Save the Crusader

Holy Cross Crusaders merchandise (Image: Holy Cross Athletics via YouTube)
In defense of Holy Cross’s beleaguered mascot

My alma mater, the College of the Holy Cross, is having a “discussion” about whether to abandon the Crusader as its mascot. Alumni who want to keep the Crusader can only hope that the process will be characterized by open-minded reason, searching inquiry, and the College’s shared Catholic faith, and that the process undertaken by the Board of Trustees is not mere window-dressing on a decision that has already been made.

Now, “crusade” is a word of many meanings, adopted often in our culture to mean a great moral venture. The Crusader can also be seen as simply embodying the same sort of warrior ethos that leads many schools and professional sports teams to name themselves Braves, Cavaliers, Vikings, Knights, etc. But the Holy Cross Crusader is unambiguously an armored, sword-wielding, cross-bearing icon of the Christian knights of the Crusades, so I’ll address the controversy on those terms.

My argument proceeds in three parts. First, community and tradition are particularly important to Holy Cross, and we should not allow anti-Catholic bigots like the Ku Klux Klan to dictate our Catholic identity. Second, much of the modern critique of the Crusades themselves is ignorant and ahistorical. Third, a decision to jettison the Crusader on strictly ideological lines would be a dire sign not only for the future of the College’s Catholic identity but also for the future of intellectual exchange on its campus.

Holy Cross’s Catholic Community and Tradition

Few colleges, even small liberal-arts colleges, can rival Holy Cross for its sense of community and its bond of tradition across generations. Without a vast endowment, state support, or connection to a large research university, this multi-generational bond is vital to the College’s financial viability, the opportunities open to its graduates, and its high academic standing. But it’s more than that. It gives students and alumni a sense of family and belonging to something larger than oneself that is desperately needed in today’s society. The unbroken line of Crusaders on Mt. St. James for as far back as anyone living can remember is part of what makes Holy Cross a family.

In fact, the importance of community and tradition runs deeper. Holy Cross is open to people of all faiths (or no faith), but its original and ongoing purpose and mission, from 1843 to today, is to provide for a rigorously educated Catholic population. The distinctively Catholic identity of the Crusader has been a part of that mission for nearly a century. Of course, tradition alone is no reason to retain a practice that is offensive. But 700 years after the fall of the last Crusader state, who could still be offended by the mascot? Only those who would already be offended by the name “Holy Cross” and the in hoc signo vinces motto of Constantine.

Breaking the bond with Holy Cross Crusaders of many generations is a drastic step that the College should not take merely to gain the passing approval of those who would never make peace with its Catholic identity anyway.

Some history is in order. So far as I can tell, the current controversy began with some misdirected mail. The Crusader (the school newspaper, for which I was a weekly columnist from 1989–93) received in early 2017 “an editorial from an entity not associated with the College” on the topic of “white genocide.” 48 members of the faculty sprang into action with an open letter:

In response to the growing anti-Muslim tensions in our country, and to the fact that the Ku Klux Klan official newspaper shares the same name as our own, we the undersigned faculty members encourage the Editorial Board, and the Holy Cross student body in general, to initiate a discussion about changing the name of the Holy Cross student newspaper “The Crusader.” . . . We question the value of a connection to names and imagery that are often used by others in ways counter to our mission and goals.

In fact, the Crusader has been the school mascot informally since about 1920 and formally since 1925, and the name of the school newspaper since 1955 (it was previously The Tomahawk). The Klan, long the nation’s most prominent anti-Catholic organization, seems to have appropriated the name only within the past two decades, though David Duke’s paper apparently also used the name from 1973–78. Allowing the Klan to drive us away from our own, much-longer-established identity would be a terrible example to set.

We should not so easily cast aside the sensibilities of those who saw threats to the faithful clearly and refused to bow to them. We may need that spirit again.

1925 is not an accidental date. Holy Cross teams were known as “Crusaders” in the popular press for a few years before the student body voted on October 9, 1925 to formally adopt the moniker. This was roughly the same era in which Notre Dame embraced the “Fighting Irish” label, which first originated as a taunt. It was an era of Catholic political and social awakening in America, culminating in the first (unsuccessful) Catholic major-party presidential nominee, Al Smith, in 1928. In June 1925, the Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling on behalf of a Catholic order of nuns, struck down a Klan-backed anti-Catholic Oregon law requiring all children to attend public, not religious, schools.

