Editors’ note: 

“Debatable” is a recurring feature in which we briefly summarize debates within the Christian community.

The Issue: In his speech last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama attempted to nuance his condemnation of Islamic terrorists by noting that people also “committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” As examples, the President mentioned slavery, Jim Crow, and the Inquisition. But it was his inclusion of the Crusades that drew the most criticism. Numerous Christians have responded, mostly to challenge the President’s understanding of the Crusades.

In Defense Jemar Tisby

That the Crusades were religious wars is undeniable. “[Pope] Urban made Deus Vult [God wills it.] the battle-cry of the Crusades, and suggested that each warrior wear the sign of the cross upon his clothing” (Dowley, 277). While the Crusades were in part a response to the expansion of Islam by violent force, nearly 200 years of warring were not free of sinful motives and actions.

In Defense David Jessie

I don’t often find myself on the same page with the President. I don’t agree with his ideology, his interpretation of his Christian faith, or most of his political policies. But on this issue, I find myself uncomfortably in line with his statements. . . . Denying the truth, or pretending it doesn’t matter, will never change the past. The Church is guilty of terrible acts in the Name of Christ, and we must own up to this. We can’t act as if it’s a bad dream that we can forget.

Against – Ravi Zacharias

President Obama basically lectured Christians not to get on a moral high horse in their castigation of the ISIS atrocities by reminding them that the Crusades and slavery were also justified in the name of Christ. Citing the Crusades, he used the single most inflammatory word he could have with which to feed the insatiable rage of the extremists. That is exactly what they want to hear to feed their lunacy.  ‎In the Middle East, history never dies and words carry the weight of revenge.

AgainstKevin DeYoung

We are right to deplore the cruelty meted out by crusading Christians, but should not ignore their plight. Christians lands had been captured. Surely, they thought, this could not stand. For an American, it would have been as if Al-Qaeda sacked Washington, D.C., following 9/11, set up shop for Bin Laden in the White House, and turned the Lincoln Memorial into a terrorist training center. It would be unthinkable, cowardly even, for no one to storm the city, liberate its captives, and return our nation’s capital to its rightful owners. We should never excuse the atrocities that occurred under the banner of the cross during the Crusades, but we should, at least, take pause to understand why they set out on what seems to us to be a fool’s errand.

Against – Russell Moore

It’s almost as though Franklin Roosevelt were to say, “It’s a date that shall live in infamby, but let’s remember we surprised the British at Yorktown too.”

AgainstFrank Turek

Yes, people have done terrible deeds in the name of Christ, but they were against the teachings of Christ. Some of the Crusaders committed atrocities that couldn’t be more contrary to the teachings of Christ. They were the ones who “hijacked” a religion, Christianity, by disobeying what Christ taught. But contrary to the president’s assertions, this is not the case with Islam. Islam is not being “hijacked”—it is being obeyed. The terrorists are following the teachings of the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad.

AgainstRonnie Floyd

His flawed comparison to atrocities that happened hundreds of years ago minimizes the severity of ISIS and other groups that are brutalizing and killing innocent people,” said Floyd, an Arkansas pastor. “Instead of focusing on the past, America needs heroic leadership in the present—leadership that champions religious liberty for all people.

Against – Mollie Hemingway

Some critics of war worry, I think incorrectly, that we can’t detail ISIS’s atrocities or freely discuss the threat of Islamist jihadism without it leading to unbridled involvement in foreign lands. Still, the Crusades aren’t a great example of high-horse Christian aggression for a few different reasons. For one, the wars were defensive wars, a centrally important fact left out of most stoned sophomores’ discussion upon first learning any history prior to 1983.

Against — Robert Jeffress

I would imagine that Jesus would be outraged that the president would willfully mischaracterize a movement like Christianity that bears Christ’s name. I believe that Jesus, who said that it would be better to be cast into the sea than to harm a child, would be incensed that Obama would dare link Christianity to ISIS, an organization that tortures children, buries them alive, and crucifies them. I think he’d be outraged by it.

AgainstFranklin Graham

Mr. President — Many people in history have used the name of Jesus Christ to accomplish evil things for their own desires. But Jesus taught peace, love, and forgiveness. [Jesus] came to give His life for the sins of mankind, not to take life. Mohammad on the contrary was a warrior and killed many innocent people. True followers of Christ emulate Christ—true followers of Mohammed emulate Mohammed.

AgainstTony Perkins

First of all, the crusades were almost a thousand years ago. ISIS is killing today. What’s more, every true follower of Christ condemns the acts of barbarism committed under the mask of religion—in medieval or American history. The teachings of Christianity do not call for, nor do they condone, brutality or bigotry. Can the same be said of Islam? Are Muslims around the world denouncing the ruthless and inhumane actions of ISIS?

Scoring the Debate: It’s hard to defend the President’s attempt to create a moral equivalence between Islam and Christianity on the issue of violence. His use of the Crusades as an example of unjustifiable religious violence, is especially unfortunate and reflects an all too common historical ignorance about the Crusades. As Saint Louis University historian Thomas F. Madden has explained,

For starters, the Crusades to the East were in every way defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression—an attempt to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.

Christians in the eleventh century were not paranoid fanatics. Muslims really were gunning for them. . . . When Mohammed was waging war against Mecca in the seventh century, Christianity was the dominant religion of power and wealth. As the faith of the Roman Empire, it spanned the entire Mediterranean, including the Middle East, where it was born. The Christian world, therefore, was a prime target for the earliest caliphs, and it would remain so for Muslim leaders for the next thousand years.

[. . .]

That is what gave birth to the Crusades. They were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense.

But the criticism of Christians getting on their “highhorse” is even more out of place considering that the greatest religious threat around the globe continues to be radical Islam. As Gov. Bobby Jindal said, “We will be happy to keep an eye out for runaway Christians, but it would be nice if he would face the reality of the situation today. The Medieval Christian threat is under control, Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today.”

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