"Our great enemy is Roman Catholicism," wrote David Gregg, pastor of Boston's Park Street Church, in 1888. "This is a system thoroughly organized, and if we are to take it at its own word, it is root and branch, in toto, anti-American."

"The jihad is coming quietly to America by the intentional building of Muslim populations in small to medium American cities," blogger Pamela Geller wrote in 2007. "Islam is a political ideology and it is incompatible with democracy," she wrote in 2008.

Has Islam replaced Catholicism in American religious politics?

According to Jonathan Den Hartog, assistant professor of history at Northwestern College in Minnesota, the way many Christians react as American Muslims increase in numbers and prominence has a lot in common with the way many Protestants responded to early America's growing Catholic population.

"There was a long tradition of seeing Catholics as controlled by Rome, or controlled by their local parish priests, or manipulated by Jesuit agents," Den Hartog told CT. "Also, Americans remembered the persecution that Catholics had inflicted, whether under 'Bloody Mary' in England or in the French Wars of Religion or in the exile of the Huguenots."

A scholar of American religious history, Den Hartog is expanding his dissertation, Patriotism and Piety, into a book exploring religion in the Federalist Party.

What sort of rhetoric did one hear about Catholics in those days?

The biggest concern that lot of people have in that period is whether [Catholics] can actually be proper citizens of the United States in a democratic republic. They often [say] they're in bondage to a foreign power, by which they mean the Pope. So because these individuals are religiously bound to another entity they can't be free citizens of the United States.

How did that translate into political and social action?

In the 1830s, there was a riot outside of a convent in Boston. Boston is a very interesting case study, because it was originally founded by Puritans and it really maintained a very Protestant character for a long time. As Irish-Catholic immigrants started coming in, there was a great concern over what this meant for the city, what it meant for the state of Massachusetts, and what it meant for the nation. There were also riots in Philadelphia and New York City against Catholic immigrants.

Politically, I've talked about two different moments when there was strong resistance to Catholic immigrants. One occurred at the American founding. In certain states you see moves to exclude or limit the political rights of Catholics. One good example of this would be John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But in 1776, in the state of New York, he pushed for a bill that would have required every citizen to renounce any connection to any foreign power. And the idea would be to exclude Catholic voter participation. It's worth noting that did not succeed.

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Later you see the American Party. In most histories they're referred to as the Know Nothing Party. The Know Nothings were decidedly Protestant, decidedly of native stock, somewhat secretive. Hence their name—if asked if they were a member of this party they would say they knew nothing about it. But they are decidedly anti-immigrant. They want to limit immigration and they're very suspicious of Catholic involvement in the nation. The Know Nothing Party was able to elect a number of state legislators and a few national legislators. But then in the 1850s they collapsed as a party. Some of the Know Nothings fed into the Republican Party, but the Republicans as a whole were actually fairly open to immigration. They didn't make any ethnic claims.

What was the church's involvement with these anti-immigrant strains?

There was no official support. I should make that clear. But throughout, I think you can trace strong religious motivation in those periods. John Jay, for instance, was a very sincere Episcopalian, but because his family had suffered Catholic persecution he was very suspicious that Catholics could be members of the new nation. Later, if we're talking about either those riots in the 1830s or the Know Nothing Party, you have to set that in the context of the Second Great Awakening. Many of these people that opposed the Catholics were themselves the products of conversion to evangelical Christianity. They're definitely inspired by that.

What's the religious connection to opposing these Catholic immigrants? I would point to this general desire of a wide span of American evangelicals to have a Protestant republic. They really connected Protestant Christianity with a republican form of government, but there was no formal establishment. After 1833, no state had a religious establishment. And nationally, because of the First Amendment, there was no national church. The only way their Protestant republic can be preserved is on an informal level. It's social and cultural; it's not official and political. Hence, that type of establishment was very much threatened by new immigrant groups, by the threat of Irish and German Catholics coming in. Because if it's just informal, if it's just about who can rally the most voters, then when you had these different voting blocs coming in, it presented a real problem.

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What were the goals of these different movements? Did they want Catholics to leave? Did they want them to remain as second-class citizens? What was their ultimate desire?

I'm a little bit unclear with the Know Nothings. I don't think they're necessarily opposed to the immigrants that are already present, but they want to limit their influence. I'm not aware that they want to remove voting rights, for instance. But they want to make it clear that this type of immigration is not welcome. They never get the numbers to actually make that happen. It's not really until the 1920s that you see strong national legislation limiting the numbers of immigrants coming in. But had the Know Nothings prevailed, they would have liked to have quotas and some sort of religious test for political entry.

Anti-Catholic sentiment was a major part of American life until the election of John F. Kennedy.

Most people see Kennedy's election as a turning point. Definitely it's in the 1960s into the 1970s that you saw Protestants turning their attention away from anti-Catholicism, and the religious enemy became not so much Catholics as secular humanists. So you see a shift in religious language, and that paved the way in the late 1970s into the 1980s for greater cooperation between Catholics and Protestants over the issue of abortion. So it's remarkably only within the last, say, generation or two that some of these strong anti-Catholic attitudes have broken down among Protestants, finding that they have that shared moral concern. But then I would emphasize how Vatican II opened up the church to greater dialogue with Protestants and made the Catholic liturgy less foreign.

How is the place of Islam in America today analogous to the place of Catholics in the past?

One way is this concern for authority in the nation. The American ideal would be that citizens have to be self-governing and not dependent on outside forces. This was always the criticism of Catholics, that they were dependent on direction from the Pope and from their priests. This is an ongoing criticism of American Muslims. I'll hasten to add that it's not necessarily accurate, criticizing Muslims as having an outside authority—that they're bound by the Qur'an, which would be seen as an antidemocratic document. Of course there's no formal structure in Islam, but some of the passages in the Qur'an, if interpreted literally, would seem to be antidemocratic and, hence, against American republican values.

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Secondly, trustworthiness: Are they just a secret column or can they be full citizens?

Let me add a third. What is the mental picture of the nation? What's the desired composition of the nation? Just as 19th-century Protestants wanted a Protestant nation, you see still this desire for a Christian nation. The sociologist Will Herberg said after the 1950s that we're a nation of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Okay. Does that mental picture also extend to Muslims? And I think many critics of Muslim immigration would say no.

The countercurrent, of course, is Barack Obama in his inaugural address when he said we're a nation not only of Christians and Jews but of Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims, and even believers in nothing at all. There are strong competing voices here between those who want a strong religious definition to citizenship and those who want to define America as entirely neutral on any religious claim. I think that's really the debate that's going on right now.

I have seen evangelicals come down on both sides of this. Richard Land, for instance, has had some public pronouncements about, for instance, the Ground Zero mosque. On the other hand, he also has issued declarations in support of immigration. So there might be a separation between the questions over immigration and questions over religion.

Can we learn anything from the 19th-century experience? It seems, ultimately, that intimidation doesn't work, that the church does not at all present a gospel face when trying to use power to intimidate minorities, but it has a much greater influence when it accepts immigration realities and seeks to work missionally in those groups. That seems to be much more productive than looking to take over the arm of the state to achieve a religious goal.

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