Religious Persecution

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Religious Persecution

For those possessing even a cursory knowledge of Western civilization, the history of America, especially in the past four decades, hardly offers any example of religious persecution worthy of note. Certainly compared to the trials of the Spanish Inquisition; the systematic ghettoization, civil restriction, and oppressive church- and state-sponsored anti-Semitism of medieval Europe; the anti-Catholic laws of early modern England; or the violent purges of Anabaptists in Münster in 1534, or of Huguenots in Paris on St. Bartholemew's Day 1572, the United States seems almost to be the bastion of enlightened pluralism and freedom of religion envisioned by at least some of its founders.

And yet the United States has had its share of religious restriction, violence, and exclusivity, in many cases upheld by civil authorities. According to some scholars, the seeming contradiction between an ideological commitment to religious freedom and the impulse to establish a particular religious vision (and to persecute all rival visions) is knit into the very fabric of the nation. Particularly evident in the colonial period, the persecutory impulse can be seen easily among Massachusetts Bay Puritans, who harshly evicted Quakers from the colony and punished until death those stubborn enough in their convictions to return. As John T. Noonan, Jr., has most recently noted in The Lustre of Our Country (1998), this persecution was enacted despite a rhetorical attachment among the same Puritans to the rights of dissenters, based on their own experience of persecution. He and others have documented the numerous examples of religious feuding and persecution in early American life, despite the simultaneous development of the United States as a haven for Europe's most beleaguered religious minorities. In many cases the groups most victimized in Europe held fastest to their own insistence on establishing a particular religious orthodoxy in their new homes.

Massachusetts thus served as a colonial refuge for Puritan Congregationalists while persecuting Quakers and Catholics. Maryland began its history as a refuge for Catholics then reverted to Anglican control by the end of the seventeenth century. Pennsylvania, established as a refuge for Quakers, refused Catholics visible houses of worship and maintained laws insisting that only believers in Jesus could hold public office. And even seemingly tolerant Providence Plantations (later Rhode Island), founded by the highly progressive Roger Williams after his own exile from Massachusetts, showed this same contradiction. Originally harboring Baptists, Quakers, and even a small Jewish community in Newport, the Providence Plantations restricted voting by the end of the seventeenth century to disfranchise Jews and Catholics. Nowhere in colonial America did full religious freedom exist.

And yet despite these contradictory impulses, free exercise of religion did prevail sufficiently to become a fundamental principle of American law. Writing in 1963, the historian Sidney Mead emphasized the de facto religious pluralism in place on American soil that necessitated the formation of an ideology favoring pluralism. In other words, the reality of free exercise, at least if one considered the colonies in toto, required that a rhetoric favoring free exercise be expounded and, ultimately, written into law. Those writing after Mead, including Noonan, have seen a more subtle process. Noonan has credited the triumph of free exercise in America (and the suppression if not eradication of its evil analogue religious persecution) to the rhetoric of theologians at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, to the reality that all four colonies mentioned above were approved in their religious expression by the officially Anglican kings of England (thus paving the way for the limited but still significant English Act of Toleration in 1688), and to the accumulated intellectual influence of three prominent critics of religious persecution of roughly that age: Roger Williams, Baruch Spinoza, and John Locke. Noonan has offered that all of these words, realities, and ideas were infused into American life and law by James Madison, as a conscious antidote to the hostilities and bloodshed for which Europe was already infamous in the premodern era.

Scholars have thus pictured the American experiment with religious freedom, and away from persecution, as largely if not wholly successful. And so, by and large, it has been. But what of the exceptions that linger, even into the second half of the twentieth century? While current American media interest in religious persecution often centers on U.S. censure of discriminatory practices abroad, certainly there are numerous examples of persecutory impulses, at least, in American life to the current day.

For example, religious persecution often works in tandem (and is partially concealed as a result) with ethnic or political concerns. In the United States of the 1930s it was not unusual to find discrimination against Jews established in a variety of public and private spheres, including (but not limited to) restricted hotels, clubs, and resorts, residence restrictions, or quotas limiting admission of Jews to major universities. While such blatant discrimination atrophied, in part through widespread revulsion over the events of World War II and the Holocaust, as well as general considerations surrounding the civil rights movement of the 1960s, some scholars see subtle forms of the same impulse in anti-Israel rhetoric or the persistence of negative stereotypes of Jews. The scholar Gary A. Tobin, in Jewish Perceptions of Antisemitism (1988), confirms that institutional discrimination against Jews has declined markedly since World War II but that small extremist groups continue to persecute Jews in local communities. Sometimes, in rural communities particularly, this extremism manifests itself in the form of vandalism, grave desecration, and Holocaust revisionism, he states. And even beyond this, Tobin sees new anti-Jewish stereotypes emerging in the contemporary United States, often expressed by younger Americans in their attitudes toward Israel, and especially in their assumptions about American Jews' feelings or connections to the Jewish state. Other scholars, among them Harold E. Quinley and Charles Y. Glock in Anti-Semitism in America (1979), have similarly considered religious prejudice in its newer "political" form.

The same phenomenon can be seen with regard to other forms of entrenched religious discrimination that have resulted in persecution in America. Waves of anti-Irish sentiment that swept the country with the largest influx of Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century often masked, in only the most transparent of ways, the concomitant anti-Catholic animus that found its way into American political life. Prejudice against the Irish, and especially Irish Catholics, resulted in a variety of anti-Irish policies, formal and informal, including discrimination in employment and residence that were slowly erased over time. These impulses, though theoretically controlled by law, were still evident, if not as blatantly apparent, in opposition to the candidacy and presidency of John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic to be elected to that office. Some might argue that ingrained prejudice, if not persecution per se, lies behind the fact that the United States has never elected a Jewish president nor, for that matter, a Muslim or an atheist.

Additionally some scholars see anti-Arab and anti-Muslim animus as not only a still vaguely permissible form of hate-mongering but also as a form of religious persecution. Recent examples might include early assumptions, especially by media commentators, that the bombing of a U.S. government building in Oklahoma City in 1995 was most probably the act of Arab Muslim terrorists.

Many other groups in the United States also claim to operate under severe handicaps, at the very least, imposed by the hostile mainline Christian majority. Among those who have recently claimed themselves subject to persecution are Wicca, practitioners of Scientology and New Age religions, atheists, and even some fundamentalist Christians who see constitutional protections against state-sponsored prayer in schools as limiting their free exercise of religion. Whether these claims represent true persecution or merely an appropriation of that term is a question that must be left largely to the subjective judgment of individuals and future scholars of American life.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Atheism; Church and State; Civil Religion; Civil Rights Movement; Freedom of Religion; Holocaust; New Age Spirituality; Scientology, Church of; Wicca.


Brauer, Jerald C., ed. The Lively Experiment Continued. 1987.

Mead, Sidney. The Lively Experiment. 1963.

Noonan, John T., Jr. The Lustre of Our Country:TheAmerican Experience of Religious Freedom. 1998.

Quinley, Harold E., and Charles Y. Glock. Anti-Semitismin America. 1979.

Tobin, Gary A., with Sharon L. Sassler. Jewish Perceptions of Antisemitism. 1988.

Patricia Behre-Miskimin

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Religious Persecution

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