Two millenniums ago, an itinerant young Galilean teacher with a fondness for parables told one of his audiences that no sensible person ever would pour new wine into old wineskins. The skins, after all, would burst, and ruin would follow.
It’s an apt metaphor for this increasingly frenzied and foolish moment in our history. Rising tides of anti-Muslim hysteria and animosity toward undocumented immigrants, most of whom are Latinos (the bitter new wine), have conjoined and are forcing us toward an eerie recapitulation of the Nativist movements (the dreary old skin) that roiled our nation’s national and state politics for more than 120 years. Ever since 9/11, a sensible rejection of Salafism and other variants of politicized Islamic neo-fundamentalism has been given way in many quarters to a generalized antipathy to Islam itself. Step by step, that prejudice is migrating into the political mainstream, a process that has accelerated with the controversy over a proposed Islamic study center a few blocks from ground zero.
This week, for example, Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis at the American Family Assn., wrote that 1st Amendment guarantees of religious freedom do not apply to Muslims and that no more mosques should be constructed anywhere in America. As he told a reporter for a leading political website (talkingpointsmemo.com), every single mosque is a potential terrorist training center or recruitment center for jihad and thus “you cannot claim 1st Amendment protections if your religious organization is engaged in subversive activities.”
Fischer is hardly a figure from the fringe. He will be speaking at next month’s Values Voter Summit — his organization is one of the event’s sponsors — along with GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Speaking of plots, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) continues to insist that the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to those born in the United States, should be repealed because jihadists are sneaking across our borders and having children, who they then take back abroad to be trained as terrorists but who one day will reenter the country as citizens bent on our violent destruction. The FBI says there is no evidence to support this claim, but on CNN this week, the former judge compared himself to Winston Churchill warning his countrymen against Adolf Hitler’s rise.
There were vulgar Nativist firebrands from the 1840s forward who indulged in hysteria about Catholic and, later, Jewish and Orthodox Christian immigrants. More influential, and insidious, were what might be called “reasonable Nativists,” like the otherwise admirable John Quincy Adams, who were too fastidious for overt bigotry but argued more in sorrow than in anger that immigrants who believed what Catholics believe simply couldn’t be assimilated into the United States because their fundamental beliefs were foreign to our values.
Obviously, if you really thought the millions of Catholic immigrants pouring into the United States lived their lives in full conformity to every papal tic and dictate, there was reason for concern. In fact, Catholic parishes across the country, particularly under Irish-born pastors, became powerful educational forces, inculcating American notions of middle-class respectability into new immigrants. Patriotism was preached from those pulpits far more often than any papal bull. Similarly, recent studies have shown that young American Muslims whose families are formally affiliated with a mosque are far less likely to flirt with any form of radicalism than those without that connection.
The notion is ludicrous that the legions of Americans who profess Islam and go about their daily lives exactly like the rest of us somehow are hanging on the latest fatwa from some benighted Wahhabi imam back in the Middle East.
So too the movement to repeal or gut the 14th Amendment. It’s little recalled today, but from its inception in the Alien and Sedition Acts, Nativism has sought to alter the legal terms of citizenship. Throughout the 19th century, states attempted to pass similar measures, attaching different times and conditions to full citizenship. Though it’s fashionable in the current debate to assert that the 14th Amendment was conceived simply to guarantee the rights of freed slaves, serious constitutional historians point out that it also was intended to impose one uniform standard of citizenship.
Nativism was one of our history’s most painful chapters. Reliving it would be torture.