Kingdom of Heaven, the recent film based on the era of the crusades, is closer to history than Hollywood usually gets, close enough to make the gaps that remain especially annoying. The depiction of medieval siege warfare is fairly accurate if one allows for the fact that Greek fire didn't really blow up quite that dramatically when it hit. Saladin and Balian actually existed, they did make a pact that allowed for the surrender of Jerusalem on condition of safe passage for the Christians back to Christian lands, and this was indeed an impressive military and diplomatic achievement on Balian's part, for the realistic expectation (given what the Crusaders had done when they took the city a century earlier) was that every last man woman and child would be put to the sword. So far, so good.
You knew the "but" paragraph was coming. But . . . there are patches of 21st century dialog that stick out like sore thumbs, patches of new cloth rather clumsily woven into this allegedly 12th century tapestry. And their overall tendency is to create a subtle, sometimes not so subtle, message: people who take religion--any religion--seriously are a problem. The two noblest people in the film turn out to be the two most secular-minded, one on each side. The sheiks, for example, are going on about how they are going to win because it is Allah's will. Saladin asks cynically, "How often was it Allah's will for you to win before I came along?" Embarrassed silence. "You don't win because it is Allah's will; you win because you are better prepared than your opponent" is Saladin's conclusion. Very powerful because it is of course half true. The Christians are if anything even more idiotic in their belief that God is on their side. All religions are equally bad, the film implies in other words, but some are more equal than others. Balian actually saved the lives of the Christians by threatening to destroy the Dome of the Rock unless Saladin agreed to his terms for surrender, with the implication, "OK, you can slaughter us all, but then you can also explain to the rest of the Muslim world how you let that happen." In the movie he threatens to destroy all the shrines of all three religions--and Saladin replies, "Perhaps it would be better if you did." No commentary necessary to discern the message there!
What we can learn from this film is a little about the 12th century and a lot about the 21st. It confronts us with the way an awfully large and rapidly growing number of our contemporaries feel about religion, plus a view of history read in the light of those feelings. And if we were looking at the phenomenon of religion from the outside, we would probably feel the same way. If people would just be secular, or keep their religion safely bottled up in their private lives, all war and conflict would cease! History--especially half understood history, like what this film offers--presents a huge amount of data that makes those feelings plausible and understandable.
Unfortunately, the presentation of that data by secular-minded and liberal scholars often ignores an equally impressive number of facts that present a different picture indeed. Tragically, the attitude engendered by this tendentious scholarship and the popular entertainment that parrots it cuts us off from our own Founding Fathers and makes it impossible for us to understand what motivated them or what they meant by their own statements about religion. If Christians and other conservatives are going to counteract such views, it will take good arguments and better lives.