Every nation and people has its own mythology. There is an origin story that becomes larger than life and the story’s players become heroes in their own right. Barely “a little lower than the angels”, the originators of the mythology are rarely questioned. Typically, the mythology must be embraced as whole cloth and those who question it are labeled dissenters, “unpatriotic”, or revisionists. Revisionist becomes an adjective to be avoided, since it implies a disdain for the “real truth” or a knee-jerk political correctness that must be tolerated with a wink and a nod.

Most of us are acquainted with this kind of history and the responses there unto. In particular, many of us grew up with a particular understanding of the American mythology of the country’s founding, its freedoms, the founders themselves, and then various American ideals- including “understandings” about cultural expectations around religion, sexuality, gender, sexual expression, community involvement, and leadership.

Peter Gottschalk’s American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance undoes our American mythology of perpetual welcome and religious freedom. Most of us know and even speak of the ways that the Puritans rejected those who were not like themselves on the shores of the New World. Though our mythology teaches about the oppressed Pilgrims, we have only recently begun to hear in any kind of equal measure about the oppressing Pilgrims/Puritans.

Gottschalk’s book explains the history of religious oppression and suppression in the New World up through modern-day America by cataloging the religious rejects and “heretics” of various generations and decades. Beginning with the Quakers, American Heretics also describes the rejection and suspicion around Catholics, the Souix, Jews, Latter-Day Saints, Branch Davidians, and Muslims. Rather than being tolerated, much less embraced, each of these religions in its own day was rejected as antithetical to American ideals (as perceived by white (Nordic or Aryan), male Protestantism of a mainline flavor). The rejections resulted in everything from deportation, disenfranchisement, business failure, inability to worship, and/or, more often than not, death. In order to live into our national mythology of a land of welcome and religious tolerance, we need to learn from these stories. Gottschalk writes, “Living up to one’s own ideals is always a perilous process, but one can’t start without first accepting the ways in which one has not done so.” (6)

From early in American history, the Puritans were attempting to preserve their “City on the Hill” self-understanding. Creating communities with a widespread common interpretation of the gospel and its expectations would allow their religious understandings and, presumably, God’s kingdom to which these understandings were related to flourish.

“Part of the Puritan insistence on living together in settlements arose from the  conviction that only with the strength and discipline of the community… could individuals resist sinful temptations… Like most labels used by a majority groups to describe a marginalized minority, allegations of heresy reflected more about Puritan beliefs and culture than about those labeled. Puritans relied on these terms because their pursuit of religious freedom was rooted in the effort to realize rigid ideals of community identity and doctrinal cohesion that necessarily came at the cost of the freedom of others to dissent.” (13)

The Quakers, with their understanding of a divine light within each person, threatened this community existence with a lifting up of individual revelation. It is hard to comprehend now, in an age of intense individuality, that there was a time in which individualism threatened the mainstream understanding of community. However, Quaker spirituality, with its individual revelations as well as lack of recognition of social hierarchy and peace support, was perceived as a serious threat to Puritan ideals.

From this conspicuous beginning, heretics, fanatics, and heathens have been viewed through a lens of American idealism. This lens, through much of history, has been to look at a person or group and determine how far from white (Aryan or Nordic), male, and mainline Protestantism the person or group was. Mary Dyer (a Quaker) failed this test on a two out of three scale and was hanged for her troubles.

This litmus test continued from the seventeenth century into the modern day. The perceived mainstream nature of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day-Saints today is not based in how their religious ideals match up to Protestantism, but in how they are perceived to be supportive of a certain type of community ideal- neighborly, helpful, conservative, predictable. This ability to “pass” is more than a century old and is rooted in the values of an era that died in 1906, but the ghost of which still haunts us with a terrifying fervor.

“As American society gradually moved away from Victorian values to those of the Progressive era, the nation debated issues like alcohol consumption, marital fidelity, Catholic education, observing the Sunday Sabbath, and less constrained female sexuality. Klan members took it upon themselves to preserve conservative values by policing their communities against these activities.” (94)

While hardly anyone today would be willing to promote themselves as having the same ideals as the Ku Klux Klan, these were the sentiments that rooted the fraternity in the early part of the 20th century. Let me be very clear that I am in no way conflating Latter-Day Saints with members of the KKK. Furthermore, I am in no way implying that the LDS church and that other organization have anything in common.

I am, however, noting that there is a fashionable lamenting of the loss of a certain type of American society, which I would argue never existed. The main lamenters, with the very public platforms of certain television stations, websites, and other media outlets, would have been indistinguishable from those who rejected Mormons a century ago. However, with much cultural water under the bridge, the LDS is less other than Muslims, Sikhs, women (read: feminists), and many other groups and individuals who are touted as roadblocks to a certain type of American idealism.

The most interesting part of Gottschalk’s book for me was the penultimate chapter, which discussed David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. I’ve never read a particularly nuanced discussion of the FBI/ATF invasion of the “compound” outside Waco in 1993. Regrettably, most of my exposure through various media sources allowed this story to exist in the back of my mind as something that could have been avoided with the cooperation of Koresh and the people he “imprisoned”. Gottschalk’s careful discussion notes the heavy-handed nature of outsiders in labeling this Seventh-Day Adventist group as a cult and then refusing to understand the everyday understandings of the group, which definitely colored their self-perceptions and their perceptions of the attacks from without.

Gottschalk writes:

[David] Koresh, an intelligent man standing in a position of peril, had a better grasp of the challenges of misunderstanding than did the FBI negotiators who were presumably trained in communication; he recognize the terms shapping FBI perspectives. “We’ve not been your everyday kind of cult…,” Koresh said. While the Branch Daviadians’messiah repeatedly showed insight into the framework shaping FBI perspectives, the latter had no place for the perception (let alone the reality) of a person that a god could communicate with.” (161)

The lack of reflection in this particular incident stirs the mind up to slide into the final chapter of the book. This chapter, focusing on Islamophobia, highlights our national failure to learn from the previous chapters of religious intolerance in our history. Islamophobia differs from purely Muslim hatred in that the latter is based in rejecting the belief system of a certain group of people. The former, instead, is rooted in a fundamental hatred of a group of people based in their skin color, racial appearance, social habits, or national identity- regardless of the person’s actual beliefs. Thus, Sikhs end up as victims of Islamophobia because their attackers don’t actually care about what they believe, only that they fit the attacker’s mental image of a follower of Islam.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

What is our role a church leaders in dismembering stereotypes, in teaching history, in understanding prejudices, and breaking through them? It was all I could do when a woman in my congregation casually mentioned to me on Good Friday, “You know, I’ve never really liked Jews… but your sermon made me think.” I felt stunned. We discussed the issue further, but I’ve not forgotten that conversation.

In an age of religious pluralism, what is the way to uphold the truth we believe about God and Jesus Christ, but also to use that particular truth for the building of communities where all are safe, respected, engaged, and truly welcomed. I suspect most of us have continued to experience an America that, to a certain extent, still likes straight, white, male, and mainline Christian (in that order). What will the end of that look like?

Gottschalk, Peter. American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance. Palgrace MacMillan. NY, NY 2013

We hope you'll join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.