Skip to main content

McDougall – Of Crusaders Old and New

Of Crusaders Old and New

By Walter A. McDougall

Walter A. McDougall is editor of Orbis, co-director of the History Academy at the Foreign Policy
Research Institute, and Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of
Pennsylvania. He is author of Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with
the World Since 1776
(Houghton Mifflin, 1997) and is currently writing a book, with David Gress,
on The Use and Abuse of History.

I have been asked to speak today about "the Crusader State in the twenty-first century," which is
to say, something that may not exist in an era that has not yet begun. [1] I can blame only myself for
this assignment, since I had the temerity to publish a book about American foreign policy called
Promised Land, Crusader State, and to end it with speculations about whether our diplomatic
traditions ought to shape the U.S. role in the world in the decades to come. But I am not going to
talk about the book, lest I give you an excuse not to read it. All you need to know now is my
argument to the effect that Wilsonianism, collective security, promotion of democracy, human
rights, and development, assertive multilateralism, enlargement, and so forth are twentieth-century
novelties, and far from expressing American exceptionalism, they represent a repudiation of it.
From 1776 to the 1890s, U.S. foreign policy clung to four traditions — Liberty at home,
Unilateralism abroad, an American System of States, and Expansion across the continent —
designed to prevent the outside world from perturbing the growth of America as a Promised Land.
And so far from asserting an American mission to reform the world, this old testament of foreign
relations specifically precluded "going abroad in search of monsters to destroy."

In 1898 a new
testament of American foreign policy began to be written when, for the first time, the United States
mounted a white charger and rode off on a crusade to slay the Spanish dragon and save the Cuban
damsel in distress. The colonial acquisitions that followed were justified by an ethic of global uplift,
as imperialists argued that America had not been raised up to greatness only to hide her lamp under
a bushel, but that America now had the means and mission to end violence, export democracy, and
promote prosperity in the less fortunate nations under her care. Woodrow Wilson was an avid
imperialist, and in World War I he universalized the new American mission in the belief that only the
United States had the grace and power to pacify a world rent by revolution and war, and create a
new world order. Accordingly, Americans invented four new traditions over the course of the
twentieth century, representing various strategies for the fulfillment of that noble quest: Progressive
Imperialism, Wilsonianism, Containment, and Global Meliorism, or the promotion of democracy,
growth, and social reform world-wide.

Various mugwumps, nationalists, isolationists, and realists
periodically warned that crusading zeal might breed arrogance and hubris in American policy, and
that a permanent mobilization of American power would erode liberty and civic virtue at home. In
the event, the United States did great good in the wicked twentieth century, thanks to its willingness
to spend blood and treasure to slay imperialism, fascism, and communism. But the United States
also did much that was bad or just ugly, and did harm itself in the process.

The question before us
after the Cold War, therefore, is whether the time has come to take a rest from crusading, as
Jonathan Clarke has advised, and become a normal nation again, as Jeane Kirkpatrick has said. Or
whether this unipolar moment makes America all the more the indispensable nation," and placed on
her still greater responsibilities to design, impose, and police some new world order? I will not
recite all the eloquent arguments made by advocates of an American "benevolent global
hegemony," such as Bill Kristol, Bob Kagan, Senator McCain, Joshua Muravchik, Warren
Christopher, Madeleine Albright, and Tony Lake. Nor will I recite the eloquent rebuttals to their
vision advanced by Clarke and Kirkpatrick, Owen Harries, Robert Kaplan, Michael Mandelbaum,
Fareed Zakaria, Samuel Huntington, Charles Maynes, Charles Krauthammer, James Kurth, or
even myself.

I mean instead to do something wildly tangential to the debate over America’s future
role in the world, but for that reason wildly original. I want to ask what it means to be a Crusader
State, whether the United States is indeed one, and what the history of the original Crusades can
contribute to our current debate. I mean to discuss, not the twenty-first century, but the twelfth and

Last year we celebrated, or lamented, the hundredth anniversary of our nation’s first
crusade in the Spanish-American war. So far no one has noted that July 1999 will mark the
nine-hundredth anniversary of the original Crusaders’ conquest of Jerusalem. Preached by Pope
Urban II in 1095, the First Crusade was a military success, and inspired future popes, kings, and
military orders to launch a score of others against the Muslim world, pagans on Europe’s periphery,
and heretics inside of Europe. But while the various crucesignata, the soldiers who went into battle
with the sign of the cross on their hauberks and shields, justified their campaigns as holy wars in
defense of the Catholic faith, their motives — and those of the popes who exhorted them — went
far beyond self-defense.

