The Incendiary Nature of Religious Freedom in America

“Citing America’s passion for independence and the separation of church and state, they predict suspicion and hostility would arise against members of any religious organization whose leadership takes a moral stand against U.S. policy on any social issue.”


I’m reading a book entitled “Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and On-Going Struggle for Religious Freedom,” by Steven Waldman (2019). I’ve just finished the chapters on Catholic persecution in the United States, which reached its peak during the 1920s. This followed a surge of immigration into the United States of 9 million Catholics from 1870-1920, many from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Poland, which upset the religious and political balance of the country. “The share of the U.S. population that was Catholic rose from 5 percent in the 1850s to 20 percent by 1910, and among the religiously active the percentage jumped to 32 percent.” (p. 143)

What strikes the historian are the parallels between anti-Catholic sentiment among the religious majority in America about 100 years ago, and anti-Muslim sentiment among the religious majority in America today. Underlying both were fears that immigrants of minority religions posed a threat to existing religious freedoms, and concerns that primary allegiances would be not to America’s democracy, but to foreign religious leadership. The book makes the point that “missing from so much of the anti-Catholic literature – and from modern-day discussions about Islam and other religions” is “there’s a difference between how a religion might be interpreted through a particular sacred text or encyclical and how it is lived by Americans.” (Emphasis added, p. 158)

In other words, historically at least, the book asserts that sentiment against minority religious groups in the United States typically has been based on false assumptions, unfounded fears, and misrepresentations associated with non-American individuals or groups who don’t share America’s democratic principles, including its religious freedoms. If history is repeating itself, that would mean that the behavior of American Muslims as a group will not resemble the “scare” version of ISIS, nor would American Muslims as a group approve of any acts of terrorism against the U.S.

In the case of Catholic immigrants through the 1920s, as immigrants assimilated into American culture — and as positive characters and role models of minority faiths were promoted and emerged in popular culture — anti-immigrant sentiment lessened or disappeared altogether. The anti-Catholic sentiment that in 1923 motivated 6 million Americans to pledge (as Klu Klux Klan members) “their lives that no son of the Pope of Rome will ever sit in the presidential chair,” is now a (relatively) historical footnote. (p. 154) As of 2018,  Catholic immigrants had successfully assimilated into American society and leadership positions: 5 out of 9 justices on the Supreme Court were practicing Catholics, as well as 31% of the 115th U.S. Congress. (Allyson Escobar, July 18, 2018, “Why Do Catholics Make Up the Majority of the Supreme Court?“)  Further, anti-Catholic hate group membership had waned. According to a story in U.S. News & World Report by Megan Trimble dated August 14, 2017, there remain only 3,000 members of the Klan today — in sharp contrast to the 6 million members in 1923.

Still, many observers believe that new immigration issues facing America today may again ignite anti-religious sentiment against any religious group perceived as a threat to American liberties or subject to foreign authority, whether Catholic, Muslim or other. Citing America’s passion for independence and the separation of church and state, they predict suspicion and hostility would arise against members of any religious organization whose leadership takes a moral stand against U.S. policy on any social issue, including the immigration issue. For example, the challenges made by Pope Francis on the immigration policies of the United States were seen by some as an attempt to exert foreign influence over U.S. citizens and exert religious authority over the authority of a sovereign United States. To the extent such challenges continue, controversy is inevitable and opportunities to incite the public will arise. In 2016, author Maureen Mullarkey observed, “Francis’ personal popularity is largely a function of public perception of him as a doctrinal liberal. But as Americans recognize in Francis an advance man for “world authority”—the concept of a mega-state cached in Vatican minds through recent pontificates—affection for the man will not stay hostility toward the workings of his church.”

Christ offers us guidance in the shadow of potential conflicts with one another. Regardless of whether someone shares our faith, regardless whether they may or may not perceive us as their enemy (or vice versa), as followers of Jesus, we have the responsibility to love others as we love ourselves.

Jesus says, “There is a saying, ‘Love your friends and hate your enemies.’ But I say: Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way you will be acting as true sons of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust too. If you love only those who love you, what good is that? Even scoundrels do that much. If you are friendly only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even the heathen do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)


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