Isn’t it great to be religious in America? After all, there are so many deities in the world today vying for the mantle of the “One True God®,” it’s nice to know that there’s one nation on earth that guarantees you the right to worship any deity you see fit — if for no other reason than to hedge your spiritual bets. But alas, all is not well in the land that separates church from state and (constitutionally, anyway) doesn’t recognize an official state religion. For you see, according to Georgia yokel Jody Hice, if you’re one of the 2.2. billion or so of the world’s Muslims who worship that bloodthirsty desert Satan known as Allah, then your right-to-worship ain’t protected by the Constitution, my friend. Because in America, some people think that if you’re not genuflecting to a heavily armed, tax-cutting American Jesus, then you can kiss your religious rights goodbye.
Jody Hice is a Georgia-based syndicated right-wing radio host and pastor who is currently running to fill the 10th congressional seat vacated by current GOP senatorial candidate Paul Broun. Now, admittedly, it’s hard to out-crazy Paul Broun, a guy who once stood in front of a wall of stuffed deer heads and criticized the idea of evolution — and most science in general — as un-biblical heresy “straight from the pit of Hell.” But this being the Deep South, loony right-wing politicians are more prolific than fantastic barbecue and diabetes, and Jody Hice doesn’t disappoint.
As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, Hice recently claimed that freedom of religion doesn’t apply to Islam. “Although Islam has a religious component,” Hice stated, “it is much more than a simple religious ideology. It is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protection.” And that’s not all. Talking Points Memo dug up similar statements Hice made at a Tea Party rally, at which he claimed that, “[m]ost people think Islam is a religion, It’s not. It’s a totalitarian way of life with a religious component. But it’s much larger. It’s a geo-political system that has governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components. And it’s a totalitarian system that encompasses every aspect of life and it should not be protected [under U.S. law].”
Now, look, you don’t need to be a card-carrying, Caliphate-beckoning, beard-stroking, desert monkey-bars training, Kalashnikov-toting member of Al Qaeda to recognize that Hice is one-hundred percent wrong about Islam and religious freedom in America. First off, the mind-boggling level of ironic self-unawareness on display from a Protestant religious fundamentalist who accuses Islam of having “governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components” while simultaneously proclaiming on his campaign website that American society is “based upon Christian principles” and “imbued with Judeo-Christian values” is downright awe-inspiring. It’s pretty damn ballsy of Hice to criticize Muslims for wanting to hijack all levels of American society while also bragging that Christians have already done that.
But lack of self-awareness aside, what Hice is invoking is an age-old stance that has challenged America’s most pie-in-the-sky ideals since day-one: tyranny of the majority. And no, I don’t mean the kind of “tyranny of the majority” espoused by nineteenth century South Carolina senator and pro-slavery nitwit John C. Calhoun, who claimed that an evil majority of abolitionist zealots sought to snuff out the political voice of God-fearing, black people-owning Southern planters everywhere. No, I mean the type of tyranny of the majority that emerges when a particular belief or practice becomes so widespread and so well-known among the majority of the population that it sheds its historical provenance and becomes ensconced in that nebulous cultural void known as “the way things have always been.”
Christianity — especially the Christianity espoused by Jody Hice — falls into that category of a belief system that the majority of Americans subscribe to and, consequently, accept as the “default” American religion — even if it’s not recognized by the Constitution as such. But just because the majority of Americans are Christians doesn’t mean that Christianity is the state religion and that other belief systems should play second-bananas to the Jesus clubs. Unless you’re someone like Jody Hice. You see, despite America’s espoused ideals of religious tolerance, stances like Hice’s have been historically more common than most people think. In other words, quite often in America, “freedom of religion” in practice meant “freedom of religion as long as that religion is the same religion that I and everyone else I know practices.”
The worst offenders of this type of cultural tyranny of the majority — in the past and today — have been American Protestants, if for no other reason than they got here first (aside from Native Americans, but they were heathens, so who cares) and constituted the majority religious population for a very long time. Historians John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal note that early on “a Protestant majority was secure in its belief that extension of its morality and beliefs to the nation as a whole was its God-given destiny, and it was confident that freedom of religion in America was a fact that Protestant ambitions could in no way undermine.”* Thus, when new religious groups gained traction, the various factions of Protestant Christians, drunk on their own majority cultural clout, have often freaked out, and they’ve reacted in a way that rendered them “unable to see that minority groups suffered at the hands of majority traditions.”*
Thanks to the long-time Protestant domination of American religious culture, other belief systems, even different factions of Christianity such as Catholicism and Mormonism, have faced discrimination for not being true “American” religions. Basically, Catholics and Mormons used to be what Muslims are today: supposedly shadowy, alien religious agents that threaten to infiltrate American society and alter it for the worse. This type of fear of the religious “other” is what’s freaking the Hell out of already borderline insane folks like Jody Hice.
Catholics, for example, were long considered to be scheming pawns of the Imperial Papal regime who were hell-bent on infiltrating America’s democratic society and transforming it into a slave colony beholden only to the pointy-hatted Roman Pontiff.
Heck, when Catholics started immigrating to the U.S. in large waves in the mid-nineteenth century, they spawned a Nativist Protestant political party known as the Know-Nothings (who I’ve written about more here and here) whose primary goal was to stamp Catholicism out of American life. The Know Nothings vowed to bar all Catholics from holding political office, and their supporters sometimes started riots during which they tarred-and-feathered and even murdered Catholics. One of the most notorious of these riots, known as “Bloody Monday,” occurred on August 6, 1855 in Louisville Kentucky. During a heated election that pit the Know Nothings against the Democratic Party, a wave of Protestant mobs attacked Irish Catholic neighborhoods in an orgy of street fighting, property destruction, and violence that left twenty-two people dead.
But Catholics haven’t been the only group to bear the brunt of Protestant religious intolerance. Also during the nineteenth century, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormons, were considered by “mainstream” American Christians to be a weird, heretical sect that needed to be put in its place. Mormonism was, of course, founded in 1830 by the boringly named New York prophet Joseph Smith, but Smith’s beliefs — especially his idea that the Christian God had once been a mortal man — earned him the heretic tag from upstate New York’s Protestant majority, and he eventually fled with his followers to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he established a new LDS settlement. But when Smith sanctioned polygamy as part of Mormon practice, the local non-Mormons jailed him and his brother. All hell eventually broke loose on June 27, 1844 when a mob stormed the jail and shot Smith and his brother to death.
These past examples of American religious intolerance may be more extreme than the bone-headed rantings of Jody Hice, but the common-thread of tyranny of the cultural majority remains. Wherever there are belief systems that stand in obvious contrast to the beliefs of the majority of Americans, friction and even violence have been the results. This strain of religious intolerance in the erstwhile land of the free continues to have repercussions, particularly in a post-9/11 world where troglodytes like Hice can reap electoral rewards from trafficking in anti-Islamic demagoguery.
As Corrigan and Neal write, “stories of religion in American have taught us to see religious intolerance and violence as something inflicted upon the United States or something that occurs in less-civilized and sophisticated nations than our own.” Thus, when would-be theocrats like Jody Hice tout their Jesus bona fides by invoking the Muslim devil, they’re tapping into a deep historical well of religious intolerance that has justified action against “foreign” minority faiths “all in the name of upholding American values and protecting American liberty.”* Of course, the obvious retort to such instances of religious bigotry is to remind America’s home-grown theocrats that religious tolerance and diversity ARE American values that DO protect American liberty. Anything else would truly be uncivilized.
* See John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal, eds., Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 5, 9.