The eleventh century — the first of the new millennium — was the best and
worst of times in Western Europe. On the one hand, the Dark Ages had ended thanks to the
Benedictines and the little renaissance promoted at Charlemagne’s court. The marauders who had
vexed settled Europe, such as the Vikings and Normans, and the marchlands of Bohemia, Hungary,
and Poland were tamed and converted around 1000 A.D. In the core regions of France and the
Rhineland, and in England after 1066, the Frankish feudal system had taken root. Agriculture was
booming thanks to the invention of the mouldboard plough, the three-field system, and the clearing
of forests, which meant both a growing population and the surplus food necessary to support towns
and tradesmen. Europe was gaining a self-confidence it had never known, and was primed for the
explosion of cultural creativity that would characterize the High Middle Ages. On the other hand,
Latin Christendom was rent internally by religious dissent and new heresies in the Church, worldly
corruption among clergy and within wealthy monasteries, and the incessant fighting of lords and
knights who, having vanquished all foreign foes, turned on each other. The kings of France were
helpless to enforce their authority over feuding vassals, while in Germany and Italy the Holy Roman
Emperors not only battled local lords, but challenged papal authority by attempting to tax the
church and appoint bishops. The popes had fought back by flinging excommunications in all
directions, decreeing celibacy for priests, and insisting on their primacy to the point of schism with
the Eastern Orthodox Church. But nothing worked — until Urban hit on the idea of a crusade.

Mind you, the Arabs who had swept over half the Christian world in the eighth century were no
longer a threat, and were being slowly pushed back in Spain, while the new invaders, the Seljuk
Turks, threatened only the Byzantine Empire. So no immediate security imperative justified an
expedition to the Holy Land, and while it was a scandal for Christianity’s holiest places to be ruled
by Muslims, Europeans had resigned themselves to that for three hundred years.

What prompted
Urban II to preach a crusade was the excellent, perhaps divinely inspired notion that a holy war far
away might ameliorate all four of Europe’s internal problems at once. Through a crusade he could
reassert papal prestige and authority over the secular rulers, reimpose orthodoxy at a time of
wayward opinions, restore law and order by diverting the restless warrior class abroad, and forge
in Europe an internal unity it had not enjoyed since the breakup of Charlemagne’s empire.
"Christendom possessed in the Crusade Idea an instrument uniquely suited to express its sense of
oneness," while Pope Innocent III confessed (in 1213), "that of all the desires of our heart we long
chiefly for two in this life, namely . . . to recover the Holy Land and to reform the Universal

The capture of Jerusalem and establishment of a Crusader State there was taken by
contemporaries to be providential, but more to the point the pope appeared to achieve his
domestic agenda. The monks who chronicled the Crusaders’ fight for the Holy Land marveled at
their penitent demeanor, as if they comprised "a military monastery on the move," and testified to
their virtue as much as their valor. Back in Europe, the knights so recently condemned by the
Church as violent and lustful brutes were transformed, in sermons and troubador songs, into heroes
of faith and sacrifice which the home front would do well to emulate. And indeed clergy and laity
rallied behind the Crusade with such enthusiasm that Urban had to prohibit many clergy and women
from taking up arms themselves. Meanwhile, the Cluniac reform movement flourished as new
orders of monks founded model monasteries rededicated to orthodoxy, work, prayer, and
abstinence, then fanned out to the people "to infuse secular life with monastic values."[3]

the Church’s pacifist movement, which had long condemned war among Christians, rushed to
endorse what the pope now called milites Christi — soldiers of Christ — and their wars "in defense
of righteousness." In short, the pope hated armies until he found uses for them, after which he
became the most eager interventionist of all. And that, in turn, required a certain tweaking of
inherited doctrine, for ever since Augustine of Hippo the Church had justified violence only in
self-defense or response to injury. But Urban justified the crusade as a literal "war of liberation" —
bellum libertatis — not only for Christians under the Muslim Crescent, but "for the liberation of the
whole church."[4] This was a war for the spiritual freedom of all Christians, not only the physical
freedom of some.

