By MARSHA MERCER
A man in a small Virginia town once told me about life in his closely-knit community.
People here live and let live, he said. They don’t care what their neighbors do on Saturday night or where they go Sunday morning – as long as it’s church. And, he explained, that doesn’t mean just Baptist or Methodist; any church is fine.
I nearly spit out my iced tea, but the man spoke without irony, proud of what he saw as tolerance among like-minded people. It evidently never occurred to him that some in town might be non-believers or non-Christians.
That was years ago, when many Americans rarely imagined living next door to someone whose religious views were unlike theirs. In 2010, though, the news is filled with international outrage over an obscure preacher’s plans to burn Korans in Florida and flaring tempers over a planned Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. A Muslim cab driver was stabbed apparently because of his faith; protesters taunted a dark-skinned man they mistakenly thought was Muslim.
As we struggle to define religious tolerance for our time, we ask ourselves how a nation founded on religious liberty ever reached such a sorry state of affairs. Aren’t we better than this?
Before we beat ourselves up about the actions of a few, though, it’s worth remembering that people have been fighting for religious tolerance since we set foot in the “new” world. The history of America is rife with shameful incidents in which our neighbors were mistreated because they came from somewhere else -- and their faith was different.
And yet, because intolerance doesn’t sit well, Americans have tended to ignore the signs. Even religious historians have been reluctant to lay unpleasant cards on the table.
“American religious history…often reads like a Garrison Keillor story where religion is nice, its practitioners are upstanding, and the nation is above average.” John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal write in their new book, “Religious Intolerance in America.”
Americans bask in the country’s romantic “founding myth” that begins with Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution for a land of liberty, includes a First Amendment that protects all views and culminates in the 21st century with the most diverse nation on Earth. The reality is quite different, write Corrigan and Neal.
Corrigan, who heads the religion department at Florida State University, and Neal, who teaches religion at Wake Forest University, have compiled a documentary history of religious intolerance starting with the Colonial era, when Pilgrims hanged Quakers, and Protestants attacked Catholics. Despite the uplifting words of Jefferson and the Bill of Rights -- “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” -- the federal government in the 19th century attempted to wipe out Native Americans’ religion and several states declared war on Mormons.
In 1838, Missouri Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs signed an “Extermination Order” against Mormons that stated in part, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary.” Even more astonishing, the law languished on the state’s books until 1976, when it was rescinded by then-Gov., now Sen., Christopher “Kit” Bond.
In the 1850s, anti-Catholic fervor halted construction of the Washington Monument. A furor ensued in 1855 when Pope Pius IX sent a memorial stone for the monument. The small, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” Party seized control of the Washington National Monument Society through an illegal election, and the Know-Nothings reportedly threw the Pope’s stone into the Potomac River.
Corrigan and Neal report that in the 1940s, mobs assaulted Jehovah’s Witnesses. During World War II, part of the goal in rounding up Japanese Americans for interment was to isolate Buddhist priests and Shinto practitioners. Buddhists, eager to assimilate, began calling their temples Buddhist churches.
Things are little better today. Hate crime statistics since the mid-1990s indicate that religion is second only to race as a motivating factor of hate crimes, write Corrigan and Neal. They declare false the Christian Right’s claims that today it’s Christians who are persecuted.
I haven’t been back to the town where church on Sunday was a must. My guess is attitudes have changed there as they have everywhere.
What endures is that we Americans still prize religious freedom and tolerance, however we define it. President Barack Obama was right that burning Islam’s holy book would be “completely contrary to our values.”
Our country may not always live up to our values, but every day that we as individuals stand with and support someone whose religious views differ from ours, we move a step closer to our American ideals.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.