The Front Blog

Conversations from the Four Rivers Region

Our Peculiar History of Religious Tolerance

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by Todd Hatton

The vote has been taken and Mayfield, Kentucky will have no mosque, at least not yet, and certainly not in any location with so little parking.  What should have been decided in a formality was rejected on a technicality, but I can’t say that the lack of transparency with which Mayfield’s zoning board first decided to approve the mosque’s conditional use permit is ever a good thing.  On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how anyone can vote their dissenting conscience under the reproving glare of a roomful of one’s neighbors.

Whether or not the results of the zoning board’s vote surprised anyone, or whether or not we approve of the result, it is of a piece with our history of dealing with religious minorities.  I’m a big fan of the notion that we can’t understand our present without understanding our past, and when the controversy over a mosque in Mayfield began to appear, I went back to a book I’d read over a year ago after hearing an interview with the author on Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith program.

Steven Waldman is the author of Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty and the CEO of Beliefnet.com, the largest faith and spirituality website.  The book, in the main, is about the development of the First Amendment, religious freedom, and today’s contention over the separation of church and state.  Waldman, however, begins his book by painting a picture of religion in early America.  It is at once alien to our modern sensibilities and a little too familiar.

For instance, government officials in one state blocked the building of place of worship for one religious minority.  They were responding to what was perceived as an existential threat by a sect that had, in the past, committed atrocities, fought them in wars, and, it was believed, behind the actions of foreign governments against them.

This wasn’t New York or Mayfield in 2010, it was Maryland in 1700.  The subversive sect?  Roman Catholicism.  By 1704, it would be illegal for priests to celebrate the Mass; informers on those priests would be rewarded with one-hundred pounds sterling and the priests would be in danger of a life prison sentence.  Catholics wouldn’t be fully enfranchised in Maryland until well after the American Revolution.

Some modern-day Americans worry over the presence of Muslims in the armed forces.  In 1776, it was Catholics.  In the run-up to the conflict, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton used anti-Catholic sentiment to encourage the colonists to rebel against the British Crown.  When an expedition went into Canada to either bring the Catholic French Canadians to their side or neutralize their threat to the colonies, one Continental Army chaplain wrote, “Had pleasing views of the glorious day of universal peace and spread of the gospel through the vast extended country, which has been for ages the dwelling of Satan, and the reign of the Antichrist.”

Add to this the fears of Quaker treachery (!) and the fact that Jews, once barred entirely from Virginia, could still not hold public office there, and a bleak picture of colonial religious tolerance emerges.

General George Washington would have none of what he called “ridiculous and childish” behavior.  “While we are contending for our own Liberty,” he wrote, “we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of men, and to him only in this Case, they are answerable.”  Waldman says Washington “may have also been concerned about troop morale.  Among the soldiers who had gone to aid Boston in its hour of need were Catholics from Maryland and Pennsylvania.  Washington’s tolerance initiative succeeded.  The practice of burning effigies of the pope apparently disappeared from the colonies as a result…and newspaper attacks on Catholics dwindled.”

It wouldn’t take much to extrapolate Washington’s attitude toward Muslims in today’s military, or toward the presence of a mosque in the Pentagon.  He might even agree with Middle East analysts who say that controversies like that in New York or Mayfield only help Islamic extremists make their case that the West in general and the U.S. in particular is waging a war against Islam.

Things have changed over the intervening 235 years to be sure.  Roman Catholics are now this country’s largest single Christian denomination and can count a U.S. president, a handful of Supreme Court justices and numerous federal, state, county, and city officials among their ranks.  We very nearly had a Jewish vice president, and we’ve had eight Jewish justices on the federal high court.

Muslims are on their way to that same level of integration.  Two, Andre Carson of Indiana and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, are members of Congress, and the sitting mayor of Atlanta, Georgia is Mohammed Kasim Reed.  New Hampshire’s state house can boast the nation’s only elected Republican Muslim, Saghir Tahir.

We’ve come far since the days when Know-Nothing nativists excoriated Catholics and Jews were barred from public office, all under the guise of “protecting” some vague “public well-being.”  If Steven Waldman is right, and we are merely repeating some less-than-admirable aspect of our history, we may yet have far to go before we’re able to fully incorporate these new threads into our American tapestry.

We will not do without guidance, however.  After a visit to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, President George Washington wrote these words: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.  For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

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2 Responses

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  1. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

    prettygoodneighbor

    August 26, 2010 at 12:54 am

  2. Most excellent!!! Intolerance of a personal choice of religion is the worst form of bigotry. I am an Atheist but support everyone’s right to chose and practice their faith. Thank you for your article, I will forward to everyone on my Facebook and email accounts.

    Marty Martin

    August 26, 2010 at 3:32 pm


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