Likewise, since Augustine war had been considered just only if it were motivated
by love of one’s enemies, as when loving parents administer punishment to children for their own
good. Violence could never be just if done in a spirit of hatred or vengeance. But Urban did not try
to pretend that Crusaders ought to love the Saracens; he said only that they ought to be moved by
love of the cross rather than by dreams of glory or gain. In other words, the deployment of
Christian force was now permitted, even in a spirit of vengeance — so long as self-interest was not

And that is why the pope’s absolution of sins for Crusaders and those who supported
them was not just a cynical tool of recruitment, but an expression of the very nature of the
enterprise. To go to Jerusalem was a pilgrimage as well as crusade, and there is abundant evidence
that many knights, who had no scruples about bashing skulls for a province or plunder or just for
the fun of it, now felt serious guilt about taking up arms in the name of the Lord. "Frequently he
burned with anxiety," says the biographer of one Norman knight, "because the warfare engaged in
as a knight [of the cross] seemed to be contrary to the Lord’s command to turn the other cheek . . .
and these contradictions deprived him of courage. But after Pope Urban granted remission of sins
to all Christians fighting the gentiles, then at last, as if previously asleep, his vigor was aroused."[5]

Think now what we have heard so far. First, this Crusade was deemed just precisely because it
employed armed force in the absence of any participant’s political or material interests. Secondly,
the Crusade was needed to reforge an alliance within the West that was falling apart in the absence
of threats: it must go "out of area or out of business." Thirdly, the Crusade was sold as a moral
cause in the interest of "enlargement" of the realm of peace and virtue. Fourthly, an ulterior motive
of the Crusade was to "remoralize" the home front and restore its "national greatness," if you will.
Fifthly, this was a Crusade meant to elevate the leader of the alliance, the Church itself, above all
particularist interests so that it might exercise, as it were, a benevolent hegemony.

We know the
results of the Crusades: huge expenditures of wealth; immense loss of life among Christians,
Muslims, pagans, and heretics; gratuitous, spasmodic slaughter of Jewish communities in Europe
and Asia; the suicidal Children’s Crusade and other "lambs to the slaughter" pilgrimages; attempts at
forcible conversion of Muslims and Jews in strict violation of canon law; and all manner of impure
motives on the part of knights who had often mortgaged or sold all they owned to finance their
quest. Plunder became the primary goal of several crusades, climaxing in the notorious sack of
Constantinople in 1204, and imperialism of others, as when Crusaders dreamed of conquering
Egypt and Syria. As subsequent campaigns aborted, and appeals to virtue and sacrifice lost their
power to motivate, preachers themselves appealed to kings and knights to avenge the deaths of
their kinsmen or forbears. And rather than "enlarging" and purifying Christendom, the Crusades
only served as a conduit for the importation to Europe of Islamic ideas and customs, secret
abominations and gnostic cults, which survived for centuries. Many Crusaders went native, or took
the occasion to indulge rather than purge their own vices. One knight from Aquitaine, the chronicles
record, "went with many others to Jerusalem, but contributed nothing to the Christian cause. He
was a fervent womanizer and for that reason showed himself to be inconstant in all that he did."[6]
His name was William.

And what did it all achieve? The Latin kingdom set up in the Holy Land,
perhaps the most outlandish pre-modern example of state-building, lasted a mere eighty-eight years
until reconquered by Saladin. The strangest of all episodes followed in 1229 when the Emperor
Frederick II, himself under a papal ban, negotiated a treaty that peacefully restored Jerusalem to
Christian rule, thereby making a mockery of all the papal dispensations and military campaigns that
preceded and followed. Frederick’s Crusader State survived a mere fifteen years.

