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Islamophobia and Religious Pluralism: America's Real History

A brief glance at our country's religious past reveals the difficulty confronting religious pluralism. Our history is replete with exclusions and an ugliness that defy tidy stories.
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Ugliness abounds. It is to be somewhat expected given these trying times. Americans are struggling, and those struggles have added a sense of edginess to our public life. It doesn't feel like politics as usual. Something lurks beneath. I believe that it is the human tendency, in moments of loss that seemingly exceed the capacities of those who endure them, to lash out, to scapegoat others, and to seek comfort in some variant of fundamentalism. And the rising tide of Islamophobia in the US is its latest expression.

The arguments against the "mosque" at Ground Zero afford us an opportunity to understand ourselves and our history a bit better; they shed light on our national propensity (one could even say our habit) to lose sight of our values in the face of our prejudices.

My good friend, David Wills, writes that "the most common way of telling the story of the United States' religious past is to center it on the theme of pluralism and toleration -- the existence of religious variety in America and the degree to which it has been tolerated or affirmed." Indeed, from the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock to the adoption of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state, the story of our religious life is one where we place religious liberty and toleration of religious difference at the forefront. President Obama took himself, I believe, to be invoking this powerful narrative of our cherished values when he addressed the issue of the "mosque" at Ground Zero. He failed to mention how we have repeatedly turned our backs on those values.

A brief glance at our country's religious past reveals the difficulty confronting religious pluralism. Our history is replete with exclusions and an ugliness that defy tidy stories. I would even go as far as to say that at no point in our nation's history have we accepted fully the mere fact of our religious diversity. To be sure, in our early history, Protestants came to accept doctrinal differences among themselves as a kind of tolerable diversity, but rarely did they extend this tolerance to others, like Catholics or Jews, on the same basis.

When, for example, George Washington assumed the presidency in 1789, many worried about the nation's commitment to genuine religious liberty. Could such a commitment survive the political realities? Roman Catholics were keenly aware of the force of laws against popery and against receiving immigrants from Catholic countries. Some even wrote President Washington, congratulating him on his election and inquired concerning their status under a new form of government. On March 12, 1790, Washington replied that he hoped to see "America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality." In response to Newport's Hebrew congregation, which asked if the new nation would continue to "offer an asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and religion," Washington replied that we no longer speak of "toleration" but rather of "inherent rights," and that "happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

Washington's belief that an age of intolerance had passed away, however, betrayed a naïve optimism about this fragile democracy. Obviously he knew of many forms of bigotry, religious and otherwise, in the new nation. Perhaps, like Jefferson and Madison, he hoped that enlightened persons would eventually shed such prejudices and be satisfied to practice their religion in private. But we know this was not the case.

We should situate the Islamophobia sweeping the nation within the larger context of American religious history. There we see the difficulties surrounding religious and cultural differences that have always presented a challenge to many who claim to be committed to democracy. No innocence resides there. The fact remains most Americans view the United States as a Christian nation (we need only note that 80 percent of Americans call themselves Christian, 72 percent believe in the second coming of Christ, and about 40 percent say that they talk to God on a regular and intimate basis), and this belief effectively undermines our commitment to religious pluralism, especially when cultural conservatives seek to make their beliefs national policy.

The reality is that Christian commitments have always, for good or ill, informed American public debate. They will continue to do so. The problem now is that a particular interpretation of the Christian tradition parades around as if it were the only possible interpretation. This narrow view often runs afoul of our democratic commitments and sanctifies bigotry. Ugliness abounds. It isn't new, and Islamophobia is part of it. This is the time when we have to try to make the rhetoric of religious tolerance real. We need a compelling counterexample to this narrow (and ugly) understanding of Christianity. And, if we can't do that, then I stand with James Baldwin: "If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him."