الاثنين، 6 سبتمبر، 2010

Catholics, Muslims, and the Mosque Controversy

Catholics, Muslims, and the Mosque Controversy

John T. McGreevy and R. Scott Appleby
The New York Review of Books
August 27, 2010

"The American River Ganges," Thomas Nast's 1875 cartoon
showing Catholic priests as crocodiles attacking the
United States to devour the nation's school children

As historians of American Catholicism, and Catholics,
we are concerned to see the revival of a strain of
nativism in the current controversy over the
establishment of an Islamic center some blocks from
Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

For much of the nineteenth century Catholics in America
were the unassimilated, sometimes violent "religious
other." Often they did not speak English or attend
public schools. Some of their religious women--nuns--wore
distinctive clothing. Their religious practices and
beliefs--from rosaries to transubstantiation--seemed to
many Americans superstitious nonsense.

Most worrisome, Catholics seemed insufficiently
grateful for their ability to build churches and
worship in a democracy, rights sometimes denied to
Protestants and Jews in Catholic countries, notably
Italy. In the 1840s and 1850s these anxieties about
Catholicism in American society turned violent,
including mob attacks on priests and churches as well
as the formation of a major political party, the
American Party, dedicated to combating Catholic
influence. This led to novel claims that the US
constitution demanded an absolute separation of church
and state--claims that stem not from Thomas Jefferson
and George Washington but from nineteenth-century
politicians, ministers, and editors worried that
adherents of a hierarchical Catholicism might destroy
the hard-won achievements of American democracy. In
1875, a decade after accepting General Lee's surrender
at Appomattox, President Ulysses S. Grant publicly
warned that Catholicism might prove as divisive in
American society as the Confederacy.

Like many American Muslims today, many American
Catholics squirmed when their foreign-born religious
leaders offered belligerent or tone-deaf pronouncements
on the modern world. New York's own Bishop John Hughes
thundered in 1850 that the Church's mission was to
convert "the officers of the navy and the Marines,
commander of the Army, the legislatures, the Senate,
the Cabinet, the president and all." The Syllabus of
Errors, promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1864 denied that
the Church had any duty to reconcile itself with
"progress, liberalism, and modern civilization."

But a Catholic president was elected in 1960, and today
Catholics hold more seats in Congress than any other
religious body. The Vice-President and Speaker of the
House are Catholics, as are six of the nine Supreme
Court justices.

It took Catholics more than a full century to attain
their current level of acceptance and influence, and
they made their share of mistakes along the way,
occasionally by trying too hard to prove their
patriotic bona fides. (Exhibit A: Senator Joseph
McCarthy, whose name is now, paradoxically, a synonym
for "un-American activities.") But they earned their
place, over the course of many decades, by serving (and
dying for) their country, and building their own
churches, schools and health care systems alongside
public counterparts, which they also frequented and
supported with their taxes.

Meanwhile, American Catholics helped transform parts of
their own church that seemed at odds with the American
freedoms they had come to cherish. An American Jesuit,
John Courtney Murray, was decisive in shaping
Dignitatis Humanae (1965)--the Declaration on Religious
Liberty, in which the Second Vatican Council endorsed
religious freedom for all people. In this sense, the
American acceptance and encouragement of Catholic
parishes and schools once seen as threatening, reshaped
an international religious institution. The late
Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington once
commented on how ironic it was that the papacy had
become the greatest global champion of religious
freedom in the final quarter of the twentieth century.

Historical comparisons are bound to be inexact; but
American Muslims, like American Catholics, are now
building their own religious and cultural institutions,
and they are seeking guidance from a wide variety of
religious sources--some few from jihadists, most from
accommodationists.

Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam at the center of the New
York controversy, is an accommodationist. He claims,
correctly, that the vast majority of the nation's
Muslims abhor al-Qaeda. Moreover, Rauf seeks to
demonstrate that Muslims are no less Americans than are
their Christian and Jewish counterparts. They, too,
pray for (and were among) the victims of the September
11, 2001 terrorists and beg God's forgiveness for
atrocities committed in his name.

Is it imprudent for Rauf and his supporters to locate
the proposed Islamic center so close to the site of
terrible violence against Americans committed in the
name of Islam? In fact the fault lies less with Rauf
than with a debased effort to whip up partisan fervor
around the issue. Must Muslims unequivocally reject all
forms of terrorism--especially those Muslims who wish to
promote full Muslim participation in American society?
Of course. But if the Catholic experience in the United
States holds any lesson it is that becoming American
also means asserting one's constitutional rights, fully
and forcefully, even if that assertion is occasionally
taken to be insulting. The genius of the American
experiment in religious liberty is precisely this
long-term confidence that equal rights for all
religious groups builds the loyalty every democratic
society needs. Certainly American Catholics learned
that lesson long ago.

R. Scott Appleby is the John M. Regan, Jr. Director of
the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at
Notre Dame. John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy
Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the
University of Notre Dame.