Groundhog Day, Again

Observing the many indignant protests that followed President Obama’s comments at a recent prayer breakfast, I am struck by two realizations. First, political enmity feeds on the slightest of fodder in producing truly climate-changing methane! And second, history for some is a matter of personal convenience, undisturbed by reality.

British statesman Edmund Burke seems to be the first credited with a saying ascribed to many others since, including Churchill and Santayana: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Yes, the president’s comments brought forth plenty of outrage from the usual wolf pack, but it was the true ignorance of history in the replies that dismayed me.

Take this comment by “Bill” quoted on a religiously affiliated site entitled “Obama Insults Christians”: “The Crusades were a defensive Christian reaction against Muslim madmen of the Middle Ages.” A kernel of truth here, to be sure. An aggressive Islam was rising to threaten Christian interests. It was converting by conquest. But the Crusades were of dubious value and stained morality almost from the start; the Byzantines who started things by appealing for minimal material aid were shocked at the ruffians who appeared in the Holy Land to pillage and plunder.

By the Fourth Crusade things were truly out of whack. Pope Innocent III and the Venetians conspired to redirect the holy warriors to pillage Christian Constantinople instead. In a pattern not too dissimilar from the Shiite-Sunni divide among Muslims today, that Crusade was used by the Western church to attack its Eastern rival for dominance in Christianity. That’s a big reason today we still have the schism between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, and why Pope John Paul apologized for the sack of Constantinople.

This editorial is short, so I’ll slide over the Children’s Crusade during which thousands of impressionable children marched off to holy war and were promptly herded onto slave ships. Gullible children are always easy prey for purveyors of suicide vests! I notice that some revisionist historians have taken to explaining away the Children’s Crusade as the shanghaiing of motley crews of uneducated simpletons. Not only does it smack of whitewash, but reveals little awareness of the real social and religious manipulation at work in the Crusade phenomena.

However, according to St. Louis University and Crusade scholar Thomas Madden, “all the Crusades met the criteria of just wars.” How could he say that of the Fourth! Not to mention the internal short circuit implicit in the just war theory itself; developed by church theologians to justify wars of religion. Jihad, too, has its own just war criteria, even as we find it offensive and unpersuasive today.

The same Bill quotes Henry Kamen, “a leading authority on the Inquisition,” as holding that only “1,394 people were killed by the Inquisition.“ A strangely precise figure for an institution that lasted hundreds of years, not just in Spain, but in the New World, too! Michael Winters, writing for the National Catholic Reporter Web site, also invokes Kamen in defining the Inquisition, “brutal at times,” as largely an arm of the Spanish state. Hmm! I could just as easily describe the Spanish state’s religious policies as largely an arm of church policy. Back then, just as with the erstwhile caliphate movement in Islam, the idea of a separation between church and state was anathema. It won’t do to blame on the state what was church policy policed by priestly inquisitors.

The recent murder of a Jordanian pilot, burned alive by ISIL fanatics, shocked us all. It was done by men of truly evil intent, but not, I hazard, by madmen in the clinical sense. In those grand old days of the Inquisition it was not uncommon—maybe as often as 1,394 times over the centuries—to parade a heretic through the streets and them burn him or her for public enjoyment in what was called “an act of faith,” or auto da fé. Madmen! Maybe. And so good that we have moved on and apologized for what never could have been us.

I wish every critic of the President’s tutorial could read what once was de rigueur for anyone growing up in Protestant America 150 years ago—a real potboiler of a book called Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Even allowing for purple prose and its own sectarian bias it proves the fact of murderous religious hatred and violence within Christianity. We have the Christ in the Christian West, but for much of the past two centuries He has been given the place of the Roman Eagle.

Yes Islam has advanced and is advancing by the sword. We cannot accept that as a legitimate method for any faith and for any people. But think back to the colonization of the New World at the time of Columbus. At first the natives on Hispaniola were seen as subhuman and killed gratuitously. Then a Pope opined that they might have souls; and the Christianization of a whole race in the Caribbean led to their enslavement as encomienda, or hereditary chattel, and their eventual extermination within several decades. One of the last of their chiefs, named Hatuey, was captured and burned alive. Before his death he was offered the chance to convert to Christianity so that he might have the chance of heaven, and be also given a quicker death. He turned down the offer after being told the Christians would be in heaven. “I never again want to see another Christian,” said the chief.

Oh, I wish the President were trading in bad history, but it is all too true. And while I am not yet drooling and stooped, I’m old enough to remember the George Wallaces and the other denizens of the Pandemonium that tried to hold back the civil rights movement. They were Bible-waving religionists to a man. Yes, the Civil Rights movement reached into the better angel nature of Christian faith and changed America for the good. But the President’s point stands—our past reveals a sad marriage of religion and violence, hate and repression. And, yes, maybe some of the Simon Legrees were madmen! We do well to disavow them.

Of all the comments on the prayer breakfast I read I was most taken with Michael Winters’ piece and in particular his conclusion. “It is good for Christians, perhaps especially for Catholics,” he writes,” to recognize that we did not come of our own volition to the cause of religious tolerance…. that it [is] not the task of the state to enforce religious observance and conformity.” And yes, like him I realize that there is indeed something a little off when any political leader lectures on religion—even if his points are correct. Maybe the prayer breakfast itself sets everyone up to settle on an agreeable form of state-sanctioned religion. And if so, like Michael’s murmur on the topic, might we too not see something a bit improper in a Pope addressing Congress—to speak on what? After all, it was Jesus Christ Himself Who warned of public prayers and public piety. And that’s a matter of history.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."