Repeating Our History of Religious Discrimination in the U.S.
The New York Times has a short, but insightful article in today’s paper that calls Christians — especially Catholics — to remember their own history of discrimination in the land of so-called “religious freedom.” The article, “200-Year-Old Echoes in Muslim Center Uproar,” highlights the similarities between the religious discrimination experienced by the newly arrived Roman Catholics in New York during the late 1700s and the Muslim community of New York today.
In 1785 a group of Roman Catholic New Yorkers wanted to build a house a worship in Manhattan, a Catholic Church that could serve as the community center, meeting place and site of worship for that Christian community. The proposed building was the focus of Protestant anger, distrust and discrimination. The article’s author, Paul Vitello, explains:
Many New Yorkers were suspicious of the newcomers’ plans to build a house of worship in Manhattan. Some feared the project was being underwritten by foreigners. Others said the strangers’ beliefs were incompatible with democratic principles.
Concerned residents staged demonstrations, some of which turned bitter.
The desire of a minority religion in the United States to build a house of worship in New York City near the turn of the 18th Century, eerily mirrors recent protests, vitriolic attitudes and unshielded discrimination that has been directed at the Muslim community in general and the Park51 developers in particular.
Citing the pastor of the Roman Catholic parish, now celebrating its 225th anniversary, Vitello outlined some of the similarities between the two eras of protest and discrimination.
For starters, he said, there was the effort to move the church project somewhere else.
City officials in 18th-century New York urged project organizers to change the church’s initial location, on Broad Street, in what was then the heart of the city, to a site outside the city limits, at Barclay and Church. Unlike the organizers of Park51, who have resisted suggestions they move the project to avoid having a mosque so close to the killing field of ground zero, the Catholics complied.
Then there were fears about nefarious foreign backers. Just as some opponents of Park51 have said that the $100 million-plus project will be financed by the same Saudi sheiks who bankroll terrorists, many early-American Protestants saw the pope as the sworn enemy of democracy, and feared that his followers’ little church would be the bridgehead of a papal assault on the new United States government.
The Park51 organizers say they will not accept any foreign backing. But with about only 200 Catholics in New York in the late 1700s, most of them poor, St. Peter’s Church would not have been built without a handsome gift from a foreigner — and a papist at that — $1,000 from King Charles III of Spain.
The angry eruptions at some of the demonstrations this summer against the proposed Muslim center — with signs and slogans attacking Islam — were not as vehement as those staged against St. Peter’s, Father Madigan said.
On Christmas Eve 1806, two decades after the church was built, the building was surrounded by Protestants incensed at a celebration going on inside — a religious observance then viewed in the United States as an exercise in “popish superstition,” more commonly referred to as Christmas. Protesters tried to disrupt the service. In the melee that ensued, dozens of people were injured and a policeman was killed.
The lesson that the pastor, Fr. Kevin Madigan (not the same Kevin Madigan I wrote about a few weeks ago), shared with his parishioners is that we need to learn from our own history of abuse, marginalization and harassment. That our history of struggle for religious freedom so grimly resembles the current efforts of well-meaning and faithful Muslims seeking the very same thing in our own day should serve to motivate us evermore to work for peace, acceptance and dialogue.
Nothing good is accomplished by limiting the rights of others to express their religious beliefs and to, legally and legitimately, found a center for such expression. Instead, such discrimination will only result in more division, misunderstanding and violence.
Also see a good Catholic News Service story by my friend, Pat Zapor, on this same theme: “New York Mosque [sic] Controversy Echoes anti-Catholicism of Another Era.“