History repeats in anti-Islamic mood

A little-known politician emerges from Illinois to capture the White House during a time of national turmoil and unrest. Critics whisper that he’s a secret member of a dangerous minority religion, which flouts the norms and traditions of democracy itself.

Barack Obama, in 2010? No, Abraham Lincoln. In 1860.

That’s right. Just as Obama’s enemies call him a closet Muslim, Lincoln’s opponents hinted that he was ... a closet Catholic. And in each case, the reason was exactly the same: millions of Americans feared, derided or despised these faiths. The important question isn’t whether Lincoln and Obama actually practiced Catholicism or Islam; it’s why so many of us have cared. And the answer is right before our eyes.

The whispers about Lincoln’s religion began right after he was elected president. The “evidence” was simple, and altogether spurious.

Jesuits were active in Lincoln’s region of Illinois, so he must have been baptized by them. Oh, and Lincoln had once defended a prominent priest in a slander lawsuit.

But there was more. Lincoln also denounced the bigotry and prejudice of the Know-Nothings, America’s most vehemently anti-Catholic political party. “If the Know-Nothings get control,” Lincoln warned in 1855, “the Declaration of Independence will read: All men are created equal except for Negroes, foreigners, and Catholics.”

Pretty suspicious, no? Remember the old adage about your enemy’s enemy being your friend? Why would Lincoln criticize the anti-Catholics, unless he was Catholic himself?

And here’s why it mattered: Across the political spectrum, including Lincoln’s Republican Party, Protestant Americans assumed that Catholics were disloyal to the Republic. “We” respected individual rights, liberties and freedoms; but “they” took orders from the Vatican, an authoritarian menace that spread its tentacles across the globe.

Well into the 20th century, Americans continued to claim that Catholicism was incompatible with democracy. This slur remained eminently bipartisan, ranging from right-wing thugs like the Ku Klux Klan to liberal tribunes like John Dewey, McGeorge Bundy and Albert Einstein.

Consider these thinkers’ praise for “American Freedom and Catholic Power,” the 1949 best-seller by Paul Blanshard. An author and editor for The Nation, one of America’s liberal standard-bearers, Blanshard warned that Catholicism threatened core liberal values: reason, tolerance and equality.

To Blanshard, Catholic nuns harkened back to “an age when women allegedly enjoyed subjection and reveled in self-abasement.” But he reserved his greatest disdain for the pope and the rest of the priestly hierarchy, whose “antidemocratic” philosophy was alternatively “intolerant or separatist or un-American.”

Dewey, Bundy and Einstein all commended Blanshard’s analysis.

Meanwhile, other critics added their own barbs. Catholicism was anti-intellectual as well as anti-democratic, they charged, which explained the supposed atrophy of science and philosophy in Catholic societies.

Most of all, Catholicism’s dictatorial culture allegedly left its members open to appeals from demagogues on the right as well as on the left. Nazism was born in the Catholic regions of southern Germany, critics pointed out; likewise, Catholics eagerly embraced Francisco Franco’s version of fascism in Spain.

With the rise of the Cold War, finally, Americans linked Catholicism to a new totalitarian threat: Communism. In his next book, published in 1951, Paul Blanshard noted the “deadly parallels” between them: Global in scope, both Catholicism and Communism demanded that individuals forsake their personal and national loyalties in favor of an inflexible creed.

Sound familiar? It should. In our deplorable history of anti-Catholicism, you can hear every aspect of contemporary Islamophobia. Muslims are disloyal, pledging allegiance to al-Qaida and other foreign enemies; they oppress women, whom they bind into hijabs and burkas; they hate science and free inquiry, keeping their adherents mired in ignorance.

Here anti-Muslim bigots will note, correctly, that some Muslims really do share these characteristics. But “some” Catholics really were fascists (see: Franco and his followers). That was no reason to tar all of them with the same brush. Ditto for Muslims today.

And that brings us back to President Obama, who went on national television last weekend to again emphasize that he’s Christian, not Muslim. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 18 percent of Americans now believe Obama is a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009.

They happen to be wrong, just like Lincoln’s accusers were, but that’s not the point. So please, dear readers, save me the e-mails about Obama’s birth certificate, his Kenyan father, and his Indonesian school. Suppose, instead, that the president really was a Muslim.

Wouldn’t that be OK, in this great land of liberty?

The answer, clearly, is no. That’s what this debate is really about.

And we should all be ashamed about it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University.