades out-of-control mobs. The issue was probably what to call any future athletic teams, or what symbol to use for the school. The headmaster disagreed, and mentioned a book that I eventually downloaded through Kindle and read, Rodney Stark’s God’s Battalions, which sticks up for the crusades. Yet even Stark doesn’t have much good to say about the crusaders themselves, quoting Sidney Painter, who called the “ordinary knight savage, brutal, and lustful. At the same time he was, in his own way, devout.” This comes right after Stark’s comment that “the knights and nobility of Christendom were very violent, very sinful, and very religious”.

    As a political action, the Crusades could be justified. But as a religious action, things get more complicated. We learned about the Crusader attacks on Jewish communities in Hebrew school. It took me around two decades after my conversion to Christianity before I could sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” during a church service: I would just stand and remain silent. The lyrics bring to mind marauding soldiers with crosses on their chests, killing, raping, and pillaging Jewish communities which were no threat at all to Christian sovereignty. Even Stark tries to downplay these pogroms, saying that it was only certain crusaders who participated.

    If I want to fight for the US, that’s one thing. But to put a cross on my chest while doing so is another. The gospel is not supposed to be spread through the sword, and I wonder about the wisdom of defending it through the sword. The crusades, the Inquisition, the bloodshed following the Reformation, we could have a heyday trying to rationalize killing for religious beliefs. But political objectives is another story.

  3. Absolutely agree. It is mind boggling that the Catholic Church has apologized for the crusades. Sure there were actions by the crusaders that were questionable and even downright evil, but there always are some such actions during war. No one is pure in that. But the Crusades were justified and noble, fighting back against an aggressor culture whose intent was to completely subjugate the world. We are still seeing that culture doing it today.

  4. @Howard I would just say that, while you make some salient points, the Crusades were human actions waged by humans, with all that entails. Sin follows us no matter where we go, and whatever our motivations and our virtue sin will seek to undermine us. That otherwise “normal” or “good” men became savages is nothing out of the ordinary: look around us today. But when we are following Christ’s commandment to “defend the innocent, support the weak,” and constantly keep in mind that we are there as emissaries of Christ, then our actions will follow our hearts. It takes not only physical and mental but also spiritual discipline to become part of the Church Militant. Also keep in mind that in the sack of Jerusalem, the nobles and their retinues tried to restrain the violence of their coreligionists (to no avail, but that’s not the point). Just as not all who went on crusade were virtuous, so too not all were monsters.

  5. I have issue with the question “who was there first?” Following the logic, as I presume is being used, of property rights, would it not belong to the only nation left with a legitimate claim to Roman Empire: the (Eastern) Roman Empire founded by St. Emperor Constantine, commonly called by Western scholars the Byzantine Empire? Would that not make the Crusades immoral as it appropriated stolen property that rightly belonged to another nation (i.e. the Levant region)? Also, this a political argument, not a religious argument, so I don’t see what this has to do with the religious justification of the Crusades. Just to clarify, I am not arguing about the Christians who defended their land in Spain/France or Italy from Islamic domination, but those who invaded Muslim lands in North Africa and the Middle East.

    The people called themselves Romans, so I will refer to the Byzantines in this context as such. The Roman Empire, having lost much of its land from where it drew its troops, resorted to asking the recently divided Christian brethren in the West for help. From what I gather, there was some mutual resentment between the Venetian merchants and the Emperor. Long story short, the Crusaders sacked Constantinople for supplies (and vengeance). This helped solidify the schism between the two churches. It wasn’t until recently that healing has begun with the Pope of Rome apologizing for the betrayal committed by his spiritual children. So, I, an Orthodox Christian, am in favor of the apology and appreciate the gesture.

    In the Cannon of St. Basil the Great, anyone who committed murder was excommunicated for 10 years. The same penance was reserved for women who committed abortion, those who murdered out of hatred, soldiers who had killed another human being, etc. This penance is usually seen as more of a guideline. Depending on the personal circumstances the penance could be more or less severe (Oeconomia). Realizing that these Romans understood any form of killing as a sin could shed light on why the Roman Empire usually decided to hire mercenaries (like the Vikings) instead of using their own soldiers to fight. Also, unlike in Western theology, there is no doctrine of “just war” to be found (that I know of) in the East. War is sometimes a necessary evil in a fallen world. Nevertheless, the act of killing is still sinful and a Christian is called to repentance no matter the circumstances.

  6. Early on the soldiers of islam, true to their faith, showed the intolerance and aggression called for in their koran. To the best of my knowledge no other faith practices war and force as a matter of course. Today it appears nothing has changed, except for the non-muslims in high places who show more disdain for the Christians in their midst, peaceful thought they are.

  7. Michael, if force was not used to hold back the Muslims at Lepanto and in Spain you would be going to the mosque on Fridays. There is a time and place to defend one’s rights to life and liberty. It is the nature of the aggressor that dictates the response. Mohammedans did not attack other Muslims but rather Christians. Slapping a cross on their chest helped identify themselves.

