Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Aug/10

17

Having our way with the past, for it has no honor!

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Ross Douthat’s new column, Islam in Two Americas is getting a lot of play. Douthat has to constrain his prose to make it suitable for a print column…I can almost see the excisions of nuance and subtly necessitated by the word length cap. Consider what Douthat says about Mormons and Roman Catholics:

…The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics

The same was true in religion. The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy….


First, all of America, more or less, was hostile to Catholics and Mormons. Second, despite the brutalities and slanders which Mormons and Roman Catholics were subject to, to some extent they invited hostility via their oppositional stance toward mainstream American society and culture. There were periods when Joseph Smith seemed to be forming a new theocratic state-within-a-state. Smith himself had all the characteristics of what in our era would be termed a ‘cult leader’ (from dictatorial tendencies to sexual appetites). And as for Catholicism, hostility toward that religion was not simply a correlation between it and the new waves of German and especially Irish immigrants. As documented by Roman Catholic historian John T. McGreevy in Catholicism and American Freedom: A History the new Irish dominated Church of the mid-19th century attempted to fundamentally reshape the trajectory of church-state relations in the United States during that period.* In short, the Church wanted to serve as a de facto and de jure representative of Roman Catholic believers to the United States government. Combine this with the 19th century papacy’s principled hostility to liberalism and democracy, and there were reasons for the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority of a democratic republic to worry about the rise of a religious minority whose clerics were notionally opposed to the idea of liberal democracy.

Of course Douthat correctly notes that both Mormonism and Roman Catholicism were tamed. Mormonism now encourages American patriotism, and Mormons are seen to be uniquely loyal to the American government (there are theological and pragmatic reasons for this). In the late 20th century the American Catholic laity became operationally Protestant in their conception of what the Christian religion entailed for the individual, while on the ecclesiastical level Vatican II was in many ways a victory for the ‘Americanists’ of the early 20th century who worked hard to reconcile the Church explicitly to liberal democracy (in their time they failed).

* Though the United States had no official religion on the federal level, it famously did on the state level into the early 19th century. But by the Second Great Awakening the state churches were anachronistic or gone, and the American orientation toward personal piety, religious individualism and a marketplace of denominations, was already ripening. The Roman Catholic Church attempted to interpose into this new religious consensus a model which seems more similar to what was operative in Europe, with Concordants and Pillars.

16 comments

  • stari_momak · August 17, 2010 at 4:06 am

    I find it strange that you leave out Jews. True, they don’t have a central religious institution — like the LDS church or the Hierarchy. They do, however, have multiple ethnoreligious institutions organized into a conglomerate, for want of a better word.

    http://www.conferenceofpresidents.org/

    Moreover, Jews, unlike Catholics — esp. white Catholics — have not converged toward the political norms of protestant Americans. They remain, aside from blacks, the most Democratic group in the country (som 80% voting for Obama). The old stock American protestants who wanted to restrict their immigration,etc. were quite right.

  • Hisham · August 17, 2010 at 4:14 am

    Douthat’s views may have more merit if they appeared to be more geared toward actually integrating Muslims into American society.

    If he was concerned with resisting practices such as giving deference to Islamic custom in marriage, domestic violence justified by religious conviction, or creating unacceptable exemptions to the rule of law based on religious belief then one may conclude that he is really working toward a goal of integration.

    Yet, he doesn’t address anything like that in his opposition to the Cordoba House. Instead he recommends that Muslims not show their presence where it may offend others or hold politically-incorrect opinions. Such an attitude may be more common in nations with Muslim majorities, but that doesn’t make them worth copying.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 17, 2010 at 4:29 am

    Yet, he doesn’t address anything like that in his opposition to the Cordoba House. Instead he recommends that Muslims not show their presence where it may offend others or hold politically-incorrect opinions. Such an attitude may be more common in nations with Muslim majorities, but that doesn’t make them worth copying.

    you act as if the only two alternatives are the sort of norms common in muslim nations, and a total exercise of all the license which the law gives. douthat is not offering a legal program, but one where muslim leaders understand that they have a serious image problem, and take steps as savvy marketers and PR managers. as it is, this is turning out to be a PR disaster, and in the short-term seems to be likely to give a boost to the type of politician who isn’t quite muslim friendly.

  • Hisham · August 17, 2010 at 4:43 am

    If Douthart is really concerned with this as PR problem with political consequences in the short term, then he is doing a poor job of expressing it.

    Instead he is contributing to a triumph of symbolism over substance. He supports a viewpoint that may make the proponents proud of themselves, but doesn’t actually address real integration.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 17, 2010 at 5:08 am

    Instead he is contributing to a triumph of symbolism over substance.

    symbolism long ago triumphed in the human domain. in any case, to some extent symbolism is substance because of the way human cognition works. to muslims, and many non-muslims, islam is viewed positively, and has positive associations. to be frank this is simply not true for most americans. this is not because the majority are rabid “islamophobes,” but because most peoples’ direct knowledge/experience of islam has to do with political conflict/dispute, violence, and/or an “exotic” looking person on the street who seems “foreign.” that reality is going to shape how people react, view issues, and perceive threats or lack of threats. the center in manhattan isn’t going to change that. probably most of the people patronizing it will be the types who are already into ‘interfaith dialog.’

    the fact is that the majority of americans oppose the construction of this community center. of those, the majority are not islam-haters, but have disquiet and concerns about islam, and muslims. many secular liberals are screaming bloody murder about this issue and what it implies for civil liberties, but they are not going to just scream ‘sense’ into the majority (right-wing christian zionists will never see ‘sense’ on this issue, i’m talking about the ‘moderate’ majority of americans). this will be a passing issue. the short term consequence is going to be elevating anti-muslim politicians. in the long term as i said for the reasons above, the center probably won’t have much of an impact (it would be better actually to genuinely provoke in a way that might be productive by locating it in nashville or biloxi).

