Historians have a term we call the scapegoating concept of history. This is the idea that people tend to look for others to blame — scapegoats — for their condition. They then attack that group even if it had little or nothing to do with their situation.
Scapegoats are usually weaker or marginalized members of society easily made to look suspicious. Scapegoats ease our anxiety especially when ethnic minorities or immigrants come into view. Bigotry, however, while burning intensely, has a short memory.
Islam is currently on the list of things we are supposed to be afraid of. The threat is such that even the president himself is apparently some kind of secret Muslim in league with unsavory characters. We seem to have forgotten that the deadliest example of domestic terrorism in America before Sept. 11, 2001, came at the hands of Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Despite McVeigh’s claims to loving Jesus, no calls to ban Christianity or close churches sounded following his detestable act.
If you know anything about American history, all this sounds familiar. In the 19th century, there was a flood of immigrants whose plan, social commentators said, was to destroy the United States, replace the republic with the iron fist of foreign religious law, steal our freedoms and make life generally unpleasant. This inherently violent and insidious group, this clan of people with their strange ways, odd accents and bizarre foods, who hated democracy and couldn’t be trusted, called themselves Catholics.
Though largely forgotten now, in the 1800s if you wanted scapegoats in America, you went looking not for Muslims, but for Catholics. They stood as enemies because they were reportedly loyal not to the Constitution, but to the pope. Fanatical papal armies, it was said, waited in French Canada and Spanish Mexico for the signal from the pontiff (who surely was the Antichrist) to attack.
Along with the many bizarre reasons to hate Catholics, there were the accusations of the Runaway Nuns: women who joined Catholic convents, but then left because of the insidious dealings they claimed went on behind closed doors. The media accepted their stories and they went on lecture tours. The most infamous Runaway Nun, Maria Monk, wrote “The Awful Disclosures” (1834) in which she detailed various atrocities and conspiracies being perpetrated by the church. It became one of the most popular books in the country, selling more than 300,000 copies.
The allegations of the Runaway Nuns helped stoke already-widespread suspicion and resentment among “real Americans” for “foreigners” and drove decades of vicious and often violent hatred of Catholics that continued into the 20th century. Arguments about John F. Kennedy not being fit to be president included his Catholic faith.
In the end, a series of investigations showed the Runaway Nuns to be hoaxes. They had been cobbled together out the raw material of fear-mongering by bigoted commentators and self-styled religious leaders with agendas all their own. Fortunately, anti-Catholic hysteria eventually died down as it became clear no Catholic conspiracy to overthrow the country existed and that Catholics were just as loyal and patriotic as any other Americans.
In years to come, we will look back on the current anti-Muslim hysteria and wonder how we could ever have felt this way, just as we look back on the 19th century anti-Catholic movement as a foolish part of our history. We will accept that Muslim Americans are just as patriotic and loyal as any other. Hopefully, we will get to that point quicker this time and with less memory loss.
(Brian Regal is a fellow of the Kean University (N.J.) Center for History, Politics and Policy. He wrote this column for The Star-Ledger.)
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