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Religion in the United States, Religious Discrimination

nativist movement, white supremacist organization, Catholic immigration, Protestant Bible, Arab oil

Although religious toleration is a cornerstone of American society, religious discrimination has also been a part of America’s history. Most Americans, from early colonists to members of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 20th century, have viewed Native American spiritual beliefs as superstition. Even the most well-intentioned of American policy makers sought to replace traditional native beliefs with Christianity by breaking up native families, enforcing the use of English, and educating children in boarding schools dedicated to Christianization and Americanization.

European immigrants also sometimes faced religious intolerance. Roman Catholics suffered from popular prejudice, which turned violent in the 1830s and lasted through the 1850s. Americans feared that the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church was incompatible with democracy. Many felt that separate parochial schools meant that Roman Catholics did not want to become Americans. Irish Catholics were thought to be lazy and prone to heavy drinking. At its peak, the nativist movement—which opposed foreigners in the United States—called for an end to Catholic immigration, opposed citizenship for Catholic residents, and insisted that Catholic students be required to read the Protestant Bible in public schools. The nativist American Party, popularly called the Know-Nothings because of the secrecy of its members, won a number of local elections in the early 1850s, but disbanded as antislavery issues came to dominate Northern politics.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan sought a Protestant, all-white America. The Klan was a white supremacist organization first formed in the 1860s. It was reorganized by racists in imitation of the popular movie The Birth of a Nation (1915), which romanticized Klansmen as the protectors of pure, white womanhood. The Klan preached an antiblack, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic message and sometimes used violence to enforce it. Burning crosses, setting fires, and beating, raping, and murdering innocent people were among the tactics used. Many Protestant congregations in the South and in the Midwest supported the Klan. The Klan attracted primarily farmers and residents of small towns who feared the diversity of the nation’s large cities. Anti-Catholic feelings reappeared during the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Alfred E. Smith in 1928 and in the 1960 presidential campaign, in which John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic president.

Jews were subjected to anti-Semitic attacks and discriminatory legislation and practices from the late 19th century into the 1960s. The Ku Klux Klan promoted anti-Semitic beliefs, there was an anti-Semitic strain in the isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s, and the popular radio sermons of Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, spread paranoid fears of Jewish conspiracies against Christians. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the target of anti-Semitic attacks, despite the fact that he was not a Jew. Both the fight against fascism during World War II and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s helped to diminish anti-Semitism in the United States. Court decisions and civil rights legislation removed the last anti-Jewish quotas on college admissions, ended discrimination in corporate hiring, and banned restrictive covenants on real estate purchases. Far right-wing movements at the end of the 20th century have revived irrational fears of Jewish plots and promoted anti-Semitic statements, as have some African American separatist groups. However, right-wing militias and Klan groups have paid less attention to American Jews than to African Americans, homosexuals, and conspiracies allegedly funded by the federal government.

In the 1990s, the demise of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” (as President Ronald Reagan named it in 1983) left a void in American political life that has been partially filled by a sporadic antagonism towards certain Muslim nations. Foreign policy crises have coincided with an influx of Muslims into the United States and popular revulsion at the antiwhite rhetoric of the American Nation of Islam. An oil crisis created in the 1970s when Arab oil-producing nations raised prices astronomically triggered anti-Arab, anti-Muslim diatribes in the United States. International crises in the Middle East during the 1980s continued these sentiments. There were outbursts of anti-Muslim feeling during the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), and many Muslims felt the war was an attack on Islam rather than a dispute with the government of Iraq. This sense that U.S. policy was attacking the Islamic faith was a factor when the World Trade Center in New York City was bombed in 1993 and destroyed in 2001.

American ideals of religious toleration and freedom of conscience have not always been endorsed in particular cases and in certain periods of American history, but the goal of inclusiveness and liberty remains an important theme in the development of the United States.

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