NORMAN — The news that a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan is suspected of shooting and killing three people near Jewish community centers in Kansas seems at first glance like a disparaged past flaring briefly into the present. Americans like to imagine that the KKK belongs to a long-gone South and anti-Semitism to a distant 20th century. Sadly, this better reflects a naive faith in the nation’s history of religious tolerance than the realities experienced by many religious minorities. Although the KKK has evolved and its membership has dwindled, it remains part of an American legacy of religious intolerance.
A central tenet of U.S. nationalism rests on a notion of welcoming huddled masses, but the idea of American exceptionalism also runs deep. When Americans have imagined their country’s uniqueness as defined racially, religiously or culturally, those outside those parameters are immediately suspect. Sadly, religion has often served as the catalyst for prejudice.
The Puritans sought to build a “city upon a hill,” which necessarily excluded “heathen” American Indians. In the early 19th century, Anglo Protestants viewed Irish Catholic immigrants as anti-secular subversives, burning a convent school in the Boston area in 1834 and sparking riots in 1844 that reduced some Philadelphia neighborhoods to combat zones. In this century, a combination of right-wing politicians, conservative donors and professional Islamophobes often portray Muslim Americans as potential fifth columnists seeking to spread sharia law throughout the land.
As fantastic as such suspicions appear from afar, we cannot underestimate their reality among those who complain that “this is not the nation in which I was raised.” As the nation continues to move away from a white and Christian norm — and especially during economic downturns — it becomes tempting to blame “outsiders” for the change from how “things used to be.” Defining life as a zero-sum game, the “other’s” success must necessarily come at the expense of “our” opportunity in a land “our ancestors” built.