The Burden of Triumphalism: A shared history for Catholics and Muslims
01 Aug 2010

Geert Wilders is a Dutch parliamentarian who recently announced that he would be launching an international movement to ban immigration from Muslim countries to the West. In April of 2009, Wilders delivered a speech in Florida in which he said:

“Europe might be very well on its way to destruction. …The Europe you know from a tourist visit or from the story of your grandparents is on the verge of collapsing. We are now witnessing profound changes that will forever alter Europe’s destiny and might send the continent in[to] what Ronald Reagan once called ‘a thousand years of darkness’. The take-over of Europe is part of the global fight of Islam for world domination.”

For anyone who knows something about the historical experience of the Catholic Church in the U.S., these words have a chillingly familiar ring. In 1856, then Congressman Thomas R. Whitney wrote a book articulating the nativist anti-Catholic fears that were at the heart of his particular party’s platform. Speaking about a “subtle and insidious” papal plot to conquer the U.S. from within, Whitney calls attention to the myriad Catholic “encroachments,” which he strongly believed were jeopardizing the very foundations of the republic. Among these were the Church’s attempts to: erode the principle of the separation of church and state; sanitize the public memory of its own historical “enormities”; establish control of the post office; and secure the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Considering the rich legacy of Catholic contributions to U.S. American civil society, some of Whitney’s words appear so absurdly xenophobic that they may strike us as droll. I doubt, however, that this was the case for the U.S. Catholics of Whitney’s day. Many of them were immigrants who were struggling against great odds to integrate the values and practices of their own very different cultural backgrounds and interpretations of Catholicism into their lives in their new home-a home which promised them, above all else, the liberty to do precisely that.

Though he is Dutch, Wilders’s Islamophobia definitely has its vibrant homegrown U.S. counterpart. Muslim Americans are the first to point to the vast outpouring of goodwill and solidarity that they have experienced from their fellow citizens since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. At the same time, however, anti-Muslim sentiment is also on the steep upswing. In the past few months alone, at least three organized movements against the building of mosques and/or Muslim community centers have made the headlines: one in New York City, near Ground Zero; one in Murfreesboro, TN; and one in Riverside County, CA.

What is profoundly ironic about the comparison between the struggles against anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim hysteria in U.S history is that they also share a very important, but generally overlooked, common element. Both have had to strive to realize their ‘American dream’ under the weight of their own traditions’ legacies of triumphalist ideals, rhetoric, and practices.

In the late 19th century, for example, at the very same time that U.S. Catholics were arguing that there was nothing incompatible between being Catholic and being devoted to the principles of the U.S. Constitution, the Church of Europe was struggling to stem the rising tide of secular regimes which threatened the political and social dominance of the Church.

The Church was also digging in for a fight against the so-called ‘modernist heresy’ which purveyed such ‘pernicious’ philosophical and doctrinal ‘errors’ as: the idea that “Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true”; the idea that “Catholics may approve of the system of educating youth unconnected with Catholic faith and the power of the Church, and which regards the knowledge of merely natural things, and only, or at least primarily, the ends of earthly social life”; and the idea that “the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.” Whitney, in other words, had a lot of ammunition which he could, and did, draw from the history and rhetoric of Catholic triumphalism.

Contemporary U.S. Muslims-and other Muslim minorities around the world-find themselves in a position very similar to that of late 19th-century U.S. Catholics. They are striving earnestly and tirelessly to prove what they deeply believe: that there is no inherent tension between Islam and the core values of most secular democracies. But they have to do this in the context, not only of virulent Islamophobia (a la Wilders), but also in the face of ultra-conservative Muslim religious scholars (including some extremists) who, for very different reasons than Wilders’s, seek to breathe new life into medieval triumphalist tropes which speak about the spread of the ‘Abode of Islam’ throughout the world such that one day all human beings will live under Shari`a law.

Is there a lesson for us in these comparative historical reflections? I think there are many. For now, however, two are critically important. In the short term, Christians and Muslims must stand together in solidarity against religious bigotry of all kinds. Such bigotry is an assault on our respective traditions and our dignity as persons of faith. It is also an attack against the mutually held conviction that our religions have much to offer modern societies as they seek to improve the lot of their own people and the entire human family. In the long term, Christians and Muslims must together reevaluate the triumphalist dimensions of our own traditions-dimensions which glory in allegedly ‘holy’ domination and triumph over others (and especially over each other), rather than in the truly holy virtues of service and love which are the source of the spiritual vitality of Christianity and Islam.

Scott Alexander, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Islam at CTU and the Director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program.

© 2010 Catholic Theological Union