With the current unrest in Egypt and across the Middle East, Americans would do well to consider the collective messages we send to the Muslim world, including the Muslims of America. Along these lines, I recently wrote an opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle advancing what seemed to me a fairly uncontroversial argument: The state of Texas should not put an anti-Muslim amendment into the state constitution.
The proposed amendment uses vague language about not applying "any religious or cultural law" in Texas. But there is no doubt about the intent: Promoters want to block the imposition of sharia law (a development that they credulously see as an imminent possibility).
My modest piece clearly touched a nerve, with a range of letters, emails, and online comments suggesting that I was an effete academic, a dupe of a great Muslim conspiracy, or worse. This response reminded me that Muslims have become, in the minds of many Christians, America's great spiritual enemy.
Avoid the mistakes of the past
Here is another case where historical understanding could spare us from repeating the mistakes of the past. American Christians have always tended to cast one particular group as their primary spiritual enemy. At the time of the American Founding, there was no doubt as to the identity of this adversary: It was the Catholic Church. Even leading Founding Fathers indulged the dread of Catholicism. Boston's Samuel Adams, for example, wrote in 1768 that new taxes and British political power were not America's most formidable foes: "What we have above everything else to fear," he declared, "is POPERY."
The fear of Catholicism among Protestant Christians was unattractive, but not entirely irrational. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 inaugurated a century of warfare between Protestant Britain and her Catholic rivals, France and Spain. These wars spilled over into the American colonies, where the French often employed Native Americans as allies more successfully than the American colonists. And of course, there were deep theological differences between Protestants and Catholics that had fueled the wars of the Reformation.
But some Founders, including George Washington, rose above fear and realized that they needed to win Catholic allies, both in North America and in France itself. So General Washington forbade the celebration of "Pope's Day," Nov. 5, which had long featured the burning of the pope in effigy. (Nov. 5 commemorated the infamous "Gunpowder Plot" by Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, to blow up Parliament in 1605.)
On Nov. 5, 1775, Washington issued general orders condemning "that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the effigy of the pope." American Catholics, he said, were among those "we ought to consider as brethren embarked in the same cause: the defense of the general liberty of America." This generous attitude helped Americans win an alliance with France in 1778, without which they would have lost the Revolution.
Anti-Muslim is the new anti-Catholic
Anti-Catholicism in America hardly ended with the French alliance, but today a new peril has taken the place of Catholicism. Anti-Muslim sentiment dates to the colonial period, as well, but it has taken on unprecedented fervor since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Again, as bitterly illustrated by 9/11, there are certainly reasons for Americans to fear the terrorist faction among the world's billion Muslims. But how should Americans react to that threat? More particularly, what is the proper Christian attitude toward the 2.6 million Muslims who live in America today (according to the recently-released Pew Research Center study)? While some Muslims in America certainly support jihadist terror, the vast majority do not, and have no intention of foisting sharia law upon the nation.
Face facts, not myths
Let's face facts: Muslims in America and elsewhere are diverse. They range from secular to fundamentalist, and are divided among themselves by ethnicity and theology. Some Americans may imagine that there is a unified world jihadist menace, but the messy realities confound that myth. American Muslims are mostly middle-class, and a majority are themselves concerned about jihadist extremism. Many recent Muslim immigrants come from Arab countries, but just as many come from Pakistan and other places in South Asia. Many Arab Americans, furthermore, are from Christian backgrounds. Large numbers of Arabs in America, Muslims and Christians, came here fleeing the persecution of fundamentalists at home.
Americans stand united – as George W. Bush insisted repeatedly – against terrorism and not Islam. Non-jihadist American Muslims will one day, like Washington's Catholics, be accepted as "brethren embarked in the same cause." Civil peace hardly requires Christians or Muslims to ignore the essential spiritual differences between us; most adherents of both traditions do not believe that all paths lead to God. But putting an anti-Muslim amendment into a state's constitution sends the message that Americans officially oppose Muslims and their faith. Even if all we care about is a winsome Christian witness to Muslims, this is a deplorable approach.
Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is a senior fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of "God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution." Follow his writings via Facebook.