The Crusades and Yearning for Christendom

The Crusades and Yearning for Christendom February 10, 2015

A few days ago, my Patheos colleague Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry asked fellow Catholics to lay off the Crusades apologetics. The piece he links to by way of example — Professor Thomas Madden’s First Things review of Jonathan Kiley-Smith’s The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam — dates back to June, 2009. But I appreciate PEG’s dismay at seeing it enjoy a new vogue on Facebook. Enlightenment and 19th-century historians may have blackened the Crusaders beyond recognition, but that doesn’t mean any 21st-century Catholic should look back to the Council of Clermont and say, “This was our finest hour.”

At the end of his piece, PEG provides a link to his translation of a letter in which Simone Weil confesses her mistrust for “patriotism of the Church.” Weil defines patriotism as “collective sentiments” that appeal to her naturally as a social creature. She wouldn’t have known the word “groupthink,” which was coined years after she wrote the letter, but she seems to have more or less that phenomenon in mind. Maybe it does have some effect on this new wave of Crusades buffs, but I think what’s going on is very different.

Some people are frankly nostalgic for Christendom – a milieu in which the Church played a dominant role in culture and politics. This isn’t patriotism of the Church. It’s a yearning for a state friendly enough to the Church that citizens could enjoy the simple herd pleasures of patriotism along with the consolations of religion. In peacetime, surfing pictures of the Sistine Chapel or listening to Charpentier’s Te Deum stirs happy memories just fine. But, given the outrages committed by Muslim extremists over the past month alone, a shot of something stiffer is needed. Recalling that people once bore arms in Christ’s name, with the pope’s blessing, can seem like just the thing to take the edge off.

Peter Maurice does a little of this in Crisis. After sketching a few scenes showing Arabs behaving impertinently in Paris, he reminds his readers:

Contrary to the comedic cliché about eagerness to wave the white flag at the first hint of aggression, France once had a deserved reputation for valor. When the French were Catholic, their resistance to Islamic aggression was legendary. Before the pornographic cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, there was another Charles, Charles Martel who “hammered” sixty thousand Muslims at the Battle of Tours; and Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, who had similar, if more nuanced encounters with “Saracens.”

Since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, scoring points against multiculturalism has been about the easiest thing in the world. To sound the Oliphant here was overkill, but in fact it’s the whole point of Maurice’s essay. He gives it the title “From Charles Martel to Charlie Hebdo,” which he says represents “the trajectory of French decline.”

Behind this yearning for a powerful and self-consciously Christian state is real logic. Statelessness is a scary state to be in. Once upon a time, National Review co-founder L. Brent Bozell, Jr. made aliyah to Spain – land of Don Quixote and, at the time, Franco. As he put it, “you breathed the Catholic thing over there.” Now that Spain has done away with its public nudity laws, who can hope to catch his breath?

The death of Christendom isn’t news – not even in once-exceptional America. Accepting Alisdair McIntyre’s pronouncement that a new Dark Age is dawning, commentators are recommending that Christians head for the hills. Rod Dreher outlines the “Benedict Option,” where devout believers form close communities in remote places, beyond the reach of meddling secularizers. Patrick Deneen and Michael Baxter seem to be thinking along similar, or at least parallel, lines – Deneen with his “thick…deep interpenetrating relationships,” Baxter with his “local forms of community.” If they have their way, Christians are going to start getting mighty cozy.

I can’t imagine too many people are jumping for joy over the prospect. Joining a creative minority sounds romantic in principle, but — all things being equal — most sensible people would sooner belong to a more or less productive and responsible majority. Even Rod Dreher recognizes that “Benedict Option” communities should be “both relatively open to the world and vigilant about respecting personal liberty.” Liturgical Christians can go Branch Davidian, just like the next guy. If remembering the Crusades fondly is some Catholics’ way of raging against the dying of the light, then I sympathize — provided they don’t bring that rage into the compound with them.

With the Islamic State more active than ever, a more pressing question is how many Christians will want to re-live the good old days by plunging back into Mesopotamia. I don’t know. In fact, I’m not even sure what I think we should do. But debating that issue, at least, would drag everyone back to the real world of current events. Just today, by citing figures purporting to show that Obama’s drones have taken more lives than the Inquisition, Artur Sebastian Rosman proved you can defend Christendom and be a peacenik, too.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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