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 17, 2010 at 5:12 am

    also, from an anti-muslim perspective this is kind of a waste of time. at least in the proximate sense (perhaps this will result in some long term coalition building, but i’m modestly skeptical). what you need to do is address immigration and foreign policy. but that would be more than talk and yelling, it would mean genuine expenditure of political capital.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 17, 2010 at 5:14 am

    I find it strange that you leave out Jews.

    first rule in jewish-ruled-america: don’t fuck with the with jews :-) though seriously, in the 19th century jews were not a major issue, and tended to keep a low profile. in comparison to catholics they were not numerous, and, they tended not to challenge anglo-protestant dominion.* these were of course mostly german jews, not the later eastern european wave which was politically radical.

    * they allied with catholics against attacks on non-protestants generally, but wouldn’t go along with catholic attempts to foster pillarization (e.g., parochial school system) because they weren’t big enough to be a pillar in the first place

  • Hisham · August 17, 2010 at 6:08 am

    it would be better actually to genuinely provoke in a way that might be productive by locating it in nashville or biloxi

    I’m not sure if you were aware of it, but there have been recent protests against the locating of a new Mosque near Nashville.

    I would concede that mere reason is not going to be enough to change public attitudes in this case.

    However, I fear that there are times when pacifying the majority view point can do more harm to the goals of maintaining a functioning democracy that respects the rule of law.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 17, 2010 at 7:21 am

    I’m not sure if you were aware of it, but there have been recent protests against the locating of a new Mosque near Nashville.

    i didn’t know about that specific detail, but i am aware of protests against the building of mosques around the country. not only will it be counterproductive in the long run, but it’s going to be futile in the short run.

    However, I fear that there are times when pacifying the majority view point can do more harm to the goals of maintaining a functioning democracy that respects the rule of law.

    yes. i don’t think that this is one of those moments, but that depends on your calculus. i do have to assert though that i find some of the left-liberal defenders of the mosque project as unhinged in their defense as the attackers from the far right. i think the nature of the response is partly a newtonian aspect of equal-and-opposition reaction. but seeing as how the majority sympathize with the anti-islamic right-wing on this particular issue i think the left-liberals need to rethink their strategy. they’re kind of acting like “new atheists” here.

  • Polichinello · August 17, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    I’m not sure if you were aware of it, but there have been recent protests against the locating of a new Mosque near Nashville.

    Yes, why don’t you take the f’ing hint, already, Hisham?

    what you need to do is address immigration and foreign policy. but that would be more than talk and yelling, it would mean genuine expenditure of political capital.

    True, dat.

  • Hisham · August 17, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Yes, why don’t you take the f’ing hint, already, Hisham?

    Polichinello, I’m afraid I don’t get the hint yet.

  • Polichinello · August 17, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Anyhoo, one of the the local news stations in Houston went to the local head Mohammedan to get a comment on the GZ Mosque, and he treated them to the full 9/11 Truther story. It was kind of amusing watching the whole thing being put up on T.V. as a bald admission. The reporter tried to give the guy a number of outs, but he just wouldn’t take the hint, either. Must be something in the ablution water.

  • GTChristie · August 18, 2010 at 12:55 am

    Polichinello, I don’t get what you’re hinting at, either, because I’m bad at interpreting “hints.” So please, if I may ask because my mind is so pedestrian, what is the point more directly?

  • Rich Rostrom · August 18, 2010 at 6:47 am

    “First, all of America, more or less, was hostile to Catholics…”

    On the Sunday after the first session of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, George Washington

    “Went to the Romish Church, to high mass.”

    Washington had previously attended a Catholic service during the First Continental Congress in 1774, in company with John Adams.

  • Author comment by David Hume · August 18, 2010 at 7:39 am

    rich, i know. that doesn’t falsify my assertion. america was hostile to roman catholics. part of the reason had to do with the switch from an english and french catholic church which was well integrated to a mostly irish and german church. did you know that? if you did, why are you posting irrelevancies which are only going to confuse ignorant people? if you didn’t know that and thought the comment was illustrative of anything useful, that’s fine.

  • Brett Stevens · August 19, 2010 at 11:54 am

    No nation on earth exists without cultural norms. If we impose them politically, we’ve just created a starting point. Social pressures will then force those norms to change toward whatever the majority group finds most appealing.

    In the case of the USA, there’s an inherent lowercase-c conservatism to the middle classes — they want to be left alone to keep making money and raising normal kids. Part of that includes having some kind of dominant religious/moral tradition, because morality needs to be “inherent” in their view, thus needs anchoring in some kind of God.

    As a result, they tend to be wary of divergent traditions and exclude them, not so much on a discriminatory level as a practical (“we need unity”) one.

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