September 8, 2010

In his New York Times column (August 22), Nicholas Kristof wrote about the controversy over the proposal to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan: "For much of American history, demagogues have manipulated irrational fears toward people of minority religious beliefs, particularly Catholics and Jews . . . Today's crusaders against the Islamic Community Center are promoting a similar paranoid intolerance, and one day we will be ashamed of it."

His column reminded me that members of my family, showing the influence of their Scottish/Irish ancestors, believed that the pope was behind a Catholic conspiracy to take over the government of the United States. I used to sit on the front porch with my grandmother, otherwise the gentlest, most unconditionally loving person in my young life, while she regaled me with stories about what was going on under the dome of the Roman Catholic cathedral one block away. They're storing guns in the basement, Grandma assured me, and I imagined that the windows in the dome were gunports through which "they" planned to fire on the rest of the city.

Grandma was a lifelong Presbyterian, but at some point she stopped attending church and began to listen to radio evan­gelists and to send them modest contributions. Her mail was full of the radio evangelists' newsletters and gospel tracts with vivid pictures of the devil and the fires of hell devouring hapless sinners—along with appeals for more money. Some of it was benign. She adored Billy Graham. But some of it was toxic: anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant. As she aged, my grandmother became more dependent on the radio preachers. She also subscribed to their newspapers for me, including The Sword of the Lord, which condemned ecumenism, mainline church leaders and the civil rights movement—in short, everything I found compelling about the Christian church and its worldview. Nothing galvanized editors of that publication like Catholicism; when John Kennedy ran for president, The Sword of the Lord and Grandma knew that the end was near.

I loved my grandmother and treasure the memory of her love for me, but I'm ashamed of her worldview, and I cringe at Americans' recurrent irrational fear of minorities.

The most tragic dimension of that irrational fear is the way it is exploited by politicians. I cannot comprehend how otherwise sane and thoughtful people can conclude that an Islamic com­munity center two blocks away from Ground Zero is inappropriate—not to mention dangerous—and think that the religion of the Qur'an is any more violent than much of the religion of the Bible. It's not a mosque and it's not on the site of the World Trade Center twin towers, but even if it were, the right of all Americans to pray and worship how and who and where they choose is one of the most important rights and values of our nation. It is not negotiable.


Anti-Islamic sentiment


Thanks for your editorial ... I, too, remember anti-Cathoiic sentiment growing up in Sheboygan, WI in the late 40s and early 50s, though any number of their children were neighborhood playmates.

As with the latest Texas School Board manifesto to limit the number of lines regarding Islam in Texas schoolbooks, Christianity in general has a long and sad history of hatred.

Exceptions aside, and there are plenty, the fearful crusades of the past and of recent days, are well-funded, simply because fear and hatred have an uncanny ability to open billfolds even as they close the mind.

Our own Presbyterian history is spotty, indeed, and when your Grandmother turned to the radio, she encountered a phenomenon perfectly suited to the airwaves and print-media, with their lurid depictions of demons and hell. And these days, TV and now the internet, continue to be the perfect means by which hate-filled groups are able to reach an enormous audience, many of which are fearful and disturbed, and, thus, easy targets for manipulation.

As I read your note, I thought of the American pulpit especially in mainline churches - the need to be truthful about prejudice and the need to lift up Jesus, less a triumphant conquerer and more a passionate teacher who seeks to give us the kingdom of God - the alternative to our kingdoms of war and hate and fear and prejudice.

And to be clear that the ways of the Kingdom are not negotiable.

Tom Eggebeen
Los Angeles

John R. Rice and the Sword of the Lord

John, I so much enjoyed reading your column. John R. Rice was my granddad, and I remember very clearly growing up listening to Granddad's sermons and believing that the Pope was the representative of the Antichrist, and JFK was his willing agent. I think people with your background (and mine) can play a valuable role in helping to reduce religious intolerance and promote a focus on the true fundamentals of faith - loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. I've just finished writing a book about this topic titled "The Sword of the Lord: the roots of fundamentalism in an American family." Check out

Privileged rights

How can John Buchanan say one of the ten amendments, the right to religious freedom, is “not negotiable” when the right to free speech or the right to own and bear arms is limited by cities, states and courts? (“Non­negotiable,” Sept. 21). Why would religious rights be specially privileged?

If a court restricted a religious group’s activity or the location of its building, why be surprised? Islam believes in plural marriage, but that is not permitted in the U.S.--as decided by laws and courts.

Edwin Blum
Prescott, Ariz.