Christianity Today is running an interesting interview with historian Jonathan Den Hartog. Den Hartog compares nineteenth-century American anti-Catholicism to the recent flap over Muslim immigration. Here is a good example of how historians can bring some perspective to contemporary debates.
How is the place of Islam in America today analogous to the place of Catholics in the past?
One way is this concern for authority in the nation. The American ideal would be that citizens have to be self-governing and not dependent on outside forces. This was always the criticism of Catholics, that they were dependent on direction from the Pope and from their priests. This is an ongoing criticism of American Muslims. I’ll hasten to add that it’s not necessarily accurate, criticizing Muslims as having an outside authority—that they’re bound by the Qur’an, which would be seen as an antidemocratic document. Of course there’s no formal structure in Islam, but some of the passages in the Qur’an, if interpreted literally, would seem to be antidemocratic and, hence, against American republican values.
Secondly, trustworthiness: Are they just a secret column or can they be full citizens?
Let me add a third. What is the mental picture of the nation? What’s the desired composition of the nation? Just as 19th-century Protestants wanted a Protestant nation, you see still this desire for a Christian nation. The sociologist Will Herberg said after the 1950s that we’re a nation of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Okay. Does that mental picture also extend to Muslims? And I think many critics of Muslim immigration would say no.
The countercurrent, of course, is Barack Obama in his inaugural address when he said we’re a nation not only of Christians and Jews but of Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims, and even believers in nothing at all. There are strong competing voices here between those who want a strong religious definition to citizenship and those who want to define America as entirely neutral on any religious claim. I think that’s really the debate that’s going on right now.
I have seen evangelicals come down on both sides of this. Richard Land, for instance, has had some public pronouncements about, for instance, the Ground Zero mosque. On the other hand, he also has issued declarations in support of immigration. So there might be a separation between the questions over immigration and questions over religion.
Can we learn anything from the 19th-century experience? It seems, ultimately, that intimidation doesn’t work, that the church does not at all present a gospel face when trying to use power to intimidate minorities, but it has a much greater influence when it accepts immigration realities and seeks to work missionally in those groups. That seems to be much more productive than looking to take over the arm of the state to achieve a religious goal.