The Crusades, Jim Crow & the Wisdom of Frederick Douglass

President Obama, in the middle of his 25-minute remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, injected into the conversation a single mention of the Crusades.

From his remarks (bolding mine):

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious [sic] for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion…

In a world of sound-bites, Obama’s mention of the Crusades and Jim Crow have been seized upon by those looking to pin the president with the twin sins of insulting Christians and giving Islam a pass.

From the bastion of the right-wing screed, Breitbart (emphasis on dangerously, his; the bolding mine):

On the other hand, hearing liberals defend Obama is annoying, and those who are doing so should know this: you’re making fools of yourselves over something you should let go. He was wrong – absolutely, completely, and dangerously wrong. He casually and callously insulted Christians in a lazy attempt to reinforce his ideological blindness to Islamist terror. He once again tried to position himself, and his bankrupt ideology of a morally superior State, above all the religions of the world – lumping the one that did the Crusades a thousand years ago into the same basket as the one cited for authorizing the burning alive of a man in a cage last week. (When I say Obama’s ideology is bankrupt, I mean that quite literally.)

The problem is that this reading of the president’s remarks ignore the other 24 minutes of the speech, including the direct antecedent to the single reference to the Crusades in which Obama asks how “we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious [I think the transcript is wrong and he said religions] for their own murderous ends?”

Also ignored is the rest of the speech, in which the president muses on what communities of faith can do to counteract intolerance. He mentions basic humiluty, he separation of church and state, and the golden rule as starting points.

 And, finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths, and people who are still finding their way towards faith but have a sense of ethics and morality in them — that one law, that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated.  The Torah says “Love thy neighbor as yourself.”  In Islam, there is a Hadith that states: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”  The Holy Bible tells us to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Put on love.

The context in which the Crusades comment was made is sound (as is the history). So too is the mention of Jim Crow, another line which garnered an inordinate amount of vitriol from Breibart:

He’d never dream of discussing the way modern slavers like ISIS and Boko Haram are citing Islamic verse right this minute to justify slavery, and he’s not even slightly interested in discussing the immense contribution Christian faith made to ending the slave trade in the West, but he’s happy to score a cheap shot against Christians by dragging out Jim Crow for the zillionth time, while conveniently forgetting to mention what they did to end slavery and discrimination.

No one denies the role of Christianity in the abolition movement, but even Frederick Douglass himself had to reconcile the sin of slavery, committed with religious backing, with the truth of religion, as he felt it. In his memoir, Douglass attached an appendix specifically to clarify his views on religion. Christianity, as practiced in the antebellum South, was harshly criticized throughout Douglass’ narrative.

From a 2007 paper I wrote (for  HIS201: Early History of the US), titled “Frederick Douglass: The Slaveholding Religion” on the treatment of religion in Douglass’ memoir:

Frederick Douglass criticizes Christianity throughout his memoir. He reflects in the Appendix that after reading what he had written he wished to clarify his views on religion. He had no desire to send the message that he was an opponent of the entire institution. Douglass’ criticisms of Christianity lay in its perversion by men to support the cause of slavery. He saw a difference between the “Christianity of Christ”  and the “Christianity of America.” This distinction was subtle, but crucial. Douglass wanted to make it clear there was a difference between what Christianity ought to be, and what it actually was. The name of God was often cited as condoning slavery as well as condemning it. Which side, for or against slavery, was interpreting God correctly? Can any side claim to know God’s will more legitimately than the others? 

One of Douglass’ masters, Captain Thomas Auld, was fond of quoting Scripture to justify his cruelty. Once, after whipping a slave who displeased him he quoted, “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Such a comment, taken directly from Scripture, was common in support of slavery. It establishes that God condones the existence of masters and of servants; slave holders did not make too far a leap in defining themselves as the masters.

Abolitionists called upon the goodness of God and His love for all His children to abolish slavery. Slave owners called upon God, as a protective and sometimes punitive father, to justify their cruelty. Douglass had it right when he drew a line between the “slaveholding religion” and true religion. Both sides called their religion Christian but the slave owner’s claim is destroyed by their use of religion for evil ends.

The end of legalized Jim Crow laws in the 1960s did not, and has not, yet given way to the end of personal and institutional racism. It is not unfair to point out the contradictory ways in which religion has been used in this country to justify all sorts of terrible things, paramount among them slavery.

Citing these examples, the Crusades and Jim Crow, is not an act intended to ignore the modern atrocities of ISIS and Boko Haram. To the contrary, the message is simply that we have been there, had the devil among us, and come out the other side. The struggle going on in the Middle East within Islam is not so unique in the grant scale of human history.

To close, more Frederick Douglass:

I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land… I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of ‘stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.’ I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.

One thought on “The Crusades, Jim Crow & the Wisdom of Frederick Douglass

  1. Pingback: #TBT | Pawns Vs. Queens | Katie Putz

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