Religious Intolerance, America, and the World
A History of Forgetting and Remembering
- ISBN: 9780226313931
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: January 2020
John Corrigan’s Religious Intolerance, America, and the World: A History of Forgetting and Remembering makes an intriguing case for how American Protestants presented themselves as advocates for religious and civil liberty abroad while often instigating religious intolerance at home.
Corrigan’s main thesis is that 19th century American Protestants were unable to reconcile their pride in US religious liberty with the nation’s cultural and religious genocide against indigenous peoples or Puritan treatment of dissenters; nor could they account for ongoing religious intolerance against Roman Catholics and Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons). Therefore, Protestants “spatially displaced that intolerance” (4). As intolerances at home multiplied, Protestants pointed to instances of intolerance in other countries, usually against Protestant Christians, and “urged the U.S. government to take action against it” (4).
Corrigan begins his argument in 1830s and 1840s America amid violent attacks against Roman Catholics and Latter-day Saints and the rapid development of American Protestant missions abroad. He then dissects the religious intolerance of the Puritans, arguing that they treated the indigenous people like the Amalekites in the Bible. In the biblical account, God told the Israelites that he would exterminate the Amalekites for their evil and remove all memory of them from the Earth—that he would “blot” them out (33). Corrigan traces this line of thinking from the Puritans to their 19th-century descendants who treated non-Protestants as Amalekites, cataloging their alleged evils and calling for them to be wiped out, leading Roman Catholics and Latter-day Saints to reciprocate with the same rhetoric (51). Corrigan also shows how this treatment of religious outsiders at home was mirrored abroad. Though they didn’t practice religious tolerance at home, Protestants cried out for US government protection when their missionaries entered Catholic-dominated countries and mission fields.
Corrigan spends most of the book contrasting religious intolerance at home with Protestant advocacy for religious tolerance abroad. He traces this story through the President Woodrow Wilson era, then jumps to the Cold War, during which white evangelicals continued to harangue Roman Catholics and Jews, but also then attacked Communism, New Religious Movements, and Asian religions while diverting their eyes when historically Black churches were bombed during the Civil Rights era. He briefly touches upon a 1990s-era religious liberty bill designed to punish nations that oppress Christians, then jumps to the Donald Trump era. Here, Corrigan briefly showcases how white evangelicals today identify themselves with the global persecution of Christians and now claim they are the most persecuted people in a post-Christian America, even as they retain significant power and fuel religious intolerance against Muslims.
What makes Corrigan’s book intriguing and original is his application of various theories, principally from the international relations field, and his juxtaposition of intolerance at home with advocacy abroad. Corrigan’s interdisciplinary approach and theoretical grounding enables him to offer fresh insight to otherwise well-trodden ground. He delves into how national identity is forged, the role of collective memory, the collective forgetting and remembering of trauma that does not square with national ideals, and the creation of myths and ostracization of others. Most interesting here is his discussion of how Protestants spatially othered Roman Catholics and other outsiders, viewing them as strangers in a foreign land (102-105). This helped Protestants to separate themselves from the violence being committed against these groups and retain a positive view of American religious liberty.
From a church history standpoint, Corrigan’s work also shines because he compares the domestic record with the missionary reports from abroad. Too often, church historians separate missions from domestic narratives or give little attention at all to the history of missions, so Corrigan is helping readers see more by bringing them together in conversation.
The Amalekite section of the book is particularly strong, as is his extensive narrative on how Protestant Americans treated Roman Catholics and Latter-day Saints. I also appreciated his critique of Wilson, the president whose white supremacist viewpoint kept him from recognizing religious intolerance at home even as he advocated for religious and civil liberties abroad (151). Throughout, there are extensive endnotes documenting significant primary and secondary reading. In many places, Corrigan does an excellent job of capturing the mental gymnastics at work, such as how Protestants attempted to rehabilitate the Puritans (84) or how they critiqued Catholics after Protestants violently destroyed a convent (88).
Overall, this book is a useful resource for scholars of religion, American studies, cultural studies, and international relations. It is well written and accessible for lay readers.
One critique of the book is that it is uneven. At times, the 19th century accounts seemed repetitive, but the 20th- and 21st-century accounts felt too swift, with massive time jumps. The Cold War section covered multiple new outsider movements at once. The contemporary account of the Trump-era white evangelicals, though interesting, felt shallow in comparison to the rest of the book.
Another critique of this volume is it is looking at instances of religious intolerance from one side. That makes for a compelling narrative, but it means Corrigan does not note, even in footnotes, what interfaith efforts there were and what efforts exist today to promote religious tolerance in the US. Nor does the book explore how these outsider groups forged their own way toward greater acceptance in American society. This appears to be purposeful—Corrigan’s mission is to demask the myth of religious harmony, and thus he focuses his critiques on Protestant hypocrisy. However, his critique narrows over time from Protestants broadly to white evangelicals more specifically, letting more progressive Protestants—who were not 100 percent tolerant—off the hook. The full story is a lot messier, with some light as well as darkness.
Christina Littlefield is an associate professor of communication and religion at Pepperdine University.
Christina LittlefieldDate Of Review:March 22, 2022