In the cauldron of the 2015-16 presidential campaign, the legitimate concern about the threat of terrorism has melded into widespread anti-Muslim sentiment. The claim is that the United States is a Christian country and that Muslims will always be fundamentally at odds with the religious and cultural underpinnings of the nation. The charge is not just that Muslims are religious heretics, but that they can never be good American citizens. 

U.S. history is filled with the vilification of whatever the newest immigrant group at the moment might be. The charges against Muslims echo the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the pre-Civil War period when waves of immigrants, some Roman Catholics, from German-speaking parts of Central Europe and Ireland made Cincinnati the fastest growing city in the nation. 

In 2015, individual Catholics are prominent everywhere in business, politics and civic life. The Roman Catholic Church plays an important institutional role in the community. But in the 1830s, ‘40s and ‘50s, Americans spoke of the nation itself as a Protestant (not Christian) nation. 

That’s not what the Constitution says, but it’s what most Americans, who were overwhelmingly Protestant, assumed. Roman Catholics were not simply one more denomination; they were “Papists.” This is not a word that sits easily on the modern ear, but in a society in which everyone lived in the afterglow of the Reformation, the word carried multiple levels of meaning. 

In 1846 and ’47, some of the city’s most prominent writers, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, published a weekly newspaper entitled The Anti Papist: a Family Newspaper Devoted to Religion, Literature, News, Agriculture, etc. “What friend of truth, and lover of the liberties of his country,” wrote the editor in the first edition, “can witness the increasing tale of Roman Catholic immigration bringing to our shores millions whose characters have been formed under the influence of Popish superstitions, and ignorance, without alarm?” 

The reason Harriet Beecher Stowe, who a decade later wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, lived in Cincinnati was because she moved here with her father, Lyman Beecher, one of the greatest Protestant preachers of his generation. Rev. Beecher came to Cincinnati in 1832 to assume the Presidency of Lane Seminary and the pulpit of Second Presbyterian Church. 

Beecher imagined himself on a mission to save America. As he prepared to move here, he wrote a letter to Catherine, Harriet’s older sister, pleading with her to join him in Cincinnati, “the London of the West.” From his perspective, the “moral destiny of our nation, and all our institutions and hopes, and the world’s hopes, turns on the character of the West,” but “Catholics and infidels have got the start on us.” The stakes were dire, “If we gain the West, all is safe; if we lose it, all is lost.”

The struggle to suppress Roman Catholics and preserve a Protestant America was fought on many fronts. The Know Nothing Party became a force nationally and in city politics, employing mobs (“Kentucky toughs”) on election days to intimidate immigrants, especially Catholics, from going to the polls.

On a day-by-day basis, the Common Schools became the battleground. The practice of opening the school day singing Protestant hymns, reciting Protestant prayers and reading passages of the King James Bible in the McGuffey Readers were an affront to Catholic families. In the 1860s Bishop John Purcell challenged this Protestant dominance in Cincinnati by filing in the courts what became known as the Cincinnati Bible Case. 

Bishop Purcell argued that in America, the Common Schools reflected the values of the Protestant establishment, even though the Constitution promised a separation of church and state and religion should have no place in the schools. Purcell lost on the trial court level. He also lost in the Court of Appeals 2-1, but Alphonso Taft, the father of the future president and chief justice of the United States, wrote a dissent that supported the Catholic position. The reasoning in that dissent was cited by the Supreme Court majority in the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale, the case that banned prayer from the public schools. 

In 1846 the Anti-Papist asserted that “Papacy and enlightened Republicanism cannot co-exist.” In 2016, very few Cincinnatians would ever give it a thought that Catholics were incapable of being good American citizens. For many decades, Roman Catholics survived by retreating into a semi-autonomous enclave, building a separate parochial school system and a separate network of social organizations. That isolation slowed the ultimate integration of Catholics until after WWII. 

Hopefully, recalling the experience of Roman Catholic immigrants in the mid-19th century, will give American Muslims hope. Time matters. And perhaps it will also teach a lesson that the faster an immigrant group engages the general society, the faster real inclusion occurs. 

For non-Muslim Americans, this is a time to take seriously the nation’s constitutional commitment to religious freedom. That was a revolutionary concept in 1789. Like all principles that run counter to history and popular culture, its importance must be constantly reaffirmed in the most challenging of situations.