Carrie Robinson, religious studies and anthropology
DePauw University, Greencastle IN
Faculty advisor: Professor Jason Fuller
Since the arrival of the Mayflower, the United States has self-identified as a utopia for religious freedom. This romanticized thought can be interpreted to mean that while other religions may be legally allowed to reside and worship within America, Protestants will always reign supreme, at least in their own eyes. This essay aims to bridge the gap between a past religious xenophobia towards Catholics and a newer fear of Islam, while exploring Protestant motivations behind the persecution of the Other. Anti-Catholic sentiments are not dead yet, but the attention has shifted to a new group: Muslims. Religious xenophobia is not a new concept in the United States, but 9/11 has ushered in a new wave of Evangelical Protestant satanizing of the Muslim Other in order to promote their own faith as the ultimate truth and maintain their status as the religious majority of the country. Evangelical groups are often seen as fringe groups, but there is no question that some of their viewpoints still manage to penetrate the mainstream, Protestant-based, American society.
Protestant Evangelicalism is difficult to define since groups do not always self-identify as Evangelical. Historian David Bebbington identifies members of the group by their Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism, and Activism. This paper defines Evangelicals as members of any Protestant denomination emphasize on the words of the Bible and conversion from other faiths. Signs that may indicate Evangelicalism include picketing, apocalypticism, and considering themselves as “born again.” American Evangelicals usually fall to the far right of the political spectrum. It is important to note that while more moderate media may portray Evangelical groups as spewing hate speech, this population believes that they are preaching the truth and word of God under His command. Evangelical groups do not represent the Protestant population in America as a whole, but some of their ideas have been manifested into the everyday lives, beliefs and actions of the mainstream.
The United States was supposedly founded on the ideals of religious freedom, stemming from the first arrival of religious pilgrims from Europe. Some may argue that this religious freedom barely extends to those outside of various Protestant sects. Ironically, even after fleeing to America to avoid religious persecution in Europe, the settlers discriminated against non-Protestants and banned them from some of the colonies. After America gained independence, Catholics played a limited role in the politics of the time. Not all leaders agreed with this form of discrimination; Thomas Jefferson supported religious freedom, saying “but it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Author Kenneth Davis shares, “America’s early leaders were models of virtuous tolerance, and American attitudes were slow to change.” Although many leaders promoted religious tolerance, not all Protestant Americans agreed.
1891 saw undoubtedly the most extreme form of anti-Catholic sentiments in the form of the largest mass lynching in American history. Eleven Italian immigrants from Sicily were lynched in retribution for the murder of a prominent New Orleans police chief. During this time, anti-Italian and anti-Catholic sentiments often overlapped. This complex event saw political turmoil as Italy cut off diplomatic relations with the United States. Though the legal guilt of the Sicilian men remains ambiguous to this day, their perceived blame led to the formation of a mob, which killed many of the suspects by lynching. None of the killers were punished for their actions in the violence and murders. While the lynchings in New Orleans only served to perpetuate negative stereotypes of Italian Catholic immigrants, the Italian and American governments did agree that they were to be treated equally in the United States. Though this was not necessarily enforced on the public scale, at least legally the Italian Catholic immigrants were to be subjected to the same rights as white, Protestant Americans.
Over 100 years ago, the remaining intolerant Protestant population gained a new foothold in the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan, which thrived in their opposition to many newly arrived immigrant groups, including the Italian Catholics. The KKK tradition of burning crosses was meant as an offense aimed at the symbol that Catholics regard so highly. Though all Christian groups have a reverence for the cross, many Evangelicals argue that Catholics worship both the cross and saints as idols. The KKK and other Protestant groups seemingly forgot that the Catholic Church follows the same Ten Commandments, which views the worship of false idols as a sin. Even outside of the KKK, many Americans were open about their hatred of Catholics and postings of anti-Catholic literature were common.
Widespread skepticism of Catholicism was most apparent surrounding the presidential election of Catholic nominee, John F. Kennedy. In order to win the hearts of Protestant voters, Kennedy had little choice but to declare his loyalty to the nation over his faith. While Evangelist worshippers are encouraged to spread their faith through verbal promotion, they do not encourage staunch piety of Catholics. A former conservative Evangelist Lutheran Reverend turned Catholic priest, Richard John Neuhaus says of a more modern American society, “one of the most acceptable things is to be a bad Catholic, and in the view of many people, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.” Kennedy’s speech not only worked to instill confidence among Protestant voters about his supposed lack of piety, but also spoke out against religious intolerance. He was well aware of the American fear of the newest Other, stating that “today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.” Many believe the election and widespread likability of a Catholic president served as a stepping-stone toward the road to acceptance of a Catholic Other. While it may be true that xenophobia aimed at Catholics has died down significantly, JFK remains our only Catholic president. Anti-Catholicism is still prevalent in pockets of American society today, but it is not a major source of discrimination as it once was. Although generally seen as acceptable in modern America, it is no secret that the Church still has its Evangelical enemies.
