“We are awake to the hypocrisy and schemes of that designing, crafty, subtle, far-seeing and far-reaching Power, which is ever-grasping after the whole world, to sway its iron scepter with blood stained hands over the millions of its inhabitants.” 

Judging from recent op-ed columns and street demonstrations, one might presume that the “far-reaching Power” is Islam, seeking to enslave and dominate and now ready to build a mosque near ground zero, where suicidal terrorists killed some 2,700 people and traumatized a nation. 

But one would be wrong. 

That crafty Power, in fact, was the Catholic Church. The words were written in 1852, protesting a gift by Pope Pius IX of a block of marble for the Washington Monument. The outrage felt by true-blue Americans was so great that the marble was reportedly tossed into the Potomac. 

America has never done religious conflict well. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a virulent hostility was directed against Catholics, who were viewed as ruthless, criminal, anti-democratic minions of the pope, willing to dissemble and lie and do anything necessary in order to impose Catholic beliefs and Catholic law on Protestant America.  

Indeed, one 1855 treatise in defense of the infamous Know-Nothing Party said that Catholics are trained “if necessary for self immolation to give success to their ambitious aspirings.” 

Catholics were seen as the suicidal terrorists of that day, willing to do anything to make victorious the papal and Jesuitical plot to subdue America. 

Because U.S. Catholics have experienced nearly two centuries of anti-Catholicism, we should be particularly sensitive to language that is intended to inflame hostility against another religion or group. Unfortunately, some of the rhetoric and extreme language used to debate the possible construction of a mosque in New York City two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center echoes the kind of Nativist condemnations of Catholics and other minorities that have stained American history. All of Islam is indicted for the actions of an extremist faction, and Muslims themselves are treated by some as a fifth column, seeking to infiltrate and then take over American society. We’ve heard this language before. 

There is no denying that in academia, foreign policy and the popular mind, there is occurring intense discussion about the nature of Islam and its relationship to modernity, to women, to freedom of expression, to freedom of religion. These are legitimate subjects of dialogue and debate. 

And religious tolerance does not mean that one therefore must tolerate actions that violate values and standards of our society, be it female genital mutilation or, as shown on a recent Time magazine cover, a child bride with her nose cut off. 

But just as we would not want Catholicism to be stereotyped by Sicilian honor killings or IRA massacres, so should we be wary of convicting all of Islam for the actions of a (radical) minority. 

The fierce controversy that has been engendered by plans to build the Islamic community center does not bode well, and tensions now are radiating out to other communities. 

But we do salute New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan for offering to mediate the conflict. As a scholar of U.S. Catholic history, Archbishop Dolan will be sensitive to the dangers of bigotry as well as to the recent painful history of his adopted city. His priority will be the community of New York, but also the values and ideals of American society at its best. 

It is our hope that the rhetoric will cool and that our nation will not make the same mistakes that it made a century and a half ago, allowing our worst fears and worst instincts to trump our highest ideals.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.