  8. OMG…when do other groups apologize to Christians, for a change? I think a parent might make an apology to others on behalf of some crude or stupid thing one of their teen kids does or says…but really, it should end there. How foolish to feel the need to apologize for *history*…it’s just politics gone wild and stupid.

    • It’s the double standard, alive and well.

      Where I live now, believe it or not, there’s a non-discrimination ordinance which says that a pastor can be fined $500 a day for telling people from the pulpit what the Bible says about marriage. Who gets fined for publicly ridiculing of Christians?

      Christian groups might not be able to meet on campus if their constitutions say that office holders must be Christian, since that’s intolerant or discriminatory. Or campus groups can ask for BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) against Israel, but what would happen if they tried that against Mexico, India, or China?

      A fire chief gets fired for writing on the biblical view of marriage when the writing has nothing to do with his job, but what public official gets fired for speaking publicly against it? It’s illegal in several states and unethical in all 50 for a counselor to teach someone how to get out of the alternate lifestyle, according to a counselor whom I know professionally, but where is it illegal to help someone ease into it?

      Or perhaps you don’t understand that Christianity is the bad guy, that we should all apologize for what happened centuries ago, that making fun of us is freedom of speech/expression, but that we have to walk eggshells lest we offend our neighbor?

  9. Should Christians apologize for the Crusades? No. But if we are to apologize for something we’re not really personally responsible for, we should apologize for televangelists.

  10. Everyone please note, without commenting on Howard’s comment, this is NOT Howard MERKEN’s comment. We’re two different people.

    I could also mention that there is controversy about Confederate flags and statues, and more controversy about naming teams after Native Americans. Perhaps the Crusader bit is part of a bigger “crusade”, the crusade of political correctness. I’ve yet to hear marine biologists complain about naming a team the Miami Dolphins, or cattlemen complain about the Dallas Cowboys. We’ve got the Arkansas Razorbacks, with no complaints that I know of from any wildlife biologist. Yet the Redmen and Redwomen of the University of Massachusetts Amherst became the UMass Minutemen in 1972.

    Really offensive terms are one thing, but how far are we going to go with name changing, or trying to forget or even change history, and even apologizing for history?

  11. Howard here, of the non-Merken variety. Yeah, the hubbub about the Confederate flag really drives me up the wall. If someone wants to be offended by it, he would be wise not to go on a hunger strike until I give it up. If there is any cause for pride or satisfaction or shame with the US flag, the same cause can be found with the Confederate flag. That, however, is an argument best left for another day.

    Regarding apologies, they really need to be like the Confiteor: “through my fault, through my fault,
    through my most grievous fault.” I suppose it is also possible to apologize for the actions of someone with whom one is willing to identify. If, on the other hand, I obviously had nothing to do with the act itself, and I repudiate the person who committed the offense rather than identify with him, my apology is insincere and merely an attempt to turn the offense to my own personal advantage.

  12. Christians need not apologize for the Crusades, except for maybe not conducting them vigorously enough. And then there’s the matter of Italians selling the Mohammedan invaders of the Holy Land the cannons used to attack Christian cities of Anatolia and the Levant.

    • Not vigorously enough? They should have slaughtered more innocent Jews? As for those Italians, what religion were they?

  13. A German lady living here, after looking to see if anybody else was listening, told me that she didn’t want to insult the country that she was living in, but after WWII, American soldiers rampaged, and raped German women. Our movies don’t show this, she told me, because Americans don’t want to see this. Rape was not the issue in our involvement in WWII, but it did occur. Luther’s virulent anti-Semitism was not the issue of the Reformation, but it did happen. Likewise, the attacks on Jewish communities were not the reason for the Crusades, but they did occur, and were unfortunately rather typical of Jewish-Christian relations back then, which really didn’t improve much until maybe millennial fever hit the British in the nineteenth century, or until Vatican II for the Catholic Church.

    I will NEVER defend attacks on Jewish communities or any form of anti-Semitism, but the Crusades were wars against foreign powers, with soldiers acting, unfortunately, as soldiers often did back then, and still do on occasion. I’ve wondered for a long time how many massacres American soldiers conducted in Viet Nam, or if anybody has even tried to document them; and sorry if I’ve offended anybody with this statement.

  14. I appreciate that the author stated that he hadn’t the time to fully discuss the Crusades,but to neglect the fact that the Crusades were in large part defensive actions from invaders who were threatening Europe is a glaring oversight.

  15. Howard Merken- no apology necessary. If the unvarnished truth (in general) or more specifically (the ravages of war) causes us current-day Christians to wince, so be it.

    We are following our Lord, a leader that constantly puts a mirror in front of our face, a sword that cuts deep separating bone from flesh. If then, we are being refined by fire in order that the final product is pure, we can’t turn away from the truth even as it applies to ourselves. It is, after all, an ever-narrowing path leading to a small gate.

    This is on the faith aspect not the political of the Crusades.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: