Ethics of Development in a Global
Dec. 6, 2002
THE HISTORY OF RELIGIOUS
CONFLICT IN THE UNITED STATES:
REVOLUTION TO SEPTEMBER
Throughout its history, the United States has characteristically remained
a country of two things: a country of immigrants, and a country of unmatched
religious diversity. And yet when compared with the rest of the world –
where these two very factors alone have so often engendered horrible religious
wars and decades of enduring conflict – the history of religious conflict in the
United States seems almost nonexistent.
That is not to say the United
States has been immune to its share of conflict explicitly rooted in
religion. This paper explores the various manifestations of religious
conflict throughout the history of the United States, from the Revolutionary War
to the attacks of September 11th and their fallout. A
distinction is drawn between religious intolerance, which is not the focus of
this paper, and outright religious persecution or violence. Similarly, the
paper reflects efforts made to de-conflate religious conflict from ethnic and
racial conflict, which has been much more prominent throughout the history of
the United States. In examining the history of religious violence,
intolerance, discrimination, and persecution in the United States, we arrive at
some possible explanations for why the United States has seen such minimal
religious conflict despite being so religiously
It has been said that the
United States is a nation founded on religious conflict. The colonies were
settled by those escaping religious persecution in Europe. There is even
some evidence that religion played a major role in the American Revolution and
that revolutionaries believed it was willed by God for the Americans to wage war
against the British.
As the Church of England was
striving to establish one, uniform religion across the kingdom, colonial America
was divided, each of the colonies being dominated by their own brand of
Christianity. Due to the distance from England and the room in the
colonies, many religions were able to establish themselves in America, colony by
colony. For example, Anglicans, who conformed to the Church of England,
populated Virginia. Massachusetts was home to the Puritans. Pennsylvania
was full of Quakers. Baptists ruled in Rhode Island. And Roman
Catholics found a haven in Maryland, where they could establish themselves amid
the other colonists’ protestant majority. Each of these colonies
maintained a distinct religious character and favored one religious
The American colonists saw the revolution not only as a war for political
independence, but to protect the religious diversity of the thirteen
colonies. Put in other terms, it was a war for religious independence and
freedom. To sever ties with Mother England would be to ensure that the
various Christian denominations could co-exist on the American continent.
The conflict was, in part, a conflict that pitted the various American religious
denominations against the Church of England, who wanted to impose a uniform,
Anglican religion on the colonies.
The period after the Revolutionary War saw a lot of
infighting between the various states and Christian denominations.
Virginia, which was home to the largest portion of Anglicans loyal to the Church
of England, was the scene of notorious acts of religious persecution against
Baptists and Presbyterians. Anglicans physically assaulted Baptists,
bearing theological and social animosity. In 1771, a local Virginia
sheriff yanked a Baptist preacher from the stage at his parish and beat him to
the ground outside, where he also delivered twenty lashes with a
horsewhip. Similarly, in 1778, Baptist ministers David Barrow and Edward
Mintz were conducting services at the Mill Swamp Baptist Church in Portsmouth,
Virginia. As soon as the hymn was given out, a
gang of men rushed the stage and grabbed the two ministers, took them to the
nearby Nansemond River swamp, and dunked and held their heads in the mud until
they nearly drowned to death.
The period during and soon after the
Revolutionary War also saw abundant political manifestations of religious
conflict. At the time, some states abolished churches, while supporting
others, issued preaching licenses, and collected tax money to fund and establish
state churches. Each state constitution differed in its policy on
religious establishment, or state-supported religion. It would not be
until well after the adoption of the Constitution of 1789 and the First
Amendment religion clauses that the disestablishment for which the United States
is so recognized became the de facto
The early part of the
19th Century was relatively quiet in terms of religious conflict in
America. The religious conflict that stands out in this period involves
tensions between Catholics and Protestants, culminating in violence directed at
Irish Catholic immigrants. The surge in immigration from Europe during the
19th Century coincided with and influx of Catholics and the rise of
activist Protestantism in the U.S. As strong Protestant values permeated
the country, immigrants who were Catholic also became viewed as outsiders and
undemocratic. These views are separate from, but on top of, the harsh
anti-Irish sentiment that also spread during the period.
1830s and 1840s, anti-Catholic violence broke out in the Northeast and
elsewhere. In 1835, one incident was ignited by a speaking tour by Lyman
Beecher, who published Plea for the West, a book about a Catholic plot to
take over the U.S. and impose Catholic rule. After Beecher’s speaking tour
passed through Charlestown, Massachusetts, a mob set fire to the Ursuline
convent and school. In Philadelphia in 1844,
pitched gun battles broke out between “native” Americans and mostly Irish
Catholics. Martial law had to be declared in order to end the violence.
The Mormon War, the Utah
Around the same time as anti-Catholic violence broke out in the
Northeast, another religious group was being chased out of the same area.
The Mormons, who emerged after the 1830 discovery of The Book of Mormon, were a
religious community chased out of New York, out of Ohio, out of Missouri, and
out of Illinois, to Utah, where they finally settled.
In Illinois in
1839, the Mormons settled Nauvoo and built a thriving Mormon town there,
complete with a large Mormon temple. In the short period of three years,
the Mormons prospered, announced the doctrine of polygamy, and founder Joseph
Smith announced his candidacy for president of the United States. Locals
were intimidated and envious. Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested on
morals charges and held in jail. On June 27, 1844, an anti-Mormon mob
attacked Nauvoo and burned it to the ground. They
also invaded the jail cells where Smith and his brother were being held, and
Shortly after the sacking of Nauvoo, Brigham Young
announced his leadership of the Mormons and led them to Utah, where they
flourished. In 1857, fears of a religious state of Mormons grew and the
president ordered federal troops to enforce the installation of federal judges
and a new non-Mormon governor. At some point in the interim, this is still
a subject of debate, the infamous Mountain Meadow Massacre happened – in which
local Mormons slaughtered a group of 120 California-bound pioneers who were
openly hostile toward their religion and making threats to return from
California to attack them.
