Last night on CNN Tonight, Rick Santorum continued to lay out his position on the appropriate way to address the problem of ISIS and other such radical Islamist groups who are a threat to freedom worldwide. (You can watch a portion of that interview here.) I would like to lay out my understanding of Santorum’s position because I don’t think he had enough time to express it fully in that one program. It’s reasonable for me to assume that I have a good understanding of his view on this having listened to so many of his speeches on this topic. Further, he and I share mostly (not completely) the same values, being both faithful Catholics, so I think I have a better understanding of where he is coming from than the average person does. Having said that, his position and mine on addressing radical Islamism in the Crusade context have disagreed somewhat, but I am coming around to understanding his ideas better, so much so that it is changing how I view all of this. That’s why I feel the need to write about it.
The Crusades: Barack Obama versus Rick Santorum
President Obama made a lot of Christians angry with remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast about the Crusades. Many agree with the president that Christians are in no place to judge the acts of ISIS because of what a relatively united Christendom did 1,000 years ago in the Crusades. That is, take back the Holy Land from conquest by Muslims. My own response to Obama’s remarks was anger on many levels. Mainly, I see the Crusades as having been a good thing, overall, though I understand and even agree with my Jewish friends’ discomfort on the topic in the context of certain atrocities committed against Jews. Rick Santorum conveyed not anger over the president’s remarks but rather disappointment that the president would make a false comparison by (1) lumping today’s Christians in with Crusaders, and (2) viewing Crusaders as being “the bad guys” compared to others who lived at that time in history, including the Islamists they fought.
The only people who really see the Crusades as a positive thing are Christians like myself who have been well-educated on the Christian perspective. Santorum likely falls under that category of people, but unlike many others who see the Crusades as generally a good thing and even consider it as the appropriate response of the West to radical Islamism today, Santorum rejects the idea that the Crusades can, in any way, act as our guide for how to address radical Islamism today. There is irony in that while many conservative Christians see the Crusades as a relevant topic in dealing with radical Islamism, Obama agrees with those conservative Christians that it is relevant. Meanwhile, Santorum disagrees in that he seems to consider the Crusades to be mostly irrelevant in discussions about ISIS in the sense that comparing the 7th-10th centuries to today’s realities is comparing apples to oranges.
It is critical that everyone come to understand why the Crusades period and today’s realities are as different as an apple is to an orange. This difference seems to be at the core of Santorum’s argument about what needs to happen in the Muslim world. Just as Christendom today bears little resemblance to Christendom during the Crusades period, so too must Islam come to bear little resemblance to the 7th century theology that is today spread by ISIS. Unless the Muslim world can develop a modern Islam that rejects the brutality of Mohammed in the same way that today’s Christians have rejected the brutality of the Crusade era, ISIS will continue to lead the Muslim world from a minority position of power.
It is true, Santorum says, that only a small minority of Muslims embrace the use of violence against “apostate” Muslims and against non-Muslims. But given that there are over a billion Muslims in the world, if only 5% of them are violent, that adds up to 60 million violent Muslims. His phrase that there is a “cancer within Islam” is a reference to this violent ideology which, he says, can only truly be remedied in a peaceful manner by Muslims themselves. If ISIS were quoting from a particular imam whose agenda were political, we could give it another name. As it stands, they are quoting the Koran and Mohammed. This is Islamic in nature but that it is Islamic in nature does not mean that it must represent all Muslims. Santorum notes that “ISIS is leading” now, and that it’s time for other Muslims to lead in their condemnation of ISIS.
Faithful Catholics like Rick Santorum and myself have been taught that the age of the Crusades and inquisitions was a very brutal time in which Catholics and non-Catholics alike responded brutally to perceived injustices. One might even call it a barbaric time. St. Louis is among those who became saints during the Crusade period. We can also point to Blessed Charles the Good, St. Demetrius, and St. George as crusading saints. That they were saints who crusaded does not mean that “holy war” is something that we should aspire to today. Rather, it means that given the particular understanding they had at the time, which was a time of cruelty on the part of mankind in general, these saints acted in as holy a manner as could be expected for the time.
Catholics have a record of accomplishing the kind of genuine reform of the Faith over centuries of doctrinal development and a greater appreciation for the love that we view as the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today, a Catholic student is much more likely to honor Mother Teresa or St. Paul of the Cross (who opted not to fight in the Crusades) than to honor St. George or St. Louis. Though St. George and St. Louis are truly saints in every sense of the word, their crosses in life do not quite translate to today’s challenges. At least, not directly. There is no need, then, to worry about a Crusade occurring today in the sense that there are no longer Catholic monarchies and fiefdoms where Catholic rulers can order people to fight in battle. Even if Pope Francis were to order a Crusade, which is doubtful, he would have to contend with the loyalties that each warrior has to his own country. That just isn’t feasible.
Personally, I find it spiritually transforming to listen to Rick Santorum discuss radical Islamism in the context of the Crusades. As a Passionist, I always wondered about the Founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross, deciding not to join the Crusades as he had planned to. My goal spiritually is, in part, to come to that place in my heart as St. Paul of the Cross came to wherein I don’t glorify the Crusades. Rick Santorum’s remarks on this topic have been helping me to get to that place spiritually. We do well to look back on the Crusades as a good thing which united Christendom against a pervasive and murderous evil, but we also do well to understand that crusading was not the mark of perfection, even back then, and certainly is not today. Today, we must make alliances with Muslims who share our desire for a world that is at peace, and we must pray for them as they reform their religion as we have.
Rick Santorum’s vision for addressing radical Islamism today is for us all to avoid looking at the past as a mandatory guide for our future. Rather, we should share a greater message of a united response to radical Islamism. This is a response which must not only include Muslims but to see Muslims as being the best equipped to reform their own religion as Catholics have.
May the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob be our Shepherd from death into life.
Lord Jesus, help us. All our sins, Oh God, destroy. Lord Jesus, help us.