By Chris Beneke
A Friday post on the New York Review of Books site by the distinguished Notre Dame scholars John T. McGreevy and R. Scott Appleby looks at the "Ground Zero mosque" controversy through the lens of American Catholic history. The duo offer several important insights. Among them: "the American acceptance and encouragement of Catholic parishes and schools once seen as threatening reshaped an international religious institution [the Catholic Church]" and that "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." McGreevy and Appleby concede that the analogy between nineteenth-century Catholics and modern Muslims is imperfect. Nonetheless, it is illuminating, and should inspire at least a glimmer of hope.
At least four additional points might be added to McGreevy and Appleby's analysis:
1) Muslims (particularly Sunnis) lack the centralized direction that bound nineteenth-century Catholic clergy and laity to a non-democratic foreign agenda--American Muslims are not constrained by the pronouncements of distant authorities, and certainly not by al Qaeda.
2) American Muslims are supported by a large constituency of civil rights advocates. More importantly, they are protected by a federal government with much broader powers than its nineteenth-century counterpart (nor should we forget the support and protections offered by the mayor, the Governor, and state and local law.) Nineteenth-century Catholics had many allies and sympathizers among Protestants. They also benefited from an already vibrant tradition of religious liberty and mutual respect. Still, their position vis-a-vis both state authority and public opinion was probably more precarious than that of modern Muslims.
3) American Catholics arrived in massive numbers during the mid-nineteenth century. Today, U.S. Muslim population growth is robust, but it pales in relative terms to the hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics who landed in U.S. cities during the 1840s and 1850s. As much as the growing Muslim community will contribute to American society, its social and political footprint is likely to be less conspicuous than the one left by mid-nineteenth-century Irish Catholics.
4) Particularly in the last decades,the United State has prided itself on a tradition of religious diversity and religious inclusion. We have also gained a sharper appreciation for our previous failings in this regard. Appleby and McGreevy are not just champions of this formidable tradition; they are illustrations of it.
In sum, our history--especially our recent history--bodes well for our future. We have seen the same sort of reaction before, and it passed. Hackles were raised, distant authorities were cited, and brutal violence was invoked, yet our better natures prevailed and our tradition of equal rights was enriched. There will have to be accommodation and there will have to be time for healing. But if we take history as our guide, there is reason for optimism.