Every semester, I teach a couple of church history survey courses at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The first course, Church History: Patristic and Medieval, more or less covers the period from the end of the first century AD to the dawn of the sixteenth century. One of the topics I address is the crusades. Many students are very interested in the crusades. They hope that understanding the religious wars between Christians and Muslims will help us better navigate our own contemporary context, particularly the War on Terror and growing emphasis on evangelical missionary work in unevangelized Muslim nations.
Unfortunately, the crusades are white hot landmines on the battlefield of political correctness. Many on the cultural Left use the crusades as an argument for secularism, or at least the muffling of (conservative) religious voices in the public square. They strongly imply that America in particular and Western Culture in general are to blame for most of the ills around us. Some even insinuate that we deserve the scorn of Islamic terrorists, though to be clear, the Left believes that the terrorists take their scorn too far in resorting to violence. Not surprisingly, many leftwing Christians make similar arguments. Just read the reports of any national gathering of the mainline denomination of your choice over the past eight or ten years.
In the most recent issue of The Intercollegiate Review (a politically incorrect journal, to be sure), California University of Pennsylvania medievalist Paul Crawford debunks four common myths about the crusades:
Myth # 1: The Crusades Represented an Unprovoked Attack by Western Christians on the Muslim World
Myth # 2: Western Christians Went on Crusade because Their Greed Led Them to Plunder Muslims in Order to Get Rich
Myth # 3: Crusaders Were a Cynical Lot Who Did Not Really Believer Their Own Religious Propaganda; Rather They Had Ulterior, Materialistic Motives
Myth # 4: The Crusades Taught Muslims to Hate and Attack Christians
Crawford notes that these myths are propagated by liberal politicians and even recounted in popular textbooks, though scholars who specialize in the crusades know them to be patently false. Bad history breeds like rabbits.
Crawford concludes his insightful essay as follows:
[N]othing is served by distorting the past for our own purposes. Or rather: a great many things may be served … but not the truth. Distortions and misrepresentations of the crusades will not help us understand the challenge posed to the West by a militant and resurgent Islam, and failure to understand that challenge could prove deadly. Indeed, it already has. It may take a very long time to set the record straight about the crusades. It is long past time to begin the task.
I’d encourage you to read the whole essay. The full bibliographic reference is Paul F. Crawford, “Four Myths about the Crusades,” The Intercollegiate Review (Spring 2011): 13–22.
[UPDATE: The Crawford article is available online. Thanks for the comments pointing this out.]