Self-declared Evangelist, David J. Stewart, runs a blog, featuring connections between the Catholic Church and Satan, stemming from criticisms of idol worship. He focuses on the Virgin Mary, saying, “Feminists in particular are drawn to Catholicism, because the false cult centers around idolatrous worship of the woman Mary.” According to Stewart, the Catholic tradition of praying the Rosary is “straight out of the pits of Hell” since Jesus also “condemned vain repetition.” Stewart’s blog speaks against the Vatican, saying most pointedly that “Catholics have churchianity without Christianity, and religion without truth.” He explains “from the cradle to the casket, the Catholic Church offers people a package deal; but it’s a guaranteed road straight into the depths of Hellfire and Damnation.”
These views may be on the extreme fringe of the Evangelical population, but many Protestants do criticize the Catholic Church in a more benign way. Most Catholics would consider themselves Christians, but not all Protestants see them as worthy of that label for the very same reasons highlighted by Stewart. While many judgments about the Catholic Church may be spoken behind closed doors, intolerance for Muslims is less discrete. CNN’s Ed Falco warns, “We’ve forgotten the depth of prejudice and outright hatred faced by Italian immigrants in America. We’ve forgotten the degree to which we once feared and distrusted Catholics. If we remembered, I wonder how much it might change the way we think about today’s immigrant populations, or our attitudes toward Muslims.” While anti-Catholic sentiments are far from eradicated, Evangelical groups are shifting their focus to Muslims. This newer Islamophobia is just a nuanced variety of Protestant Othering throughout American history. Religious studies professor, Phil Dorroll shares “Islam was often presented as the archetype of tyranny, along with Roman Catholicism. It was also common to describe Islam and the Roman Catholic Church as Antichrist, as they were believed by early American Protestants to be representative of all the tyrannical values of the old world that American revolutionaries were working to overcome.”
Although anti-Islamic sentiments are not exactly modern, 9/11 served as a major turning point in American society as the threat of terrorism closed in on the nation. Like Catholicism, xenophobia towards Muslims stems from the founding of America. Islam was nearly eradicated as slave owners forced their slaves to convert to Christianity. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the United States saw an influx of immigrants who were welcomed only after revoking their support for the Sultan. In the first half of the 20th century, Middle Eastern immigrants found it increasingly difficult to gain entry as well as American citizenship. The greatest tragedy in our country served as a catalyst for suspicion of Muslims, a fear of terrorism, and a weariness to accept any immigrants from the Middle East, regardless of their religious affiliation. 9/11 created a tidal wave of Islamophobia, a political term which lumps fears of terrorism into a manifestation of hatred towards Muslims.
The plethora of hate crimes against Muslims in the United States in recent years makes it difficult to find one event to compare to the 1891 lynchings of Catholics. CNN Religion Editor, Daniel Burke laments “Muslims have been shot and killed, execution-style, in their living rooms and outside of their mosques… They have been beaten in their stores, in their schools and on the streets.” The numbers of hate crimes against Muslims in America have also been proven to spike after major terrorist incidents, and tripled after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. These numbers seem to correlate to an increasingly negative public opinion judging from statistics from the past 15 years. The media has also been penetrated by this negativity and stereotyping judging from the fact that “the portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the New York Times was more negative than cancer, alcohol, and cocaine.” Clearly Muslims are fighting an uphill battle for acceptance in America.
Former President Barack Hussein Obama has been one of the biggest supporters of Muslim-Americans and spent much of his term attempting to strengthen relations with the Arab world. Obama’s support for Muslims may contribute to ongoing rumors that he is Muslim, despite claiming that he is actually a non-denominational Protestant. Even still, a 2010 Pew Research Center poll found that 18 percent of Americans believed that their President followed Islam. Much of the confusion stems from his traditionally Muslim name and familial Kenyan roots. As stated earlier, many Evangelicals self- identify as Republican, and the poll found that those who disapproved of the Obama presidency were more likely to believe he was Muslim. This belief is so widespread that even our current President has subscribed to this conviction.
