February 26, 2001
The Nature of Anti-Religious Sentiment
-- Martin E. Marty
The current flap over blasphemous art at the Brooklyn Museum quickenedthis week's round of complaints that anti-Catholicism is rampant. Mailings arrive full of appeals for funds to fight anti-Catholicism throughanti-defamation fronts.
The Ashcroft hearings elicited last month's round of complaints thatanti-evangelicalism is similarly rampant. Periodicals, radio programsof the call-in sort, televangelism, and quoted expressions in the pressby evangelicals and their defenders would suggest that evangelical "defense-against-defamation" organizations have their work cut out for them.
Anti-Judaism has been a chronic issue in the United States, and thereis an Anti-Defamation League of long standing that indeed has its workcut out for it. But is anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism, worse now thanit was years ago? Is it a national crisis? Does it get reportedon fairly? Of course, every expression and occurrence is offensive. But, for instance, when one lunatic paints a swastika on a synagogue inMadison, Wisconsin, we hear that liberal Madison deserves to lose its reputationbecause it is an anti-Semitic place.
Anti-African-American expression is the classic racist plague in America,and there is plenty of it around -- though little directed against thechurches as such. There is anti-Mormonism, and it needs checking. Secularists constantly get defamed, and their organizations speak up. But the African-American churches, the Latter-Day Saints, and ordinarysecularists prosper.
Without wanting to congratulate the United States, be a Pollyanna, ordisplay blind eyes, observers might still call for perspective. InAmerica, there are virtually no dead bodies thanks to religious strife;fewer in the whole twentieth century than you will read about elsewherein one day's newspapers. Most religious groups never had it so good. If they knew the history of group conflict, they would find today's formsmilder than in the times of real and all but officially sanctioned anti-Judaism,anti-Catholicism, anti-fundamentalism.
In a paragraph that can easily be misunderstood, let's ask: whatis going on here? Psychologists and sociologists unite in remindingus that in-group strength comes in the face of out-group pressure. If everyone around a group ignores them or takes them for granted or elicitsno defensive response, it is harder for a group to prosper. (And why don'tmainline Protestants, those folks that everyone can sneer at with impunity,have anti-defamation fronts?) Could some of the cry that "our group"suffers under perceived "anti-" prejudices be not only a sign of lost perspectivebut also a strategy that will promote prosperity of the beleaguered?