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.


Randy Weber, Also Not Hitler

As I’ve explained before, I am largely anti-historical analogy. So you can imagine my reaction when this exploded on Twitter last night.


The congressman has since deleted the tweet, but screencaps live forever.

Obviously, Weber (or his Chief Tweeter) figured he could throw the words Hitler, Obama, and Paris together in order to criticize the president for not attending the Charlie Hebdo rally in Paris last weekend. Rather than make a cogent and acceptable point–expressing disapproval of something the president did (or in this case, did not) do–Weber aimed merely to score buzz points.

Weber apologized, saying “it was not my intention to trivialize the Holocaust nor to compare the President to Adolf Hitler. The mention of Hitler was meant to represent the face of evil that still exists in the world today.” His apology seems to confuse his meaning further, if possible. Simple metaphors using Hitler rarely make sense, extended ones even less so.

Either way, it was a dumb thing to say. There were many comments on the tweet and the apology today, here are some I found particularly interesting:

“When I first saw it flying around on Twitter I figured it must have been from a parody account. But, no, it was real. The analogy here is not quite coherent enough to be outrageous. The common sense rule “don’t draw analogies to Hitler for no reason” does, however, have a lot of force in this context.”

Matthew Yglesias, Vox

“Although Weber remains low on the influence scale in Congress, his Twitter account is quickly gaining a reputation for two things: its lively criticism of the president and its typos.”

Abby Ohlheiser, Washington Post

“For the record, it took six days for a member of the 114th Congress to compare the president to Hitler. The 111th Congress hadn’t even been gaveled in when a member (Broun) did this. To be fair to Weber, though, he was quicker on the Obama-dictator draw in 2015 than he’d been in 2014.”

David Weigel, Bloomberg View

I disagree with Ygelsias on one point. The common sense rule ought to be “don’t draw analogies to Hitler for any reason.” It’s lazy, typically inaccurate*, and at this point solely mindless invective.

*Unless, obviously, discussing a Hitler clone or Hitler Zombies.

The Week NatSec Twitter Stood Still

An unexpected thing happened this week on my mostly foreign policy & NatSec twitter feed: Domestic events took over. People who I follow for the best reporting & analysis Afghanistan, Iraq, defense policy, and conflict around the world were talking about Missouri. The ranks of confirmed foreign policy Twitterati were weighing in on a textbook domestic issue, en masse.

The NatSecverse reacted with shock and anger, as did most across the US.  The difference has been perspective. Pens typically trained on bringing to light violence and conflict abroad were angry to find Missouri in their ink.

The Veteran Twitter cadre seemed particularly riled by the events in and the optics coming out of Ferguson. Their outrage came from experience.

Kelsey Atherton, who covers defense issues for Popular Science, compiled the reactions of veterans to the events in Ferguson into this Storify. It is well worth the read. As he notes in the intro, the general consensus seems to be that “if this is militarization, it’s the shittiest, least-trained, least professional military in the world, using weapons far beyond what they need, or what the military would use when doing crowd control.”

As things calm down in Ferguson, the FP/NatSec twitterverse is returning to Iraq and Ukraine, Afghanistan and the perennial debate over a general lack of coherent US strategy. I hope that Ferguson doesn’t just fade away. Racism, the justice system, and police militarization are big issues needing attention for many reasons. We, as a country, need to do better by our fellow citizens.

Afghan Snails and NATO Plans

Sean Carberry, reporting from the Afghan Election Commission compound in Kabul, perfectly sums up the only good news in his second paragraph before describing in detail what a mess the audit is.

While this is moving at a snail’s pace, at least the process hasn’t broken down completely.

The snail’s pace, however, is a major problem for NATO.

