Back in the early 1850s, there was a third-party movement, officially known as the American Party, but more commonly referred to as the Know-Nothings, supposedly because its secretive nature required its members, if asked about it, to reply "I know nothing." At a time when the explosively divisive issue of slavery was coming to dominate American politics, the Know-Nothings saw a different threat to the republic: Catholic immigrants.
I have been reminded of the Know-Nothings in recent weeks because of the manufactured controversy over a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site. The irrational hysteria, the overblown rhetoric, the rank demagoguery we have been subjected to in recent weeks resembles nothings so much as this historical shame called the Know-Nothing Party.
According to historian Michael F. Holt, the Know-Nothings believed that a "Catholic conspiracy or papal plot ... sought to subvert America's republican institutions and steal control of government from the hands of native-born Protestants." The Catholic Church, in the words of one Know-Nothing, meant "to plant its flag of tyranny, persecution, and oppression among us." Know-Nothings proposed that only native-born Protestants be allowed to hold political office, that immigration be severely restricted, that the naturalization process take 21 years, and that immigrants be denied voting rights (including the imposition of a literacy test).
Ultimately, the Know-Nothings insisted that Catholics could not be good Americans. Catholics belonged to a religion that was hostile to democracy, they cried, that was controlled by a foreign despot (the pope was still a temporal leader of a substantial state at the time) to whom Catholics owed their true allegiance. No matter what they said, they were not to be trusted. They might pretend to be good Americans, but they were out to destroy the country.
More than a 150 years later, with two-thirds of the Supreme Court (6 of 9 justices) being Catholic, this hysteria about the threat of Catholicism seems utterly absurd, as indeed it was. But it is no more ridiculous than the rhetoric about Islam being spread by some Republicans in this current ginned-up controversy.
As we approach the ninth anniversary of 9/11, one of the sadder developments of the last two years has been the increasing demonization of Islam as a religion. It was not always so. In the aftermath of those attacks, George W. Bush, to his lasting credit, took great pains to distinguish between the terrorists who inflicted the horrors of that day and the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world who rejected what those radicals did in the name of their religion.
Just six days later, with the rescuers still searching for the dead and missing, Bush went to the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. (That center, by the way, is a mere two miles from the White House, a possible target of United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania). Bush said: "America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect."
Even more importantly, he denounced any possible intimidation of American Muslims: "Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior." This was real leadership--not pandering to people's basest emotions, but insisting that they live up to their highest principles. It was the best moment of his presidency.
Six days after the attacks, you could have understood if the anger and emotion got the better of some people. You would think that nearly nine years later, we would be closer, not farther, from the ideals Bush preached (and practiced) that day, but it is not so. Instead, demagogues have seized upon the proposed Islamic center in New York as an opportunity to equate Islam with Al Qaeda, and tar all Muslims with that terrorist brush.
Leading the national charge have been two faux populists looking to ride anger to political success, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. Palin's tweets on the subject, like the woman herself, are too lacking in substance to warrant serious attention. But Gingrich, precisely because he should know better, is even worse. Gingrich's statement on the subject seems plucked directly from the Know-Nothing playbook: "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization." Change "Islamist" to "Catholic" and that statement is indistinguishable from the Know-Nothing platform. "Sadly, too many of our elites are willing apologists for those who would destroy them if they could. No mosque. No self-deception. No surrender." Gingrich simply asserts that allowing a mosque anywhere near the World Trade Center site is a surrender to terrorism, he makes no distinction between American Muslims and Islamist radicals. His sneering indictment of "elites" echoes a Know-Nothing tract by nativist Thomas Whitney, A Defence of American Policy, in which he slams both established parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, as being led by "political leaders who have yielded to the pretensions and demands" of the "Romish Church."
But Gingrich goes even further. To the best of my knowledge, the Know-Nothings never suggested that Catholics be denied permits to build churches. Gingrich, even as he farcically struts like a music hall parody of Churchill, is the one who is engaged in surrender. He surrenders America's tradition of religious freedom without hesitation: "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." In short, the United States should lower itself to the intolerant level of the Saudis. This is what passes for "toughness" in his twisted world view. For Americans to do as Gingrich proposes would be the real surrender. That would be a victory for the hateful men who flew the planes into the towers.
Contrast Gingrich's frightened, narrow-minded rhetoric with the calm, confident words of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking yesterday after the Islamic center passed its final bureaucratic hurdle: "Whatever you think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here." (Bloomberg's speech is well-worth reading in its entirety, here.)
It is Bloomberg who is demonstrating determination and grit, insisting that we as Americans remain true to our best selves: "We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else." The path taken by Palin and Gingrich is the lazy one: talking tough, but doing the easy thing. They may gain some short-term political advantage by having done so, but I am confident that the verdict of history will be as severe for them as it is for the Know-Nothings of the 1850s.