On Tuesday, the so-called Islamic State released a slickly produced video showing a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a steel cage. On Wednesday, the United Nations issued a report detailing various “mass executions of boys, as well as reports of beheadings, crucifixions of children and burying children alive” at the hands of the Islamic State.
And on Thursday, President Barack Obama seized the opportunity of the National Prayer Breakfast to forthrightly criticize the “terrible deeds” ... committed “in the name of Christ.”
“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” Obama said, referring to the ennobling aspects of religion as well as the tendency of people to “hijack” religions towards murderous ends.
“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.”
Obama’s right. Terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity. I have yet to meet a Christian who denies this.
But, as odd as it may sound for a guy named Goldberg to point it out, 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.
“The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual response to the jihad — a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war,” writes Bernard Lewis, the greatest living English-language historian of Islam.
As for the Inquisition, it needs to be clarified that there was no single “Inquisition,” but many. And most were not particularly nefarious. For centuries, whenever the Catholic Church launched an inquiry or investigation, it mounted an “inquisition,” which means pretty much the same thing.
Historian Thomas Madden, director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University, writes that the “Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions.”
In medieval Europe, heresy was a crime against the state, Madden explains. Local nobles, often greedy, illiterate and eager to placate the mob, gleefully agreed to execute people accused of witchcraft or some other forms of heresy. By the 1100s, such accusations were causing grave injustices (in much the same way that apparatchiks in Communist countries would level charges of disloyalty in order to have rivals “disappeared”).
“The Catholic Church’s response to this problem was the Inquisition,” Madden explains, “first instituted by Pope Lucius III in 1184.”
I cannot defend everything done under the various Inquisitions, especially in Spain, because some of it was indefensible. But there’s a very important point that needs to be made here that transcends scoring easy, albeit deserved, points against Obama’s approach to Islamic extremism — which he will not call Islamic. Christianity, even in its most terrible days, even under the most corrupt popes, even during the most unjustifiable wars, was indisputably a force for the improvement of man.
Christianity ended greater barbarisms under pagan Rome. The church often fell short of its ideals — which all human things do — but its ideals were indisputably a great advance for humanity.
Similarly, while some rationalized slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S. by invoking Christianity, it was ultimately the ideals of Christianity itself that dealt the fatal blow to those institutions. Just read any biography of Martin Luther King Jr. if you don’t believe me.
When Obama alludes to the evils of medieval Christianity, he fails to acknowledge the key word: “medieval.” What made medieval Christianity backward wasn’t Christianity but medievalism.
It is perverse that Obama feels compelled to lecture the West about not getting too judgmental on our “high horse” about radical Islam’s medieval barbarism in 2015 because of Christianity’s medieval barbarism in 1215.
It’s also insipidly hypocritical. Obama can’t bring himself to call the Islamic State “Islamic,” but he’s happy to offer a sermon about Christianity’s alleged crimes at the beginning of the last millennium.
We are all descended from cavemen who broke the skulls of their enemies with rocks for fun or profit. But that hardly mitigates the crimes of a man who does the same thing today.
I see no problem judging the behavior of the Islamic State and its apologists from the vantage point of the West’s high horse, because we’ve earned the right to sit in that saddle.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review and a columnist for Tribune Media.