Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Peter Gottschalk on American Heretics

I recently finished reading Peter Gottschalk's new book, American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance.

The author's agenda is fairly straightforward: he wants his audience to understand the history of religious intolerance in America that has existed in various forms since the colonial period. In seven chapters, Gottschalk offers distinct examples of religious persecution in America towards Quakers, Irish Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Muslims.

The overall narrative of Gottschalk's book is easy to follow and convincing. It would be difficult to read more than a few chapters without getting upset at the way that many Americans have been treated since the founding of the first colonies. While most of the material in American Heretics is common knowledge for the historian, the way that Gottschalk packages the information into succinct chapters on diversified religious groups provides a helpful and concise format for teaching about intolerance in America. The information on the Branch Davidians in the sixth chapter, in which Gottschalk ardently defends this Seventh-Day Adventist group as a misunderstood religious sect that was assaulted without just cause, was particularly interesting to me. It has been some time since I have thought about this episode in American history.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I wondered if Gottschalk used American Heretics as a platform to preach. I found it curious that he was quick to chastise many Americans for unfair stereotypes of Muslims, for instance, citing the remarks of extreme political pundits and conservative radicals as evidence. Gottschalk's argument that Americans have too often judged religious groups based on unfounded depictions is a point well taken, but I would want to ask him if the ridiculous political statements of Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and radicals such as Terry Jones, who have made inappropriate comments about Islam, reflect all conservative Americans? Or, more generally, should all white Protestant Americans be seen as political conservatives opposed to Obama, and eager to picket the establishment of a mosque at Ground Zero? Gottschalk rightly scolds our forefathers for persecuting "other" religious groups that do not meet what many Americans have deemed to practice acceptable forms of faith. But we should also be careful not to lambaste Americans with traditional beliefs for crimes they haven't committed or views they haven't expressed.

At the very least, Gottschalk's American Heretics should serve as a helpful starting point for students as they reflect on religious intolerance in America's history.

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