Americans are justly proud of our freedoms, and near the top of the list is freedom of religion. The first amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therof.” Article VI prohibits religious tests for public office. A rich diversity of religious faiths, unprecedented in human history, have lived together in our land and shared a vision of America as a safe social space for the free practice of religion.
That is the dominant national narrative, but it is only half the story. If you look at the history of our country closely you can’t help but notice a counter-narrative, one in which religious bigotry is as American as apple pie. For example, the “nativist’ movement which arose in the 1840’s in response to an influx of Roman Catholic immigrants from Europe. It culminated in the (aptly named) “Know-Nothing Party,” who ran the former President Millard Fillmore for President (he lost.)
The result of this climate of fear was a disgraceful period that saw periodic mob violence, churches burned down, and some Catholics killed. The rhetoric was alarmingly similar to some of what you hear today about immigrants, that they threaten the culture of the country, and about Muslims, that their religious beliefs are incompatible with the American way of life.
In the 1920’s the anti-Catholics, including the Ku Klux Klan, claimed that Catholicism was incompatible with democracy. At that time, the response of the Catholic Church was that the nativists didn’t represent American values as much as they did, since the Catholics believed in freedom of religion. They had a point.
Roman Catholics today are in the mainstream of American life, and constitute the largest Christian denomination in the country by far. It is hard for young people to imagine the rancor created by the presidential campaign of Al Smith, a Roman Catholic, in 1928, or of John F. Kennedy in 1960. In the dominant narrative those ugly nativist impulses in our national psyche have been put behind us.
Sadly, this seems not to be so. The perfect storm of a national immigration crisis and a recession have rekindled atavistic tendencies to fear and hate the Other. In the case of immigration this is not generally cast today in primarily religious terms, as many immigrants are Catholic.
But the raging debate over the proposed Islamic Center in New York shows that religious bigotry lives on. Is every one who opposes the building of this center a bigot? Certainly not. But the conversation is salted with enough starkly anti-Muslim rhetoric to disturb anyone who believes that freedom of religion is a cherished feature of our national identity.
In American life we do not have to like all religions, or believe that they are all true, but we do have to allow them the same freedoms we have to their beliefs and worship practices. The current debate, cravenly inflamed for political purposes, is really about which narrative will be found to be true about us. Are we peaceful, tolerant and generous, or are we fearful, hateful and selfish? Will we be American patriots, touched by “the better angels of our nature?” Or will we be “Know Nothings?” These questions hang in the air.