But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, the pandemic offers an opportunity for the country to come together to define and defend a more inclusive nation. During World War II, this is what happened when Protestants, Catholics and Jews chose unity and harmony over scapegoating and fear. Because of their hard work and constant reminders about who the real enemy was, they changed how Americans thought about their country. This might provide an example for today.
Before the war, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholic sentiment were rife. In the 1920s, Congress passed harsh immigration laws, essentially limiting the number of Catholics and Jews allowed into the country after several decades of high immigration. The Ku Klux Klan marched on Washington, D.C., in the 1920s with its expanded mission espousing hatred not only for black Americans but also toward Catholics, Jews and foreigners. They, and many others, deemed Catholics as hopelessly subservient to the pope and therefore incapable of upholding their civic duties.
During the Great Depression, anti-Semitism peaked as Jews were denied access to certain neighborhoods and jobs, and they were widely accused of being the dangerous source of the economic crisis. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt said privately that the United States was “a Protestant country” and that “Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.”
But a small group of Americans fought to craft a different image of the country, one premised on inclusivity and tolerance. Their “Goodwill Movement,” as it became known, thought a commitment to American ideals should outweigh any commitment to ethnicity, race, blood or religion — and slowly their ideas started to spread.
While watching the rise of demagogues across the world (most especially in Nazi Germany), a group of Protestant Americans led by relatively obscure men and women like Everett R. Clinchy, John W. Herring and S. Parkes Cadman, challenged the trope that the United States was a “Protestant country.” America, they argued, was a civic entity, united by ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To be an American was not defined by blood or religion but by a commitment to ideals like democracy and freedom.
Determined to spread the message, the advocates for a more tolerant America went on a whirlwind tour along with Catholics and Jews to demonstrate the democratic power of a tri-faith coalition. Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, priests, rabbis and ministers went city to city preaching their new vision and showing that old hatreds were out of place in a nation confronting larger crises. The press dubbed them the “Tolerance Trio.” For many in the audience in the small towns they visited, it was the first time they had ever seen a Catholic or Jewish person.
Their efforts to promote a vision of an inclusive America bred more interfaith work. During World War II, President Roosevelt created the United Service Organizations as an interfaith organization run by Protestants, Catholics and Jews to provide entertainment and guidance to the nation’s 12 million soldiers. An organization called the National Conference of Christians and Jews won access to the hundreds of U.S. military bases around the world, putting on shows preaching the value of interfaith tolerance, attempting “to immunize our soldiers against the virus of hate,” as one leader put it.
In one poignant example, during an intramural football game at Fort Benning, Ga., the Army band honored their interfaith efforts by forming a giant Star of David and playing “Ein Keloheinu,” an ancient Jewish prayer about the uniqueness of God. Once “Ein Keloheinu” was concluded, the band formed a giant cross and played “Onward Christian Soldiers.” In the face of crisis, Americans saw value in prioritizing what united them rather than what divided them.
In 1943, when a German U-boat torpedoed the troop transport ship the USS Dorchester, the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chaplains did their duty and handed out life jackets to the various soldiers. When jackets ran out, the chaplains took off their own and handed them to the remaining soldiers. Survivors of the wreck last saw the four chaplains praying arm-in-arm as the ship went down. The rabbi, a young Brooklyn-born man named Alexander Goode, recited the Sh’ma — the affirmation of the unity of God — as the waters engulfed the ship forever.
These displays of unity over division were powerful, and convincing. Diverse, multicultural America became the preferred vision of the country throughout the war, and these ideas persisted after it. The U.S. Postal Service commissioned a stamp in honor of the Four Chaplains who went down with the USS Dorchester. Warner Bros. commissioned a movie. Tellingly, at least one fiery evangelical Protestant had a change of heart after the Four Chaplains incident.
Daniel Poling’s son was one of the chaplains who died aboard the Dorchester. As a voice of conservative Protestantism, Poling had vocally opposed this inclusive vision of the country. But with his son’s death, Poling softened his hardcore commitment to an America premised on Protestantism. He submitted a letter entitled “Americans All” into the Congressional Record, which said: “Where the boy was going and where he now is, there are no schisms and no divisions.”
Faith and civic leaders, as well as many politicians, used the wartime crisis to push the nation to become inclusive and tolerant. The country was at its best when welcoming of all those who could commit to certain democratic ideals.
Of course, after the war persistent racism continued, as did discrimination against various groups of Americans. But the civic ideal had changed. A nation that many felt was defined as “Nordic, white, and Protestant” had proved itself capable of becoming inclusive and tolerant. And flowing from that changed image was a whole raft of legal changes and the granting of civil rights throughout the remainder of the 20th century.
During World War II, rather than allow a crisis to bring out the worst in the country, a group of committed Americans forced it to bring out the best.
As we see various communal actions in fighting our current crisis, it is well worth remembering that there is a strong American tradition of working together, and not allowing calls for division to distract us from the real enemy at hand.