Only someone without any clue about the horrors of the history of Christian religious wars would call on Obama now to accept and use the language of Holy War. Yet, as study after study shows, nuance isn’t the right wing’s strong suit.
The “baptism by fire” of Old Believer leader Avvakum in 1682
President Barack Obama drew fire from his critics on the right when at a recent Washington prayer breakfast he urged understanding of goings on in the Middle East today by referencing Christianity’s own sordid history of oppression and violence. “Remember,” intoned the president, “that during the Crusades and the Inquisition people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” What followed was a wave of outrage as right-wing Christians ignorant of their own history blew their stacks at what they perceived was bias on the part of Obama toward, in their view, the Muslim faith.
“You’ve got to be able to criticize Islam for the parts of Islam that are wrong,” said former New York City mayor and possible 2016 presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. “You criticize Christianity for the part of Christianity that is wrong. I’m not sure how wrong the Crusades are. The Crusades were kind of an equal battle between two groups of barbarians. The Muslims and the crusading barbarians. What the hell? What’s wrong with this man that he can’t stand up and say there’s a part of Islam that’s sick?”
Others in the know-nothing crowd quickly piled on, with Texas Senator and equally likely 2016 candidate Ted Cruz saying Obama was “an apologist for radical Islamic terrorists.” Even right-wing entertainer Bill O’Reilly said on his Fox News program that a Holy War of sorts was upon us and urged Obama to accept the reality of the situation.
“There is only one leader with the cache to lead the fight – that reluctant warrior, Barack Obama. This is now a so-called Holy War between radical jihadists and everybody else including peaceful Muslims,” O’Reilly asserted.
“The Holy War is here and unfortunately it seems the President will be the last one to acknowledge it.”
Crusade as comfort
This urge to “speak truth” as demanded by his right-wing opponents is both typical and expected, largely because science now tells us conservatives generally don’t do well when a situation requires using nuance. Indeed, psychological study after psychological study has reinforced the fact that conservative psychology is intimately linked to things like fear and aggression, dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty avoidance, acute need for cognitive closure, and a high emphasis on “terror management” via emotional practices like projection.
Although it is perhaps reaching too far to say that conservatives of this type are simply less intelligent on average than those benefitting from a more liberal psychology, the studies do point in that direction. In general, traits like poor ability to reason and a general inability to grasp complexity may lead people who have trouble processing these concepts to adopt less cognitively taxing strategies like prejudice and rigid adherence to social norms and customs to alleviate the stress caused by taking in the modern world.
The right needs a Holy War or Crusade, in other words, because it best fits with how their minds process the world around them: black and white, with no shades of grey in between.
Yet kowtowing to this need for conservatives to be comfortable in their own skin as they walk around in the world is incredibly dangerous. Aside from so simplifying the world that they miss much of what is important, adopting this worldview sets the stage for unprecedented violence that our own history teaches us we should avoid at all costs. We’ve been down this terrible road before and it doesn’t end well for anyone involved — least of all those who invoke the rhetoric of Holy War to begin with. The long history of Christians slaughtering Christians for purely religious reasons can help us see why.
Orthodoxy or else
The awful history of fanatical Christians slaughtering others of their own faith starts from the very beginning of the Church, when the power of the Roman state and, after the collapse of Rome, the Byzantine Empire was used to snuff out dissent and impose orthodoxy, often at the expense of tens of thousands of lives. In this forced closing of the Western mind pagans and Greco-Roman philosophers were not the only ones persecuted in waves of state violence similar to what the Christians themselves had suffered, Christian sects that deviated from the emerging consensus over such nonsense things as the meaning of the Trinity and whether Jesus was wholly human, divine or some mix of the two were also targeted. It was politicized, state-based religious terror, pure and simple.
Fast forward a few hundred years and we see Christians murdering Christians again, when in the 1200s Pope Innocent III ordered the French nobility to massacre people known as the Cathars — Christians who had the temerity to come to the conclusion that the God of the Old Testament was so repugnantly evil that he actually was Satan and Jesus was not God’s son, but the evil god’s good counterpart who entered the world through a virgin birth in order to save humanity from Satan’s clutches. As far as religion goes it makes about as much sense as any other faith, but it was too radical for the pope. Holy hosts and inquisitors were soon rallied for the cause. Again, tens of thousands were killed, tortured and dispossessed.
