Muslims: America's New Catholics?

Long before Muslims in America faced ignorance, fear and hatred, Catholics confronted similar reactions. During the American colonial period and for most of the first century of the existence of the United States, many people perceived Roman Catholicism as a religion that threatened their way of life. An annual celebration in colonial Boston burned the pope in effigy while roving mobs repeated anti-Catholic slogans. Given such hostility, few Catholics migrated to the American colonies. (Even Maryland, founded by one of England's rare Catholic aristocrats, had only a minority of Catholic residents throughout the colonial period.) An Irish woman so unfortunate as to end up in colonial Massachusetts died as the first person hung as a witch there. When Catholics began to arrive in large numbers in the United States in the 1840s, they were beaten up in the streets. Today, with Roman Catholicism the church with the largest number of adherents in the United States, Americans no longer find Catholics essentially un-American. Today it would seem strange to suggest that Catholics should not be welcomed in the United States or that their presence would threatening its fundamental values. Yet, just as Muslims are reviled today, Catholics were once the objects of fear and hatred.

Those who hated and feared Catholics thought they had good reasons to do so. Most Europeans in the British colonies were Protestants, adherents of one of the Christians churches founded as a result of the Protestant Reformation or in its aftermath. Some of the settlers were refugees from the wars of religion in Europe that pitted Protestants and Catholics, migrating to American colonies to flee warfare or persecution. In contrast to continental Europe, England's Catholic-on-Protestant violence had been comparatively minor; the Catholic queen known as "Bloody Mary" executed relatively few Protestants in her effort to return England to Catholicism. But English Protestants remembered that history, indeed intentionally reminded themselves of it: beginning in the reign of Elizabeth I, they considered themselves members of a Protestant nation surrounded by powerful Catholic enemies. First the English fought the Catholic Spanish; later their chief enemies were the Catholic French. Much colonial warfare arose out of these tensions, with the French in Quebec and the Spanish in Florida. As a result of these prejudices, the English pitched out James II, their first Catholic king in over a century, in their "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. Afterward, they passed a law make it illegal for any Catholic to inherit the English throne.

Consistent with this fear and hatred, British Protestants thought of Catholicism as an alien faith that aimed to destroy their religion and even their nation. They remembered Guy Fawkes, who along with other Catholics had tried to blow up parliament while the king and the other leaders of England gathered in it. When Bostonians burned the pope in effigy, it was on the anniversary of the Guy Fawkes plot. They understood the pope as an evil and powerful figure who misled his followers with a false religion. Some of the more extreme anti-Catholic rhetoric described the pope as the anti-Christ, a threatening figure from the Book of Revelations. Protestant critics misunderstood the doctrine of papal infallibility to mean that every word out of the pope's mouth was accepted as undisputable truth--a misconception still in circulation today. Although many of these prejudices were largely a thing of the past by 1960, echoes of these attitudes appeared in the need felt by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to promise that he would make his own decision and not follow the dictates of the pope if he were elected president. No previous presidential candidate has ever felt compelled to promise that his election would not put the nation under the thrall of his religion's leader.

The United States survived the influx of Catholics from Ireland, Italy and elsewhere who arrived in large numbers in the nineteenth century. In a major irony in American religious history, Boston--once the epicenter of American anti-Catholicism--is now known as a Roman Catholic town. Pope's Day as the major public celebration has long since been replaced by the St. Patricks' Day parade. It offers small comfort to today's American Muslims that the prejudice and ignorance they confronted today has precedents in America's Catholic past.