But success no
longer mattered, if it ever really had. Crusading had become a system, an integral part of the
domestic political, social, and religious structure of Europe, a mediator and safety-valve and
blanket justification to mobilize force for all sorts of institutional purposes. Crusades were launched
against the Moors of Spain, Saracens in the Mediterranean, the Mongol horde, and Albigensian
heretics in France, while along the Baltic coast "the Teutonic Knights developed the ‘perpetual
crusade,’ without the need for repeated and specific papal proclamations."[7] The
thirteenth-century scholar Hostiensis "defended the use of crusades against all heretics and political
enemies of the papacy" and advanced "the revolutionary idea that Christendom had an intrinsic right
to extend its sovereignty over all who did not recognize the rule of the Roman Church."[8]

In sum,
once crusading is institutionalized, it ceases by definition (and certainly by dint of human frailty) to
be crusading at all. And the Crusades did not lack for insightful critics inside and outside the
Church, which is why perhaps the most interesting document of the whole period is the systematic
apologia on behalf of the Crusades composed by Humbert of Romans, a former master general of
the Dominican Order. He adumbrated the seven most salient objections to the Crusades, and
rebutted them. I ask you to substitute in your mind the words "democracy" or "human rights" or "the
United States" each time you hear "Christendom" or "the Church," and judge how contemporary
old Humbert sounds.[9]

The first critique holds that to shed blood, even the blood of wicked
infidels, is not in accord with the Christian religion. Humbert replies that Bible passages can be
found to support both pacifism and militancy. The correct way to reason it out is to recall that when
a man is young and weak he gets along by acting humbly, but when mature and strong he accords
himself in manly fashion. So it is with the Church, which in its youth was suckled by miracles and
the suffering of saints, but once grown large and strong, is rightly defended by swords. "For who is
so stupid as to . . . say that, were infidels or evil men to desire to kill every Christian and to wipe
out the worship of Christ from the world, one ought not to resist them?"

The second critique holds
that while it is permissible to spill Saracen blood, one must be sparing of Christian blood. This,
replies Humbert, is spurious. Indeed, "the fact that Christians cross their borders and invade their
lands, although at much risk to their own lives, means that Christian blood is spared, for the
Saracens would spill blood much more abundantly if the Christians were not to do this."

The third
critique holds that Crusades are inviting heavy casualties and defeats because the conditions of war
are much worse for Christians if they sail far away to fight on the enemy’s ground, in short supply,
and in a strange climate. To do thus is to tempt the Lord thy God. No, replies Humbert, such
doubters forget that the Christians are fighting for justice, which makes them fight well, with God as
their helper, whereas the Saracen cause is unjust. But even on human terms, our weapons and
training are better, and our wise leaders would never give battle without good hope of victory.

fourth critique approves only of battle in self-defense, condemning invasion of an infidel’s lands so
long as he leaves us in peace. To which Humbert replies that the Saracens hate us so much that had
we not attacked them on their own soil they would by now have overwhelmed Christendom. What
is more, the sacred land they occupy was once in the hands of Christians, so the Crusaders do not
invade, but seek only to take back their own.

The fifth critique states that if we should fight to rid
the world of Saracens, why do we not do the same to the Jews? Humbert retorts that a remnant of
the Jews will be converted according to prophecy, and in any case the Jews are so abject that they
cannot molest us as do the Saracens. The Jews even help us in temporal things, and pay tribute.

The sixth critique questions the whole point of Crusades, since they will never convert the
Saracens, but only stir them up all the more against Christianity. Hence, the Crusades yield neither
spiritual nor temporal gain. That, answers Humbert, is precisely the point! The fight is for honor, not
gain, and it does serve to build up the Church insofar as God is all the more worshiped and justice
all the more served. Thus, even as a worthy knight will challenge a wicked lord on his own domain
to prevent him from despoiling his yeomen, so does Christendom at large.

The seventh critique asks
whether the Crusades can possibly be God’s will in light of the misfortunes the Christians have
encountered. O, ye of little faith, replies Humbert, you do not know how God acts. In Scripture
God often chastises those whom He loves, but who have strayed from the Law. If certain
Crusaders suffer and fail it is because they fight unjustly, or turn aside into sin, and so even defeats
serve to purge the impure and build up the Church. Win or lose, the Crusades are their own

Now, it is significant that almost no one today, especially the advocates of American global
hegemony, uses the word "crusade." They are unabashed, even militant, in their insistence that U.S.
foreign policy be both moral and forceful, yet they shy from the word "crusade." That is because
crusading is associated with religion and cultural imperialism. It calls to mind politically incorrect
vices such as intolerance, hypocrisy, violence, and greed, and politically incorrect virtues such as
chivalry, gallantry, sacrifice, and faith. Just as it is not only acceptable, but lauded in our Hollywood
culture to practice fasting and abstinence for any reason other than religious devotion, so it is
acceptable to invade, bomb, or impose sanctions on other countries for any principle except a
spiritual one.