The massacre only
fueled anti-Mormon sentiment. Tensions escalated. The Mormon army, also
known as the Nauvoo Legion, was called out to respond to the imminent arrival of
2,000 U.S. Army troops. Salt Lake City was evacuated on standing orders to
burn the city should an invasion occur. No violence was to break out, as
attention was diverted to the Civil War.
As the federal government
focused its energies on fighting the Civil War, legal sanctions and political
oppression of the Mormons continued that virtually dissolved the church by
1887. It wasn’t until the 1890s, when the Mormons ended the practice of
polygamy, that Utah finally achieved statehood in 1896.
The Jewish Experience
end of the 1890s, the U.S. began seeing the first wave of anti-Semitism, just as
the federal government began restricting immigration from Europe. While
concentrations of Jews have lived in America since colonial times, they were
largely tolerated and discriminated against in localized incidents. By the
1920s, immigration quotas had taken effect and limits on the basis of national
origin. These quotas were not repealed during the Holocaust, even as
Jewish refugees were fleeing Hitler’s Europe.
Between 1933 and 1939, the
period of the Great Depression, anti-Semitic fervor reached heights never before
seen or later seen in entire the history of the Jewish experience in
America. In urban areas such as New York and Boston, Jews were violently
attacked. Most anti-Jewish sentiment was
manifested in social and political discrimination. Assaults, propaganda
and intimidation were mostly carried out by special societies, such as the
Silver Shirts or the Ku Klux Klan.
Overall, the experience of Jews in
America has been encouragingly free from the violent persecution seen elsewhere
in the world. Indeed, racial and social intolerance persisted since the
colonial days until the 1950s, as Jews were not allowed membership in country
clubs, excluded from colleges, banned from practicing medicine, and from holding
political office in many states. However, religious conflict rooted in
anti-Semitism has been largely non-violent.
Hate Crimes as Religious
The incidents of violence against individual Jews
that characterized the anti-Semitism of the Great Depression would have fallen
under the category of religious hate crimes if the FBI, then known as the Bureau
of Investigation, were collecting those statistics at the time. Despite
the diversity of the United States, in all aspects such as race, national
origin, religion and sexual orientation, the federal government (by way of the
FBI) did not start keeping tabs on hate crimes until 1992. Religiously
speaking, anti-Semitic hate crimes have always dominated the national hate crime
statistics gathered by the FBI for the past ten years. However, the
current numbers paint a changing landscape.
According to the ACLU, the
U.S. is home to more than 1,500 religions and 360,000 religious centers. Christianity has long dominated the country’s
religious make-up, followed by Judaism. According to the latest statistics
released by the Harvard University Religious Pluralism Project, Islam has
surpassed Judaism and is the country’s Number Two religion.
Following the terrorist attacks of September
11th, the FBI found that anti-Muslim sentiments spiked and
verifiable, religiously motivated hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S.
increased 1,600 percent in 2001 from the prior year.
In fact, the FBI, which has tracked hate crimes
since 1992, reports that Anti-Muslim hate crimes had previously been the
second-least reported. But in 2001, they became the second-highest
reported, second only to anti-Jewish hate crimes. It should be noted that
these statistics are separate from crimes motivated against race, national
origin or ethnicity – these are crimes against person and property in which
religion was a motivating negative
The U.S. has been fortunate in
that it has not witnessed religious war and conflict of the scale seen in the
Middle East and Europe. Although the number of different religions in the
U.S. has steadily grown over the decades, this diversity has not let to
conflict. Some propositions for why this may be:
States as a country of immigrants
This factor defuses historical and
religious claims to territory, which are not as strong as they are in places
such as the West Bank and Ireland. It also may explain a greater
likelihood for a system of conflict to eventually resolve itself in favor of
tolerance rather than further conflict, as each new group of immigrants to
America has generally shared a story of
Constitutional protections and religious
The American tradition of the separation of church
and state cannot be overlooked in mediating and possibly preventing religious
conflict to erupt. In many other parts of the world, religion is still
highly influential and, in some cases, sponsored by the state. However, in
a country with such religious diversity, religious disestablishment has proved
necessary so that the government could not take sides in a religious
Diversity creates tolerance
argument also exists that the immense diversity in and of itself has promoted
tolerance among religions. Religious pluralism inspires attitudes that
homogeneity is a natural part of the religious environment and that there is
room for each religion to exist in America.
As the United
States enters the 21st Century, these important factors will prove to
be influential in the face of catastrophic events, and economic, social and
political changes that challenge the level of religious tolerance the nation has
maintained for over two centuries.
 Religion and
the American Revolution. “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.”
Ed. James H. Huston. 1998. http://lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel03.html
 Encyclopedia of American Religious History,
Revised Edition, Vol. II. “Religious violence.” Edward L. Queen II. Page
 Queen, 602.
 Emily Eakin. “Reopening a Mormon Murder
Mystery.” The New York Times, section B, page 9, Oct. 12, 2002.
 Queen, 605.
 “Antisemitism in the Depression Era
(1933-1939),” Leonard Dinnerstein. Religion in American History, A
reader. Page 413. 1998.
“Religious Liberty.” American Civil Liberties Union. http://www.aclu.org/ReligiousLiberty/ReligiousLibertyMain.cfm
 “Geographic Distribution of Religious
Centers in the U.S” Committee on the Study of Religion. Harvard University, Jan.
 “Foreword.” Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of