Much of the mainstream anti-Muslim rhetoric in the United States is perpetuated by Evangelist Protestant Christians who highlight a connection between Islam and the devil. The Evangelist group, The Truth and Light Ministries runs a blog, which uses religion to explain and condemn evil. An especially relevant post is titled “Allah is Satan and Baphomet is His Prophet.” One link the group makes between Satan and Islam is the use of cosmic symbols. Moon and star imagery is often linked to Lucifer, as he is believed to be a fallen angel in the Bible. The strongest connection made is the supposed relationship between five-sided pentagram as an allusion to Lucifer’s five wills and a reference to the five pillars of Islam. The Truth and Light Ministries asks “If Islam is not Satanic, then why do we have satanic people, practices, hidden symbols, and meanings all connected in the mix of Islam?”
Similar to Catholicism, Islam has been accused of condoning, or at least not condemning, idol worship and polytheism. The main argument for Muslim acceptance of polytheism is located in Sura An-Najm verses 19-22, also know as the Satanic Verses. The passage is problematic because it describes three pagan goddesses who were worshipped in pre-Islamic times, so many believe this selection promotes worship of false deities above God. In the 1980’s, Salman Rushdie published his controversial novel titled The Satanic Verses, which seemingly promoted the pagan worship. Evangelists often quote the Satanic verses as one major criticism against Islam. However, it is important to note the context of the Satanic Verses. When Muhammad spoke the Sura An-Najm, he was in the midst of struggle with Satan and was tricked into uttering the names of the goddesses. This is known as an embarrassing moment for Muhammad as he admits his remorse for losing a battle against his adversary. Rushdie’s depiction of the Satanic Verses was polarizing and led to criticisms from Muslims. Notably, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for Rushdie to be killed as punishment for his blasphemy. If Evangelicals are looking for leaders to strictly denounce idolatry, they had an ally in Khomeini.
However, many Muslims are quick to point out that while they may use prayer beads, the Ka’aba and other religious symbols to pray, they do not condone idol worship, which can be seen by the strict response to Rushdie’s work. Evangelical Christians, Catholics, and Muslims actually agree on the fact that there is only one true god and idol worship will be punished. The worship of only one God is actually a pillar in Islam called Tawheed. This condemnation of idol worship is also represented in the Muslim tradition’s prohibition of visual imagery portraying the prophet, who did not want to be seen on the same level as God.
If Evangelical Protestants recognized their similiarities with Catholics, and Muslims, maybe there could be an end to the Othering. After seeing that they hold many of the same values – and condemn similar sins- why would Evangelical Protestant groups continue to speak out against Catholics and Muslims? A possible answer is tied up in the struggle for Protestant Americans to maintain their religious majority and political power. Evangelicals do believe that the rapture is coming and “from the beginning of American Christianity, Islam has been incorporated into Evangelical Protestant end-times prophecy literature.” It makes sense that Evangelicals would hope to convert other religions in order to save them from their predicted eventual apocalypse. Evangelicals are motivated to bring down other religions to build themselves up as the one truth and save the human race from the end times.
Recently, there is a perception that Islam is spreading, mainly because of Syrian refugees, and Evangelicals may not want to lose their Protestant power and privilege to another religion. This mirrors sentiments that Protestants felt during influxes of Italian and Irish Catholic immigrants. Gallup reports that while Protestant Christians currently make up 52 percent of the American population, this number has been steadily decreasing. Evangelical Christians may be more determined than ever to spread their truth while facing the threat of losing their religious and politically conservative majority. Many Evangelical groups do not wish to see a separation between church and state, so it is often difficult to parse out their religious belief from their political beliefs as they are so intertwined.
The current fear of Muslims in post 9/11 United States is not a new phenomenon; simply religious xenophobia aimed at a new other. There is still an Othering of Catholics, but Muslims are the new target. There also seems to be a correlation between increased immigration of these groups and an increased fear. While all religions aim to promote their faith as the ultimate truth, Evangelicals are notorious in their Othering of non-Evangelicals. Many of the criticisms that Evangelical Protestants have against Catholicism and Islam, like idolatry, are actually ideas that are rejected by all three faiths. Though Evangelical Protestant Christians want to save Catholics and Muslims, a focus on their similarities may reduce the perception of their sinful nature. Finally, this research may provide some hope for the future of Muslims in America. Catholics have started to become more widely accepted and this may be in the future for Muslims too. Unfortunately, based off of the trends, a larger acceptance of Islam may lead to the Evangelical Protestant targeting of a new Other.