Islamophobia is just the latest culture war

by Maureen Fiedler

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Last week, I interviewed one of my favorite authors, Stephen Prothero of Boston University, who has written a new book on culture wars in American history. It is called Why Liberals Always Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections). That is: culture wars are begun by the political right, but won -- ultimately -- by the political left.

As it turns out, many, if not most, culture wars had to do with religions of one sort or another. Prothero begins with the revered Thomas Jefferson, whose "religious" credentials were called into question by the Federalists when he ran for president in 1800. Interestingly, there were those who said he was a nonbeliever, and an "infidel" (not true: he was a deist) ... and others who believed he was a secret Muslim! (Obama was not the first to be so labelled!) But of course, Jefferson won that election and settled the issue.

As a Catholic, I was especially fascinated by the section of Prothero's book on anti-Catholicism that grew to a full and bloody roar in the 19th century with the Know-Nothing Party. The "threat," of course, came from the flood of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Poland and Italy. They were regarded as representing a faith hostile to democracy, incompatible with American political culture. And the violence against these "papist" Catholics was great. Stories about girls taken into a kind of "slavery" in convents abounded among the conspiracy theorists. Some churches and convents were attacked and burned. Of course, the anti-Catholic bigotry rose to a new pitch in 1928 when Al Smith ran for President, and it re-appeared in 1960 when John Kennedy ran. I can recall myself the election of 1960 when some Protestants were predicting that the "Pope would be over on the next boat" if JFK won. But he won, and no pope came. Now, I wonder what those same anti-Catholic protestors would say about Pope Francis and his address to Congress? Talk about a turn-around in the culture wars!

Another major culture war Prothero portrays was the anti-Mormonism of the 19th and 20th centuries. He describes the movement to drive Mormons across the continent until they finally settled in Utah. The violence against them was legendary. Today, after Mitt Romney ran for President, regular TV shows feature Mormons, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is celebrated worldwide -- that culture war is over!

The next culture war Prothero discusses was the struggle over Prohibition in the 1920s. Protestants who fought to ban alcohol were opposed by both Jews and Catholics (and others) who had no problem with drinking. He tells of an interesting angle on Prohibition: It seems that the sales of "sacramental" wine shot up enormously during the 1920s. And I suggested a theory I have had for a while: The struggle against Prohibition was the beginning of the Jewish/Catholic interfaith movement. He roared at that suggestion.

All this brings us to the Islamophobia of today. The anti-Muslim forces will surely lose, but Prothero believes it will take longer than the earlier struggles against religious bigotry because of worldwide violence led by some Muslims and the attendant media coverage of it. Events like the shootings in San Bernardino only make matters worse. Still, as he says, "... the arc of American history should continue to bend toward tolerance and inclusion." Given the groups and individuals rallying to defend Muslims from Islamophobia, I believe it will.

However, I have one major suggestion: Donald Trump should read this book! And maybe a few other presidential candidates as well . . . .

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