Review: American Heritics

Book Cover

American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance

Peter Gottschalk is a professor of religion at Wesleyan University, his book American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance reflects that bias. It seems that he has never met a “religion” that he didn’t like. Gottschalk does examine several of America’s prejudices, past and present. He looks at the oppression suffered by Quakers, Catholics, American Indians, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and Branch Davidians. In the last chapter he tries tie together the factors that inspired this prejudice but uses examples that the never mentioned in the text, objections to Catholic’s mixed gender beer gardens, for one example. I understand the need for a conclusion but it should be supported in the text, not by evidence introduced only to support the conclusion. After all, his chapter is about Irish Catholics and the biergartens were the providence of German Catholics.
Gottschalk strongly objects to the word “Cult”. He prefers “New Religious Movement”. It is telling that he first uses the term to describe the Branch Davidians and not for the Ghost Dance movement which really was a new speciality that went beyond individual tribes traditional beliefs. He also seems to fully accept the later addition of polygamy to the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints and David Koresh’s instance on having sex with the wives and daughters of parishioners as normal parts of religious life. A religious leader having sex with a minor, David Koresh or a modern LDS polygamist, is still a criminal. They are also perverting their religion for personal advantages. Only male’s with the wealth to support multiple families were permitted multiple wives. Only Koresh had license to sexually sample all the woman in his church. In both cases church members objected that this practice was not part of their faith but the overwhelming power of the charismatic leaders stifled resistance.
Isn’t there some point where “religion” becomes and has must be recognized as an evil influence, a cult? If there is such a line, you will not find it in this book. I think that Gottschalk’s intention is to argue that Islam is being misrepresented, the violence that some factions preach is not true Islam and the actions of those few are being used for political and economic advantage by many vocal Americans, that conservative fear, not Islam, is at the root of the recent waves of hate crimes and publicity stunts aimed at Muslims. His thesis is true but his argument lacks persuasion. Reading the book it seems that he is saying that promiscuity and violence are simply normal advances in religious thought. That Koresh and the latter-day revelation endorsing polygamy were valid advances of their faith and not just, as my wife would say, male pigs behaving like pigs. How can he point out that violence is not part of Islam if he refuses to notice that sexual promiscuity is not part of Seventh Day Adventism or part of the original tenets of the Church of Latter-Day Saints?
Read Joseph Gaer’s “What the Great Religions Believe” if you are curious about Islam or Tyler G. Anbinder’s “Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s” to understand the political motivations behind anti-Catholicism thought. Gottschalk’s work here is well written but not well reasoned.


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