How do these echoes of the High Middle Ages resonate, if at all, today? First, I
believe we have discovered what it means to be a Crusader State in pristine theory and practice. In
theory, to crusade means to go far afield to fight for a cause in which you have no material stake.
On that score America is assuredly a Crusader State. In practice, however, crusades are launched
to shore up a leader’s authority, reduce or distract from conflicts at home, forge an artificial unity
among flagging allies, or just put a humanitarian gloss on a political act. On that score, too, America
is a Crusader State. And the Crusades do have something to teach us today, because all those
critiques cited by Humbert remain valid — unless, of course, we infuse America’s civic religion with
a teleological force equal to that of Medieval Catholicism.

Why, then, should Americans enlist in the
crusades preached by today’s benevolent hegemonists? If you accept their logic, we should do so
for the same reasons Urban II offered at the Council of Clermont: to cleanse the earth of the
enemies of our orthodoxy, to enlarge our empire of freedom, to rekindle our idealism at home, to
bolster the unity of the Western democracies and give NATO a mission beyond self-defense.

to preach a crusade is a dangerous thing, for you may just succeed in launching one, in which case
you may encourage fanaticism and black-or-white judgments, and so lose the ability to manage the
violence toward realistic ends and according to the standard of proportionality. To preach a
crusade also risks the opposite result. Like the boy who cried wolf, or the football coach whose
pep talks wear thin, the pope or president who turns every cause into a holy one, every enemy into
a Hitler, every conflict into a genocide, may soon find his audience rolling its eyes and sinking into
the very cynicism he hopes to surmount.

When must the United States act, when must it lead — and
when not? There is no simple answer, especially when our strategic and moral calculus is
complicated by a lack of trust in the president and his motives. Patriotism is the last refuge of a
scoundrel, wrote Samuel Johnson. To do the right thing for the wrong reasons is the greatest of
treasons, said T. S. Eliot. "Lilies that fester smell far worse then weeds," recalled C. S. Lewis,
because the "higher the pretensions of our rulers are, the more meddlesome and impertinent their
rule is likely to be and the more the thing in whose name they rule will be defiled."[10]

That is why,
as America enters the twenty-first century, we would do well to reflect on the malignant effects as
well as the impious motives that tarnished the Crusades of the last new millennium. To be sure, the
Psalmist prophesies, "righteousness and peace will kiss each other" — but only when Messiah
arrives. Until then, to be always righteous means to be never at peace, which is what caused the
thirteenth-century poet, Rinaldo d’Aquino, to lament: "The cross saves the people, but causes me to
go mad The cross makes me sorrowful, and praying to God does not help Alas, pilgrim cross, why
have you thus destroyed me?"[11]

1. These remarks are adapted from a speech delivered at the convention of The
Philadelphia Society, Apr. 24, 1999.
2. Edward Peters, ed., Christian Society and the Crusades 1198-1229
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), pp. xii, ix.
3. Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (London:
Athlone Press, 1986), p. 2.
4. Riley-Smith, First Crusade and the Idea, pp. 17-18.
5. Ibid., p. 36.
6. Riley-Smith, First Crusade and the Idea, p. 134.
7. Riley-Smith, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 10.
8. Louise and Jonathon Riley-Smith, The Crusades: Idea and Reality (London:
Edward Arnold, 1981), p. 29
9. Ibid., pp. 103-17.
10. C. S. Lewis, "Lilies That Fester," The Twentieth Century, Apr. 1955.
11. "La croce salva la giente," in Riley-Smith, Oxford Illustrated History of
the Crusades
, p. 105.


© The Philadelphia Society 2023 | Webmaster Contact

The material on this website is for general education and information only. The views presented here are the responsibility of their authors and do not reflect endorsement or opposition by The Philadelphia Society. Please read our general disclaimer.