SECULAR: Fear of Muslim echoes Protestant hate of Roman Catholics
Imagine there is a religion that people believe threatens the very existence of America.
Waves of its followers are immigrating to the country and many Americans use violence to repel them.
Members of this religion are lynched. Large protests are organized to influence politicians to prevent them from allowing them in. They worship their god in a funny language. Their houses of worship are burned down or raided by the police in search of hidden weapons or abused women.
People were afraid they wouldn’t assimilate into American society; instead, they would obey only foreign religious leaders intent on overthrowing the U.S. government.
Of course, in today’s political climate it sounds like I’m describing many people’s reactions to Muslims. But about 100 years ago, this is how Americans felt about Roman Catholics.
Yes, anti-Catholic prejudice used to be widespread in the English-speaking world, which is predominantly Protestant. If you’ve watched “Downton Abbey,” you’ve seen depictions of turn-of-the-century anti-Catholicism.
Protestantism was part of the political climate of the Anglosphere. The kings and queens of England are also the heads of the Church of England, so religion and politics were the same. If someone was of a different religion, then they risked also being seen as a traitor to the crown. Catholics, by contrast, obeyed the Pope who was seen as a foreign king and a potential threat to the British Monarchy.
Although Americans don’t follow the queen, much of the country was founded by settlers and colonists of various British form of Christianity: Puritanism; Anglicanism; Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism. So, just as we inherited much of our society and culture from the British, the anti-Catholic bias stayed, too.
When John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, ran for president in 1960, he gave a powerful speech defending both his religion and his American loyalty. His election was the beginning of the decline of anti-Catholic bigotry.
The lesson here is that religious discrimination takes many forms. Christians can discriminate against other Christians just as easily as they can against Muslims or Jews. Sunni and Shia Muslims discriminate against each other. Tribal beliefs often lead to bigotry, if taken to an extreme.
Granted, it was easier for Catholics to find space in American society than it will be for many Muslims. Catholics and Protestants at least have the same god and holy book, and most speak the same language. Many have the same color skin, too. Muslims have a different book, different language and are often a different race. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
The history of Christianity is full of persecution. The Romans persecuted Christians, the Medieval Church persecuted heretics and Catholics and Protestants persecuted each other.
Although much of that prejudice has died, the desire to persecute people not like us remains. The language and tactics used to attack Catholics 100 years ago are still around — just in different forms with different targets.
A tool of oppression is just that — a tool. It has no inherent target. It’s all in how you use it. Different people will use the same tools on different groups.
Acknowledging that history repeats itself helps us recognize when we are making the same mistakes we used to. In the current political climate, which has people afraid of terrorists, we can look to how we successfully overcame much of the anti-Catholic bias and learn to work with Muslims, too.
Both religions have a place in our society, which guarantees freedom of belief. It is possible to admit most Muslims are ordinary people while simultaneously fighting extremist Islamic terror overseas.