I jumped at the chance to read Peter Gottschalk's American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance since I used "Heresy" in the title of my biography of Quaker minister Lucretia Mott. I was not disappointed. Gottschalk devotes a chapter to the first generation of Quakers, and meditates on their unique place in American history: "The fact that many Americans mistake Friends for Shakers or the Amish reflects how their challenge to social norms remains in the public imagination, even though what distinguishes them from those norms remains largely unknown" (p. 28). Gottschalk's study is more than a history of religious intolerance. He is inspired by the "Islamophobia" that characterizes the contemporary U.S., defining "Islamophobia" as "unjustified social anxieties toward Islam and Muslim cultures," with an emphasis on the social rather than individual nature of this phobia (p. 170). Gottschalk argues that it is not the religious beliefs of Muslims that disturb many Americans, but "perceived differences in race, ethnicity, clothing, facial features, skin complexion, and/or place of national origin" (p. 171). Throughout, Gottschalk stresses that the history of religious intolerance in the United States has been exacerbated by other factors, most notably nationalism. He begins with the startling observation that "I was raised an Islamophobe" (p. 1), explaining how his formative years were marked by the OPEC oil embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Gulf War, and the conflicts between Israel and its neighbors. A short book that offers a sweeping view of American history,
Gottschalk's goal is to teach Americans to recognize intolerance in order to better avoid it.*
Gottschalk defines heresy with some flexibility, as dissent, unorthodoxy, fanaticism, and, more broadly, difference.** He attributes subsequent religious intolerance to the concerns of the dominant group of European-American Protestants rather than to the characteristics of the persecuted. Gottschalk focuses on specific instances of religious intolerance, devoting separate chapters to discrimination against Quakers, Irish Catholics, Sioux, Jews, Mormons, Branch Davidians, and Muslims (the title of the book does not do justice to his scope). These chapters are roughly chronological, with the first chapter examining the Puritans' execution of Quaker Mary Dyer, the chapter on anti-semitism analyzing the attitudes of the1920s Ku Klux Klan and Henry Ford, and the chapter on Mormons focusing on the political careers of Reed Smoot, George Romney, and Mitt Romney. All chapters offer useful historical background on their subject, and Gottschalk brings each example up to the present, noting progress toward tolerance as well as continued prejudice. In the chapter on Muslims, titled "The Sum of All Fears," his discussion takes us through the recent "manufactured" (p. 183) crises of Terry Jones's burning of the Quran and the "Ground Zero Mosque." This chapter includes an amazing photograph of a demonstration against the proposed Islamic community center, with a sea of white protesters. While all of these topics will be familiar to scholars, the book is well-suited to classroom assignment for its organization and accessibility. For example, he helpfully defines "Protestant," with which my students sometimes struggle.
As a basis for discussion, I recommend the provocative conclusion, "How We Can Do Better." Gottschalk lists common ingredients in intolerance, including anxieties over a particular religion's reliance on "Psychological Coercion," "Loss of Physical Privacy," "Secrecy," "Oppressed Women," "Irrationality," and the potential for "Social Disorder" (p. 202-205). In addition, he points out, the dominant group rationalizes its intolerance by making generalizations about the minority. For example, the society might define an entire group by their religion, or portray them as too influenced by foreign connections, or as one whose religion preaches hatred of Americans. Gottschalk also includes the rationalization "There's a grain of truth in every stereotype" (p. 207). These broad concepts, combined with examples of religious intolerance in American history, offer readers the opportunity to question their own assumptions.
*Our colleagues at Exploring the Study of Religious History review it here.
**While Gottschalk treats heresy as an accusation directed at others, Mott redefined it as an obligation of activists: non-conformity and resistance to all forms of orthodoxy. Unitarian minister Theodore Parker also embraced the epithet's religious and political significance, see Dean Grodzin, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism.