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Religious Intolerance

With the shooting of Muslims at prayer in New Zealand and reports of violence towards Christians in foreign lands, there has been a great deal of talk lately about religious tolerance. Depending on the source, religious toleration is either getting better or worse in this nation. Those same sources also claim that America either has freedom of religion, separation of church and state, or is a Christian nation. When looking at the history of religion in America, what becomes clear is that there never really has been too much tolerance and this tradition has continued in many ways to the present. What is most surprising today is where this lack of tolerance comes from.

Before we start any conversation on religion, we need to look at the different parts of the original Constitution that deal with religion or God. It will not take long because there are none. It is commonly believed that our Constitution maintains a separation of church and state, but in fact those words do not exist. After the Constitution was ratified, the First Amendment was added that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but that is all–no mention of religion, or God, or the separation thereof.

Next is the commonly held belief that the colonies were founded for religious freedom. This is partly true. Of the thirteen original colonies, five had religious context for their creation; the others mainly were profit-driven. The most famous example of religious freedom is Massachusetts, which was founded by Puritans escaping religious persecution in England. Yet, once established, these Puritans did not practice religious freedom for others. In fact the colonies of Rhode Island and Connecticut were established by Puritan dissenters from Massachusetts evicted for different religious teachings. In other words, there was no religious toleration in the New England area.

After the Revolution, religious intolerance fell on anyone not Christian and, within Christianity, squarely on the Catholic Church. For the vast majority of American history, Catholics have been persecuted. In this democratic, protestant nation, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was seen as too authoritarian. There was always the question of Catholics ultimate loyalty–was it the nation or the Pope. Catholic immigrants from places like Ireland and southern Europe faced an added uphill battle once arriving in America because of their Catholic beliefs. The 1850s Know-Nothing Party even made anti-Catholicism one of its political planks. Later, in the 1920s there was a resurgence of the KKK in the North, as well as the south.  This new nativists Klan put Catholics alongside blacks on its list of undesirables. The best example of this nation’s anti-Catholicism is in choices of presidents. The Catholic Church is the largest denomination in the U.S. by far, yet we have had more Quaker presidents (2) in the 20th Century than Catholic Presidents (1).

After non-Christians and Catholics, 19th century Americans mostly turned their intolerance towards several of the Christian denominations started in the U.S. The century saw the creation of the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Those were just the new religious movements that stuck. The ones who saw the most opposition were the Latter Day Saints. The LDS were violently driven out of Ohio, Missouri, and finally Illinois. The worst violence occurred in Jackson County Missouri, where Mormons were dragged from their homes and beaten while their property was destroyed. Their leaders were jailed and tortured, while those left behind were beaten, raped, and eventually murdered. All because they believed differently. Finally, the Governor of Missouri passed an ordinance that all Mormons were to be driven from the state, forcefully, if necessary. The Mormons made an appeal to the President but were told he needed the vote of Missouri too much to help. Finally, in Illinois, the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, was arrested for disturbing the peace and, while the sheriff turned his back, a mob stormed the jail, killing him and his brother. Following the death of Smith, the only place the Latter Day Saints could find any peace was in Utah, a land no one else wanted.

Politically, the six major American-created Christian denominations have produced only two American Presidents, both from the Campbellite Churches of Christ movement.

What is most interesting about religious intolerance today is that it is the last socially acceptable form of intolerance. A good contemporary example comes from one of my favorite shows, “The Simpsons”. Recently the show has decided to remove the popular character of Apu because he was seen as culturally insensitive. Yet there has never been outcries for removing the character of Ned Flanders (stupid Flanders), who can be seen as an insulting caricature of a crazy Christian. Hollywood is full of such examples. It is positive that you can no longer mock race, gender, nationality, or, in the case of religion, Jews or Muslims, yet we still do not criticize mocking all religions.

What is also interesting is that the same religions attacked in the 19th century are still attacked today. Even more curious is that the attacks come both from those who are against religion but also from within Christianity itself.  I have been teaching students about early American intolerance against Catholics for years, yet for most of my life had felt it a thing of the past. That was until I moved to my current home. To my surprise, I have had Christian students make anti-Catholic statements, most frequently along the lines that Catholics are not Christians, which is interesting considering for several centuries Catholics were the only Christians. I even had a lady once tell me that she did not mind if her son joined a religious Boy Scout troop, as long as it was not Catholic.

Even more surprising is that some of the most intolerant are the ones who often call for tolerance. The Broadway community not only accepted intolerance. They gave it a Tony Award in 2011 when it awarded “The Book of Mormon” Best Musical. The show, which still draws large crowds, including many Christians, mocks belief in God in general, but specifically LDS believers. Granted, the Broadway community has always felt under attack from religious groups and may be justified for their acceptance of this play, yet it still seems wrong.

What we see is that religious intolerance has always been part of the American experience, and that is without even investigating the non-Christian religions. We also see that intolerance is not only of others outside your personal belief system, but from within as well. Yet what we can learn from history is that in so many areas we are doing better. There is no reason we cannot hope we can do better here as well.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

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