Should Christians Apologize for the Crusades?

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.

Obviously 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 eleventh through the thirteenth 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 seventh century) and they took the area, by force, from a pre-existing people and civilization.

More often than not it was the Byzantine Empire that, beginning in the late eleventh 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.

There 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.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared February 19, 2016 in Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Bruce Frohnen


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).