At this year's national prayer breakfast in Washington, D. C., the President spoke these words... "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." (President Obama, 2015 National Prayer Breakfast) Full transcript of his remarks can be found here.
There is a widespread lack of knowledge about the Crusades, and misconceptions abound. "Remember the Crusades" is often thrown out as a moralistic sound bite. What is needed is the clearer perspective of what really happened and what in fact the lessons are. For that we must turn to the historians of the medieval age.
Thomas F. Madden, professor of medieval history and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University, is the author of The Concise History of the Crusades. He writes,
"It is generally thought that Christians attacked Muslims without provocation to seize their lands and forcibly convert them. The Crusaders were Europe’s lacklands and ne’er-do-wells, who marched against the infidels out of blind zealotry and a desire for booty and land. As such, the Crusades betrayed Christianity itself. They transformed “turn the other cheek” into “kill them all; God will know his own.” Every word of this is wrong. Historians of the Crusades have long known that it is wrong, but they find it extraordinarily difficult to be heard across a chasm of entrenched preconceptions..." Full article, "Inventing the Crusades," here.
There's more background from Thomas Madden in "The Real History of the Crusades" in this 2005 article for Christianity Today.
Jonathan Riley-Smith is likely the world's foremost authority on the Crusades. His book, The Crusades: A History, (pictured) would be the best place to start to get a clearer understanding of that period in history. He writes,
"As far as crusading itself is concerned, most Muslims do not view the crusades, in which they anyway believe they were victorious, in isolation. Islam has been spasmodically in conflict with Christianity since the Muslim conquests of the seventh century, long before the First Crusade, and the crusading movement was a succession of episodes in a continuum of hostility between the two religions."
And, "...those who are now demanding an apology for the crusades are themselves, without knowing it or understanding how rapidly the ground is shifting beneath them, sharing in a new consensus which is au fond not very far from the war theology they are condemning. A stance that justifies a 'humanitarian' war on moral grounds has placed itself at least in the same field as that once occupied by crusade theorists." See the full article: "Rethinking the Crusades".
Ravi Zacharias responds to the President's comments here.
Finally, Ross Douthat of the New York Times notes, "The first problem is that presidents are not historians or theologians, and in political rhetoric it’s hard to escape from oversimplication..." And, "The deep problem with his Niebuhrian style isn’t that it’s too disenchanted or insufficiently pro-American. It’s that too often it offers 'self'-criticism in which the president’s own party and worldview slip away untouched." Douthat's column can be read here.