Trump’s religious bigotry is as American as apple pie (COMMENTARY)

Print More
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a Pearl Harbor Day rally aboard the USS Yorktown Memorial in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, on December 7, 2015. Photo courtesy of  REUTERS/Randall Hill

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a Pearl Harbor Day rally aboard the USS Yorktown Memorial in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, on December 7, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Randall Hill

Welcome to America’s latest culture war. As the battle over same-sex marriage recedes into the fog of memory, Islam has become the great obsession of cultural conservatives.

Ben Carson has said that no Muslim should be president of the United States because Islam is incompatible with our Constitution. But the undisputed heavyweight champion of today’s culture wars is Donald Trump, who, in response to the November terrorist attacks in Paris, called for closing down some American mosques and for creating a database to track all Muslims living in the USA.

On Monday, one day after President Obama urged Americans not to “turn against one another” out of fear in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., Trump trumped his prior statements on Islam with his most incendiary proposal to date: a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”


READ: Detroit front-page editorial decries Trump for Islamophobia


On the left, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley called Trump a “fascist demagogue.” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Trump “sounds more like the leader of a lynch mob than a great nation like ours.”

Republicans also piled on, with former Florida governor Jeb Bush calling Trump “unhinged” and former vice president Dick Cheney saying Trump’s ban “goes against everything (Americans) stand for and believe in.”

As a religion professor, a believer in religious liberty and an American who would like to continue to host Muslim friends from abroad at my dining table, I too find Trump’s latest provocation abhorrent. As a historian, however, I have to say that Trump is no anomaly.


READ: Some Israelis sour on Trump’s upcoming visit


Trump is popular because he is giving voice to anxieties deeply held in the heartland, not least the anxiety that “they” are taking away “our” country. In North Carolina, for example, 40% of Republican voters in a recent Public Policy Polling survey think Islam should be illegal. But Trump also stands in a long line of culture warriors from the late 18th century to today.

Protestants attempted to banish both Catholics and Mormons from the American family on the theory that their religions were incompatible with American values. Just as some today argue that the religious liberties of Muslims should not be respected because Islam is not really a religion, many 19th century Americans claimed that Roman Catholicism was really a political scheme to take over the country and that Mormonism was really an insidious business enterprise. Liberals who allowed Catholics or Mormons to hide behind the cloak of religious liberty were called either dupes or fools (or both) because popes and Mormon presidents alike were considered unrepentant theocrats.

So today’s Islam wars are not an aberration. They are the norm. Culture wars are a recurring feature in U.S. history — episodes in the story of a not-so-indivisible nation forever at war with itself.


READ: Donald Trump urges ban on Muslims entering US


Culture wars persist because the founders never quite decided whether they wanted a Christian country like England had been or a secular one like France would become. Most basically, culture wars persist because conservatism persists, and because conservatives have from the French Revolution forward seen cultural warfare as a way to win political power by preaching a gospel of the fallen and the lost — by lamenting how far America has descended from the glory of its founding and by promising to “make America great again.”

When faced with a culture war that takes aim at Catholicism or Mormonism or Islam, Americans have always had two choices. One is to give in to their fears — to banish or even kill those who do not worship like them. The other is to remember that what really makes this country great is the freedoms it offers, not least the freedom of religion.

Stephen Prothero is a professor in Boston University's religion department and the author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation." Photo courtesy of HarperSanFrancisco

Stephen Prothero is a professor in Boston University’s religion department and the author of “The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.” Photo courtesy of HarperSanFrancisco

One reason for enshrining religious liberty in the Bill of Rights was to take it outside the excitements of the moment. Americans have always been tempted to restrict liberty when they feel under attack. This is precisely when we need to stand up for our liberties and against the demagogues who would diminish our country by taking them away.

(Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, is the author of the forthcoming book “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles that Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage.” This column first appeared in USA TODAY.)

  • Pingback: Trump’s religious bigotry is as American as apple pie (COMMENTARY) | Christian News Agency()

  • Pingback: Trump’s religious bigotry is as American as apple pie (COMMENTARY) - mosaicversemosaicverse()

  • Larry

    “White Supremacists Love Trump’s Anti-Muslim Policy”
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/progressivesecularhumanist/2015/12/surprise-white-supremacists-love-trumps-anti-muslim-policy/

    “white nationalists from all sides of the movement have been throwing their support behind Trump. Trump has been endorsed by individuals such as former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, and Jared Taylor, one of the most significant white nationalists in the movement today. ”

    What is more American than white supremacy and sectarian discrimination? 🙂

  • Be Brave

    Q: What is more American than white supremacy and sectarian discrimination?

    A: Christian bashing atheism. Probably 500 to one. Or more.

    That was easy.

  • I want more Muslims in the USA.
    And bring the Syrian refugees here. We need them badly and it happens to be the humanitarian thing to do.

    Muslims in America:*
    1. Educated. They comprise less than 1% of the population yet 4% of the professional services in medicine and technology.
    2. Professional. They adapt to American life more quickly than any other religious group and begin paying taxes sooner.
    3. Freedom. The presence of Muslims strengthens separation of church and state vis-a-vis Christianity.
    4. Secularism. Believe it or not, Muslims who leave the totalitarian regimes where religion is strictly enforced and settle in America lose their religion faster than any other religious group.
    *Pew Research.

  • Larry

    Glad that you acknowledge secular thinking is a very American idea. Doesn’t change that Trump is courting the ignorant cretin bigot vote.

    You know things are bad when Progressives can say in an unambiguous way, “I agree with everything Dick Cheney just said”.

  • Be Brave

    No one has to apologize for being “terrified” about Islam and Muslims. The history of violence and tyranny dates to 20-seconds ago. Ooops, update: Now.

    And while Latter Saint theology is incompatible with “the faith delivered” to the authentic saints, as described in the New Testament . . . there are no Mormons calling for the slaughtering of Joseph Smith blasphemers.

    Side note: This is hilarious watching the common Christian basher coming to the aid and defense of Muslims.

    This is fun times indeed.

  • The name TRUMP will forever be joined by the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and the other filthy pigs of world history. Trump no longer means ANYTHING other than filth. Too bad his children will have to walk in shame because of their father.

  • Pingback: Americans fear terrorism, mass shootings — and often Muslims as well - SpokaneFāVS()