Monday, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters that NATO would need to make a decision soon on how to proceed in (or out, really) of Afghanistan. The September 4-5 NATO Summit in Wales, four weeks away, stands as a likely deadline for NATO leaders to make tough decisions. Rasmussen noted that without a signed security arrangement between Afghanistan and the US & NATO, foreign troops have no legal standing to remain in the country. Obama’s 9,800-troop plan, outlined to some derision in May, depends on a signed bilateral security arrangement.

NATO isn’t the only one with a deadline in mind. Afghanistan’s outgoing President Hamid Karzai has set a deadline for the inauguration of a new Afghan President. Election officials, and reporters such as Carberry, however are doubtful the recount will be complete before September. Would Karzai stay on? Would he step down? Who would mind the fort while the politicians dickered?

Hopefully, NATO’s logistictians have already begun planning. Getting NATO’s 44,000 troops (including 30,000 Americans) out of the country with their billions in equipment is no small task under ideal circumstances. Present global conditions are far from ideal. The impact of the West’s ongoing confrontation with Russia over Ukraine will undoubtedly spillover into the politics of the pullout.

The Northern Distribution Network(NDN) was devised to give NATO an alternative to Pakistan for getting in and out of Afghanistan. Longer and costlier than the Pakistan route, it has served the alliance in a pinch. Two of the three NDN routes rely on crossing through more than 1000 miles of Russian territory. While in the past Russian interests were served by the US war in Afghanistan it is hard to imagine a NATO train passing pleasantly through Russia at this point in time.

The only thing that could make the situation worse is if Pakistan shut down the border, again. I pity NATO’s logistics staff.

Image from the US Army, Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O’Donald.

Murphy’s Law and Occam’s Razor in Ukraine

Wednesday, the National Interest ran a piece by Gary Hart which begins with a dreary comment on the perpetual chaotic state of international affairs.

Crossing Murphy’s Law with the law of unintended consequences produces this: If the worst possible thing can happen it will, and it will probably happen to you.

He goes on to outline that “dabbling in destabilization” is, in general, a terrible idea. Though I take issue with Hart’s subsequent simplified version of American assistance to Afghans fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s (he perpetuates the “US armed the Taliban” myth) the larger premise remains intact. Even with a more nuanced view of US involvement in the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the conclusion that getting involved in other states’ conflicts can get messy stands. Just as concrete is the idea that the long-term consequences of political and military actions, regardless of intent,  cannot be reliably predicted at the outset.

Hart is hopeful that Russia has lost its gamble on the Ukrainian separatists. I am not so convinced. It’s too early to tell when Russia will reap Murphy’s inevitable fruits. As of yet, Russian behavior has not changed significantly and reports indicate that Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has done anything but abate. It is not clear how much control Russia has over the separatists.

US intelligence officials made relatively clear Tuesday the fact that they do not believe Russia had any “direct involvement” in the shooting down of the airliner. The unnamed officials claimed to not know if any Russians were present at the launch and would not comment on whether the crew was trained in Russia. Their statements are as much an American face-saving gesture as they are an indication of Russia’s level of involvement.

All major powers trade arms. And no one buys weapons to build plows with. The French are under extreme scrutiny for their long-in-the-works sale of two Mistral-class assault ships to Russia. One has been built, paid for, and is fully expected to be delivered in October. The French President, Francois Hollande, has threatened to cancel the second ship–but no one really believes him. In another deal illustrating that foreign policy can be awkward, the US recently closed on an $11 billion sale of Patriot missiles to Qatar, which has relatively good relations with Hamas.

The US intelligence officials did note that the most likely explanation for MH17’s downing was that it was a mistake.

Not only does this line of theory absolve Russia of direct culpability, it makes the fewest assumptions–something Ockham would admire. Occam’s Razor, a principle named after 14th century Franciscan friar William of Ockham, states that when choosing among competing hypotheses the one which requires the fewest assumptions should be selected. The concept does not imply that all solutions are simple, but that it is wisest to not make assumptions about complex systems. In the absence of certainty, simple dominates.

In other words, keep your theories simple, your considerations complex, and your use of historical analogies to a minimum.