The Oregon law, designed to be a nationwide model, was a symptom of the national resurgence of the Klan. The original Klan of the 1860s and 1870s was a secret society dedicated to disenfranchising freed African Americans in the South through a reign of terror. That goal was already established by force by the 1920s, so while it never stopped proclaiming white supremacy, the Klan’s pretensions to becoming a national political movement required a shift in focus to antagonism toward “foreign” and immigrant Catholicism. For a time, this shift succeeded: The organization boomed for a few years in the North and West, outside its native South, to the point where the 1924 Democratic National Convention was known as the “Klanbake” for the large and open Klan presence. In this atmosphere, it is not surprising that Catholic schools like Holy Cross and Notre Dame embraced the slurs and proudly proclaimed their heritage in combative terms as “Crusaders” and “Fighting Irish”.

Today’s Catholics may not see themselves as similarly scorned by the world for their faith and its traditions, but we should not so easily cast aside the sensibilities of those who saw threats to the faithful clearly and refused to bow to them. We may need that spirit again.

The Historical Crusader

A school mascot need not be a positive role model, even at a Catholic college. Notre Dame’s Leprechaun is a belligerent ethnic stereotype; Seton Hall’s Pirate is surely not an admirable figure. But the name “Crusaders” connects Holy Cross to Catholicism’s past: to a time when Christians were embattled and surrounded, and fought back. Both the ideals and the failings of that era should humble us. The healthy response to the history of the Crusades is to keep its memory alive, not bury it. We are more than our traditions and our history, but knowing where you come from is the first step to wisdom.

Modern critics of the Crusades tend to make the fundamental error of analyzing medieval people through the lens of the modern world. We live in a world where Western civilization has thoroughly dominated non-Western peoples militarily, economically, and technologically for the past four to five centuries, so naturally we think in those terms. The Crusades are thus denounced as an example of European imperialism and colonialism.

This would have made no sense to the crusading Europeans of the eleventh, twelfth, and 13th centuries. Six centuries removed from the fall of Rome, the European Christians of the late eleventh century lived in a world where Christian societies had been on the run from the armies of Islam for 450 years, and ruled no lands to speak of outside Europe. The Muslim conquest by force of the homeland of Christianity began early, with an invasion of Byzantine-held Palestine just two years after the death of Muhammad. Jerusalem fell in 638; by the end of the 7th century, the ancestral homelands of Christianity, from Antioch and Damascus in the Middle East to Alexandria and Hippo in North Africa, had been conquered and subjugated. Constantinople itself barely repelled successive sieges, and the first Islamic state was established in the Caucasus in 736.

The conquering march of Muslim armies against Christian lands continued into Europe over the next four centuries from all directions. Spain, Sicily, Crete, Cyprus, and even southern Italy all fell under Islamic rule. Invading Muslim armies made it halfway into France before being stopped at Poitiers in 732. Rome — including the old St. Peter’s Basilica — was sacked by an invading Muslim army in 846. By some estimates, at the high-water mark of Islamic expansion, Muslims ruled two-thirds of the old Christian world. Pope John X, in a move that presaged the Crusades, put an end to Muslim invasions of Italy by personally leading an army against them in 915.

The immediate trigger for Pope Urban II to call for the First Crusade in 1096 was another military setback, the Byzantine loss of most of Asia Minor to the Seljuk Turks beginning with the 1071 Battle of Manzikert. It was then that the Pope received an urgent request for help from the beleaguered Byzantine emperor. As subsequent events would show, Constantinople was a crucial defensive bulwark for Europe; once the Ottoman Turks got around it in 1348, they swiftly conquered many Christian lands in Greece and the Balkans, and would launch successive attacks on Vienna in 1529 and 1683. Urban II was also concerned about the treatment of Christians, Christian churches, and Christian pilgrims in the conquered lands. The call went out to crusade.

The Popes and the Crusaders saw themselves as participants in a venture that was part defensive struggle to preserve Christendom, part mission of mercy to conquered and occupied lands, and part pilgrimage (members of the early Crusades took a vow to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). Even after the success of the First Crusade established fragile new Christian kingdoms in the Levant, the defensive posture of Christendom would hold constant through the Holy Leagues that fought as successors to the Crusaders in stopping the Ottoman advance by sea at Lepanto in 1571 and by land at the Siege of Vienna in 1683.

