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In Defense of the Crusader Mascot

Controversy concerning sports mascots has been raging in our culture for the past several decades. Many groups have found certain mascots offensive due to pejorative racial or ethnic epithets, such as the National Football League’s Washington Redskins. The clamor to change these mascots to something more palatable to modern sensibilities has been growing.

This campaign has taken aim not only at professional sports franchises but also colleges and universities. Recently, the University of North Dakota changed its name and mascot from the Fighting Sioux to the Fighting Hawks after an acrimonious process involving an official Nickname Committee and a period of time when the university’s sports teams were simply known as “North Dakota.” The movement to change perceived offensive and derogatory mascots and nicknames includes campaigns targeted at the Christian past—most specifically, the use of the name Crusader. Under the influence of political correctness and a desire to be “tolerant” and “inclusive,” some colleges and universities are changing their Crusader mascots so as not to offend Muslim, Jewish, and even secular students, alumni, and benefactors. 

Almost sixteen years ago, the small evangelical Christian school Wheaton College, located outside Chicago, changed its longstanding nickname (since the 1920s) from Crusaders to Thunder out of a desire to distance itself from the negative connotations the medieval Crusades have for many people. College President Duane Litfin said the change was motivated by a recognition that the Crusades were “not very happy episodes in Christianity” and were “not something we want to glorify.”

Ironically, Wheaton College’s most famous alumnus, Billy Graham, became known worldwide for his “Billy Graham Crusades” evangelistic campaigns, which ran from 1947 to 2005, reaching more than 200 million people in 185 countries. Additionally, Wheaton College’s motto is “For Christ and His Kingdom,” a phrase which accurately captures the motivation of the medieval crusaders. 

Most recently, the small private liberal arts Susquehanna University (which began as the Missionary Institute of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1858), located in Selingsgrove, Pennsylvania, decided to replace its Crusader mascot, the school’s nickname since 1924. The university previously changed the personification of its mascot from a medieval knight to a tiger in a maroon cape known as the “Caped Crusader” in the 1990s.

University President L. Jay Lemon published an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer bristling at the criticism he’s received in some quarters for capitulation to political correctness. According to President Lemon, the main reason the school decided to change its mascot was due to the diversity among students on campus and student exposure “to different cultures and ideas through their travels,” particularly through the university’s Global Opportunities program.

Susquehanna University produced a video with commentary from President Lemon and Ron Cohen, vice president for university relations, along with a history lesson on the Crusades by Linda McMillin, provost and dean of faculty and history professor, to explain the rationale behind abandoning the Crusader nickname. Although the university is focused on conducting a transparent and inclusive mascot-changing process, it is disturbing to note that Professor McMillin’s lesson on the Crusades in the video is based on outdated and erroneous information. Most of her arguments appear based on the work of Sir Steven Runciman (1903–2000) and historians who still rely on his multivolume History of the Crusades published in the 1950s.

Modern Crusade historians have thoroughly debunked Runciman’s work, which even at the time of publication was rooted in dated material and was nothing more than what Christopher Tyerman termed, “a polemic masquerading as epic.” McMillin’s numerous errors on the Crusades include: the belief that they were systematic campaigns against the Jews and indigenous peoples in the Americas; the promise of “guaranteed” admittance into heaven for those killed on Crusade; Crusaders participated for “wealth and glory” and were mostly second- and third-born sons looking for land; Christian holy war and Muslim jihad are fundamentally similar; and the Crusades are the cause for modern-day tension among Islam and the West.

McMillin echoes the familiar myths of the Crusades that began in the Protestant Reformation, were fostered during the Enlightenment, and were enshrined in the modern popular mindset by the secular media.[1] The Crusades were not directed at the Jewish people and were most assuredly not a systematic campaign akin to the Holocaust. Although some Crusaders, most notably Count Emich of Flonheim, participated in Jewish pogroms along the Rhineland in the late eleventh century, their actions were never sanctioned by the Church.

Indeed, Catholic bishops in the cities attacked by these nefarious warriors and protected the Jewish community through words and actions, including offering sanctuary on their own property. The Church never taught that warriors who died on Crusade received guaranteed admittance into heaven. Although some believed at the time that the killed should be considered martyrs, the Church did not endorse this view. Bl. Urban II promised a plenary indulgence for those who participated in the First Crusade (subsequent popes did likewise for later Crusades), which was the main reason most people chose to participate in these armed pilgrimages. An indulgence is the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin whose guilt has been forgiven in the sacrament of confession; it is not a “golden ticket” to heaven.

McMillin’s contention that the Crusades were an attempt by non-first-born sons to gain land and wealth is a popular myth usually found in most history textbooks. However, the research of Jonathan Riley-Smith has shown that the overwhelming numbers of Crusaders were first-born sons who stood the most to lose by going on Crusade. They went because noble families understood the importance of such a holy endeavor.

Deep faith and love in Jesus and his Church were the primary motivators for the vast majority of Crusaders. An understanding of the Crusades that is based on viewing these events through the eyes of the participants and rooted in authentic scholarship leads one to embrace the name “Crusader” as a mascot/nickname. Crusaders were faith-filled warriors, willing to sacrifice their fortune, family and life for the greater good of Christendom and the Church. They went on these campaigns out of love for God, the Church, their persecuted Christian brothers in the East, and concern for their own salvation. These self-sacrificial qualities should be at the center of collegiate athletics. Thankfully, there are institutions of higher learning that proudly utilize the Crusader mascot/nickname, including College of the Holy Cross, Belmont Abbey College, Madonna University, and Christendom College.

An argument can be made for changing mascots and nicknames based on derogatory terms for a group of people, but doing so based on inaccurate history, especially by an institution of higher learning, is foolhardy. The decision by Susquehanna University (and others) to change their almost century-old nickname highlights the need for an accurate understanding of the Crusades—a need that is imperative in our modern world.


[1] I have debunked these myths with recent scholarship from professional Crusade historians in my book The Glory of the Crusades as well as in previous blog posts.  

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