Dissent, however, has a habit of re-emerging. Starting from the 1350s, a series of scholars and reform-minded clergymen like John Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia angered the papacy, the institutional Church and their supporters in secular government by arguing against the bishop of Rome’s claim to temporal authority. Although Wycliffe managed to survive, his acolyte Hus sparked a rebellion in Central Europe that had to be brutally suppressed. In 1415, Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic. The Hussites, as his followers came to be known, suffered equally horrific fates. Such was the fear of religious dissent created by all this that in 1487 Pope Innocent VIII ordered the extermination of the Waldensians, another sect.
Protestant versus Catholic
Yet all of this horror paled in comparison to what came next: the Reformation and the European wars of religion that were famously sparked by Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church in 1517. The document seems laughably obscurantist to modern eyes insofar that it used Biblical and theological reasoning as the basis of its argument, but in essence it was a political document that condemned the corruption of the Church and its stranglehold over interpreting Christianity. Arguing that all that was needed to go to heaven was faith, not good works, as defined by Rome and the pope, Luther declared theological independence — an act that captured the European imagination.
Luther’s ideas spread, aided by the printing press and increased trade. What had once been sporadic, easily snuffed out instances of dissent suddenly erupted into a bonfire as peasants and princes deemed themselves capable of worshipping in their own way. It was a catastrophe for the Church, and moves to suppress the movement quickly led to Protestant countermeasures. Soon, starting with a popular rebellion in Germany that was put down at the cost of 100,000-300,000 lives, war convulsed the continent as the two religious ideologies — Catholicism and Protestantism — intertwined themselves into every political question of the day.
By the time it was all over in the 1650s much of Europe had been devastated and entire countries and peoples had been crushed. Germany, which suffered immensely due to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), saw perhaps 30 percent of its population wiped out as the armies of France, the Holy Roman Empire, Sweden, and a host of petty kingdoms and roving mercenary bands crisscrossed Central Europe. There, the Swedish army alone destroyed 18,000 villages and 1,500 towns — roughly a third of all German municipalities. It was by all accounts a religiously-inspired Western world war.
Cities throughout Europe were put to the torch as a matter of course. Rape and pillage as weapons of war were common. Genocide, too, as the Irish Catholics found out when Protestant fanatic Oliver Cromwell, someone ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi might recognize as a kindred spirit, decided to bring the light and truth of Protestantism to the Emerald Isle via fire and force of arms. Likewise in France, where Protestants were in turn butchered by Catholics in a civil war that lasted from 1562 to 1598. Then there was the accompanying uptick in the persecution of women as a result of all this religious fanaticism which led to witch burnings on a massive scale, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent women in the process.
By the time it was all over some 5 to 16 million people, or about 1.0-3.0 percent of the world’s population at the time, had perished because of differences over scripture and the way those differences, left to the fanatics, poisoned politics. Recoiling from the horror of it all, Dutch humanist scholar and Catholic clergyman Desiderius Erasmus penned a series of polemics condemning the violence and the use of religious justification for it. He argued that it was always and ever would be folly to try to use violence to defeat “the Turk” — code for one’s religious enemies — lest one become more like the Turk than the Turk himself. Holy War, in other words, was little more than self-defeating madness.
Be careful what you wish for
But the reaction against the collective insanity sparked by the wars of religion ran much deeper than just a renunciation of the idea of Holy War by humanists like Erasmus. It also increased the legitimacy of the rationalist enlightenment in Europe that, via an emergent science, slowly began to reject the idea of religion altogether. The slaughter also forced a renewed interest in and acceptance of tolerance as a foundation of civilization, which subsequently influenced later liberal thinkers whose writings created the philosophical foundations for democratic civil rights that applied regardless of whether one was Protestant, Catholic or anything else.
So great was Europe’s slaughter in the name of Christ that it created the very ideas and institutions that we cherish so deeply today. Only, it didn’t do this because religion was so wonderful, but precisely because quarrels in the name of it were so horrible. Religion, in other words, had grown so destructive to European civilization that it had to be caged by secular ideas like the separation of church and state, tolerance and liberalism in order to keep the peace. War wasn’t banished by these developments, of course, but in the West war in the name of religion was. Holy War had thus burned away the old world, and out of those ashes came the world we exist in today.
The lesson here is that those calling for Obama to accept and use the language of Holy War simply do not know what they are talking about. To do that would accept an unleashing of violent passions that, as in early-modern Europe, are not likely to be easily contained. Where it would lead as one side and then the other invoked the Almighty as justification for their killing is no place a loving God inhabits — and certainly no place any right-minded person would want to find himself, no matter how comforting the rhetoric happens to be.
Indeed, Holy War is horror, and only those who don’t know their history would say otherwise.