A new study finds that many Americans remain uncomfortable with Islam and believe its teachings are at odds with American values — which, ironically, echoes in some ways how Americans felt about Catholics a century or so ago.
Slim majorities of the people polled this summer by the Public Religion Research Institute say Muslims are an important part of the U.S. religious community and that they are comfortable with Muslim women wearing burqas or Muslim men praying in public in an airport. Those majorities were less than 55 percent in each category.
The report released Sept. 6 by the Brookings Institution, which partnered with the religion institute for the study, noted similarities to how Catholics and Mormons were treated in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Throughout American history… immigrants professing faiths outside the existing mainstream have tested the commitment to religious liberty,” said the report, “What It Means To Be An American.”
It noted that Mormons’ endorsement of polygamy was seen as an affront to marriage and a threat to democracy, leading to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being “hounded” to “the brink of legal extinction by the 1890s.”
Antipathy toward Catholics went deeper, the report said in an analysis of the data by Brookings fellows E.J. Dionne and William A. Galston.
“Catholicism aroused two fears,” they said, “that its theological principles were incompatible with liberal democracy and that it required transnational loyalties to a ‘foreign potentate’ (the pope) that took precedence over American citizenship.”
It took American Catholics a century to allay those fears, the pair noted. And part of that included the reinterpretation of Catholic teaching by the Second Vatican Council “to eliminate the elements least compatible with liberal democracy… the tendency toward theocracy and reservations about freedom of religion and conscience.”
The study also found a double standard for how people judge whether those who commit violence in the name of religion really represent that faith.
A large majority — 83 percent — told researchers they do not think self-identified Christians who commit violence in the name of Christianity are really Christian. But when it comes to self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of violence, less than half — 48 percent — say the perpetrators are not really Muslim.
Galston and Dionne drew parallels to previous generations when, in times of world war, German- and Japanese-Americans were subjected to intense persecution. Some of that was fostered by the government, they noted, such as when more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were forced from their homes into concentration camps.