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Today, I pledge to “be blue.” April 10 is Interfaith Youth Core’s Better Together Day, a call to action to stand up for friends, family, and neighbors of other beliefs. Being blue is a small action that makes a big statement: we’re all better when we work together with people from different traditions and backgrounds. What’s more, it’s a commitment to change the narrative that different religious and non-religious traditions are doomed to fight.
In elementary school, we are taught that the pilgrims and their ilk came to America to escape religious persecution in Europe. Their recent history had involved the intricate binding of church to state, and thus the wars of religion that tore Continental Europe apart. The pilgrims’ beliefs found a ready home on America’s eastern coast and grew, further splintering as some groups found the need to allow for even greater differences of opinion. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, established the settlement as a shelter for religious minorities, and was an active proponent of the separation between church and state (in addition to being one of our first boisterous abolitionists). Maryland was chartered to be a shelter for English Catholics, and soon passed the Toleration Act of 1649, allowing free exercise of religion (although restricted to Christian denominations) within its borders.
Our Founding Fathers, anxious to not repeat Europe’s intertwining of religion and state, established the United States based on an even wider definition of religious freedom; their early dealings, foreign and domestic, are testament to a live-and-let-live philosophy of interreligious interaction.
However, there is a history of American religious tension that we often overlook, one that concerns me especially as an American Catholic. My mother’s side of the family, Irish Catholics from southern Ireland, arrived in America in the 1850s and 1860s. They almost certainly would have faced discrimination from Nativists and other xenophobic elements of American society. Although we don’t have any oral history to back up my supposition, it’s a well-documented fact that Irish, Spanish, and Italian immigrants arriving in America during that period were subject to entrenched anti-Catholic sentiment and, sometimes, outright violence. It sounds crazy to recount such histories, as seemingly anti-American as they may be, but they happened, and we can’t forget that angle of our not-so-distant past.
Recall that it was only in the 1960s, more than 100 years after the first major waves of Irish and southern European immigration, that we elected a Catholic as president. And still, Kennedy’s campaign was marked with accusations that he would answer not to the American public, but to the Pope in Rome. Even today, Catholics represent less than a quarter of US Christians. How, Kennedy’s detractors asked, could he be expected to represent the interests of a religiously mixed, largely non-Catholic public? Kennedy was elected in the end, and since his time, many Catholics have run viable campaigns for the country’s highest office.
It was my parents’ generation (late Baby Boomers) that finally married outside the faith without being excommunicated, either from the Church or society/family. Until my mom married my Methodist dad, her side had always married other, usually Irish, Catholics. As my parents were coming of age, Congress abolished national origin caps on immigration, opening the proverbial floodgates to Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans, and, accordingly, their incredibly varied, often incredibly alien religions. My mother and father were unlikely to interact on a regular basis with non-Christians. For my generation, religious diversity is a day-to-day fact; Millennials as a whole are more laissez-faire about differences in our visions of ultimate reality, so a belief in one God, many, or none is less shocking than it may have been for my parents, grandparents, and beyond. What is shocking is how history seems to be repeating itself.
As I’ve investigated the history of, first, Catholicism and then non-Christian religions in America, some interesting and quite disturbing parallels have emerged. My ancestors were viewed as the “other,” a group of people who were, according to the Nativists, very different from the Protestant majority. Catholics had strange rituals, they believed in fantastic miracles, they prayed to statues, and they were beholden to a foreign potentate. Catholics in power would impose their centuries-old canon law on everyday dealings of Americans, forcing Protestants to live by Catholic beliefs. These fears made it difficult to find common ground, to see the history and theology of the two groups as related and perhaps complementary. But over decades and generations, these fears gave way to friendship and cooperation. Catholics are “American” just like everybody else.
But now I see those same fears projected upon non-Christian Americans of all stripes: our Abrahamic brothers and sisters in Islam are a very dangerous fifth column — a backwards and misogynistic people, conspiring with foreign enemies to bring down the American government, preaching hatred and violence. And, if you believe a significant swath of the American electorate, Muslims are currently leading our country from the White House. Mosque construction is vociferously opposed, and houses of worship are regularly attacked or burned to the ground. Our Hindu friends face similar opposition, as well as nasty stereotyping: they pray to rats, they are bound by the caste system, they have strange food and thousands of gods, one of whom is an elephant. Sikhs are regularly discriminated against because they are mistaken for Muslims. Sometimes, they are attacked and killed. It seems that we can’t even get our xenophobia correct.
Buddhists, if they hail from the “East,” are viewed with confusion — so wait, Buddha isn’t God? Buddhists, if they hail from European stock, are often written off as hippies who worship Richard Gere. And if you’re part of the huge group of atheists/agnostics in America, you’re quite suspicious. Americans are more likely to elect a Muslim as president than an atheist.
These tensions cause a lot of trouble. They make us fear our neighbors. It’s like we’re stuck back in the 1860s, fighting against new and novel religious expressions as if their very presence on our shores cheapens this grand experiment that is America. I know that, someday, we won’t care if a person is a Muslim, Hindu, or an atheist, just like today, we don’t really care if someone is a Catholic or a Baptist.
But that future isn’t going to happen organically. It’s going to be the province of Americans, young and old, Christian and non-Christian, working together to eradicate intolerance and ignorance. It’s going to take a hard look back at our historical narrative as a nation built on religious pluralism. It’s going to take a huge commitment, especially from my generation, to enact the social change that will bring equality and understanding. We’ll have to look back to another time when we were irrationally opposed to the religious “other,” as we were when Catholics began to appear as a regular part of the national fabric.
Those intertwined histories, our future together, and my work to bring people together across religious lines are why I’m pledging to “be blue” for Better Together Day on April 10. Sign the pledge and show the world that you commit to the vision of America that our Founders always intended.