The Crusades were often brutal on all sides, but the Crusaders were not regarded at the time as unusual for medieval warriors.

Some Crusaders sought plunder or new lands and titles, but for most, the passage to the Holy Land was a sacrifice: expensive, risky, hot, disease-ridden, and often miserable. Nobles sold off lands to make the journey, and kings risked losing control of their realms or being invaded by neighbors while away. Aging rulers like Frederick Barbarossa and King Louis IX of France died on campaigns of disease and drowning when they could have stayed home enjoying their thrones in luxury. Richard the Lion-Hearted had some of his French lands taken while he was on the Third Crusade. Kings and emperors in particular sometimes had to be shamed by the clergy into crusading, as when Saint Bernard of Clairvaux asked Emperor Conrad II in a homily how he would answer Christ at the Last Judgment for failing to repay all the earthly blessings he had received.

Like any ambitious venture, the Crusades sometimes ran away from the control of the Church, at times with appalling results. Pogroms against the Jews of the Rhineland were launched at the time of the First Crusade by lords and knights who never joined an actual Crusade abroad. The Fourth Crusade, deeply in debt to shipbuilders from the outset, got drawn into Italian and then Byzantine internal politics in order to repay Venice and obtain allies against the Muslims, and ended up sacking Constantinople in 1204 after a friendly new emperor the Crusaders had installed was ousted in a coup. Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, hijacked the Sixth Crusade to gain the crown of Jerusalem for himself. All of these acts were denounced at the time by the Church, not only because they were wrong, but also because they diverted energy away from the main goal. Some resulted in excommunications, such as that of Frederick II. They stand as a useful reminder that good intentions alone do not keep human institutions and endeavors from falling into sin.

The Church has explicitly apologized for some of the worst abuses committed in the name of the Crusades, like the pogroms and the sack of Constantinople, and Pope John Paul II called more generally for Christians and Muslims alike to repent for a long history of armed conflict. But it has never renounced the Crusades. Indeed, it has canonized multiple saints who fought or preached the Crusades, from King Louis IX (who led the Seventh and Eighth Crusades) to Bernard of Clairvaux (the driving force behind the Second Crusade) to Pope Gregory VII (the predecessor of Urban II who first suggested a Crusade to the East). A great many inhabitants of the Crusader kingdoms were ultimately martyred for their faith, as the Egyptian sultan Baibars massacred the inhabitants of Antioch and Acre in pursuit of an openly genocidal policy of ridding the area of Christians.

The Crusades were often brutal on all sides, but the Crusaders were not regarded at the time as unusual for medieval warriors. Muslim histories of the region had largely forgotten them and the wars they fought until the arrival 500 years later of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798 kicked off the era of colonialism in the old Christian heartland. The real Crusaders were not 19th century imperialists; some were saints, all were sinners, but most were leaving behind the easy path to pick up their crosses to follow Christ. Maybe that’s not the worst idea to promote these days.

The Ideal of Liberal Education

The fundamental question facing Holy Cross and so many other American institutions of higher learning today is what kind of college it should be. If a Catholic identity, Catholic tradition, and a predominantly Catholic student body are no longer things to be desired, and are sources of more embarrassment than pride, then of course the Crusader should join them on the last train out. I hope that is not where the College wants to go, but discarding the Crusader, on the heels of adopting a new primary logo that replaces the cross with the sun, would send a signal that the College is ashamed to identify with the Church when the skies are cloudy.

Out:  In: 

Even aside from the question of Catholic identity, colleges and universities across the country face a time for choosing. On the one hand is the tradition of liberal education, free inquiry, and open debate. On the other is a stifling left-wing political conformity that declares an ever-increasing number of topics and points of view out of bounds, and demands ritual “woke” renunciations of the Western patrimony.

The Crusader, precisely because it represents that tradition in a form that is now deemed politically incorrect, is a visible symbol to those inside and outside of the College that the latter approach has not closed the mind of the campus. Holy Cross need not endorse everything the Crusader stands for; so long as that symbol remains, it is a statement that the ideals and the traditions of the West and Christianity should at least still be granted a hearing and not rejected out of hand.

This is a quality-of-education issue and an issue of preparing students to re-enter a world outside of academia after they graduate. But it’s also a competitive advantage for Holy Cross to keep a visible symbol of its rejection of the orthodoxy that pervades so many of today’s colleges and universities. American education should always be diverse enough to have room for a Crusader. In hoc signo vinces.


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