“American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims and the History of Religious Intolerance” by Peter Gottschalk (Palgrave MacMillan, 242 pages, in stores)
Many schools tend to gloss over the uglier aspects of American history — at least, mine did. Sure, just about everyone has heard about the Salem witch trials, thanks largely to popular culture, but does anyone remember the Puritans hanging Quakers because they practiced their religion differently?
In spring 1660, in Boston Common, Mary Dyer was led to the gallows. Drummers pounded loudly to make certain her voice could not be heard by onlookers, for fear she might infect others with her beliefs.
Peter Gottschalk tells her story and the stories of others in his book, “American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims and the History of Religious Intolerance.”
“A community cannot progress toward greater tolerance as long as it does not grapple realistically with the dynamics of bias and constructively engage individuals struggling with the presence of bigotry in their own thoughts,” he writes. Understanding why people behave the way they do, he stresses, does not mean finding justification for their acts.
Quakers, Irish Catholics, Sioux warriors who participated in the Ghost Dance, Jews, Mormons, Branch Davidians and Muslims all find a place in Gottschalk's book, among others.
“Certain Anglo Americans saw their nation as essentially defined by an English and Protestant heritage among those natively born in the United States. This helped make the narrative of the (English Protestant) ‘Pilgrim fathers' crossing the Atlantic and settling so important, even though Spaniards established settlements long before the founding of Plymouth, and Native Americans millennia before then,” Gottschalk writes.
The Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, across the harbor from Boston, was burned to the ground by a mob in 1834. Sioux warriors, along with women and children, were slaughtered at Wounded Knee in 1891. The Ku Klux Klan, all but gone after 1871, arose with new ferocity in 1915, adding Catholics and Jews to blacks to their targets.
Gottschalk continues his chilling narrative to the siege at Waco in 1993 that resulted in the deaths of nearly everyone in the Branch Davidian compound. In one view, he says, it was a “doomsday cult hellbent on its own destruction” and the end was inevitable. “From another perspective, the disaster at Waco represents an imperious government's massacre of those asserting their rights of religious expression and gun ownership.” Among those present at the siege with the latter viewpoint was a man who two years later would act on his beliefs in downtown Oklahoma City: Timothy McVeigh.
Gottschalk concludes his review of religious intolerance with a chapter discussing changes that may be made to recognize the causes of intolerance and to resist those impulses in ourselves.
“American Heretics” is not light reading for a rainy afternoon. It is a serious effort that calls for serious thought. Don't let this scare you away, though; it has lots of illustrations, too. And the last 31 pages consist of notes, bibliography and index, so the main text is shorter than it would appear.