At today’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama criticized the Islamic State for its brutal atrocities, which seem to be multiplying beyond our ability to express outrage. For example, earlier this week while America was passionately debating whether the Seahawks should have passed or run on second-and-goal, the Islamic State doused a captured Jordanian pilot in gasoline, locked him in a cage, and immolated him alive with a flame thrower. This, shortly after the Islamic State added to its ghastly head count by decapitating a Japanese journalist.
Good for the president to condemn where condemnation is due. But then he couldn’t help but exhibit two tics that are all too common when Westerners talk about Islamic violence. First, he insisted that those who commit violence in the name of Islam are actually “betraying it,” and second, he suggested a moral equivalence between Islamic violence and violence committed by adherents to other religions.
On the latter point, actually, he was much more specific. He cited the Crusades, the Inquisition, and slavery as “terrible deeds” committed “in the name of Christ.”
Chances are you’ve heard such charges before, and not just from the president. How should a Catholic respond? I’ll briefly suggest a four-part strategy:
1. Don’t whitewash the facts.
Get it out of the way first: Christians have done some awful things through history, and we’re going to do some awful things today. We’re all sinners; some of us spectacular sinners. If your critics are expecting you to take a total-denial approach, such candor can be disarming.
As for the charge that Christians have done awful things in the name of Christ, well, we can admit to that, too. History is not devoid of such examples. But, having stipulated to this generally, you can move to the next point…
2. Ask how much they really know about it.
Not long ago I found myself in a dispute with someone who alleged that the Catholic Church used to imprison, torture, and excommunicate people who taught that the world was round (yes, I know it’s actually spherical—save yourself the trouble of commenting). When I asked for an example, he mentioned Galileo.
Now, Galileo’s thing wasn’t a round earth, and he wasn’t tortured, and he wasn’t excommunicated. Plus his “imprisonment” amounted to a comfortable home sabbatical. But apart from these pesky facts, I said, that was a great example.
I don’t recommend you adopt my snarky tone in this case, but I do think it’s useful to call out critics on what is likely their lazy grasp of history and religion. Myths and half-truths abound; they merge and metastasize; with time and repetition they become truisms. The alleged evils of the Inquisition get summed up in a Facebook meme, just another factoid that Everybody Knows.
Since it’s often the case that people making this kind of charge consider themselves better informed than we religious types who prefer faith to facts, it can be highly effective to challenge their ill-founded assumptions. Of course, it’s not fair to expect non-specialists to have a lot of really specific data available for perfect mental recall. But you don’t have to demand that they cite academic authorities. It’s enough to begin by asking, What do you know? Tell me more about these terrible deeds.
There’s a good chance you’ll reveal that they don’t know a whole lot, but are just—whether innocently or maliciously—parroting tired old tropes. Even if (or maybe, especially if) they are well educated, like the president’s speechwriter.
Of course, the next step is to replace their ignorance with knowledge. And that means…
3. Make sure you know what you’re talking about.
Catholic apologetics is, first, an orientation towards the truth. It says that the teachings of the Faith, and the Faith itself, are defensible using reason and facts. Most serious Catholics know and believe enough to have this orientation. We know, for instance, that we aren’t cannibals when we consume the Eucharist, and that we don’t worship Mary as a goddess. Likewise, most serious Catholics know that there is something rotten in charges like those the president made today. Our task in all those cases is to acquire the facts to explain why.
So, study! Learn about the history of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and other events from sources that aren’t just passing along the received anti-Catholic narrative. Learn about what Islam really teaches, and why it is fundamentally different, in history, belief, and practice, from Christianity, and learn these things from sources that put truth above multicultural dogmas or interreligious niceties. Practice conveying that knowledge in a friendly, confident way. Don’t be defensive—your aim is not to kick back at folks attacking our religion, but rather to set them straight in areas where they are sadly misinformed.
Sometimes people will respond to such correction in a positive way. I remember once helping to fill in the facts about the Shroud of Turin for a woman who had only heard that “scientists had proven it was a forgery.” I don’t think she came away quite believing it was the burial shroud of Christ (which Catholics aren’t required to believe, anyway), but she had a new appreciation for the nuances of the case. The facts were more complex than the simplistic popular assumptions she had adopted.
If you have succeeded in opening their minds, the last step is to fill those minds…
4. Build a positive case.
The secularist mindset broadly assumes that all religions are bad, just varying degrees of bad. Secularists’ vague but confidently held notions about the evils of Christianity past fit right into that mindset. It’s important to challenge the foundation for that mindset through facts and arguments. But then it’s equally important to show them how their disdain for religion might be replaced by admiration.
For example, you will have shown your critic how nearly all the Crusaders were not greedy, brutish, imperialistic warriors out to steal land and souls. You will have put into proper historical context things like the Fourth Crusade and the accepted practices of medieval warfare. Next you can emphasize the self-sacrifice of the Crusaders—their willingness to give up their lives and fortunes to liberate formerly Christian lands that Islam had subjugated. Those are the same lands, you might add, where today militant Islam continues to threaten peace, democracy, and stability.
Or, after fighting back with facts on the Inquisition or slavery, you can build a positive case that, in truth, Christianity has been a champion for human dignity for its entire history. Because it views all men as created in God’s image and likeness, it can root human worth—and hence things like law, justice, the protection of the weak—in something transcendent and unchangeable. Christians didn’t invent slavery, but they did reform and eventually end it.
In fact, one of the very few figures in American history who did use violence “in the name of Christ” was a man named John Brown, who thought he was divinely charged to free the slaves by force. But I’m guessing he didn’t figure into the president’s hamfisted equivocations.