A prominent 19th century preacher knew how to spark the flame of violence against immigrants with different religious beliefs: Portray them as part of an international conspiracy against America's way of life.
Lyman Beecher's fiery tract in 1835, "A Plea for the West," ignited fears of a Catholic plot to empty out on America's shores "the sweeping of the streets" of Europe "to lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power." Shortly after one of the Presbyterian minister's anti-Catholic sermons in Boston, a mob burned down an Ursuline sisters convent in Charlestown.
His voice was not an anomaly in American religious history. Similar rhetoric stripping individuals of their humanity and indiscriminately grouping them together as the cause of a nation's fears would contribute to generations of Jewish immigrants encountering virulent anti-Semitism.
We have long feared what we do not know. And we still do, new research suggests.
The good news: It doesn't have to be that way. Getting to know evangelicals, atheists, Muslims and Buddhists as individuals leads to greater acceptance of people of diverse beliefs, Robert Putnam of Harvard University and David Campbell of the Univeristy of Notre Dame indicate in their book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.
The proof: Catholics and Jews today are held in the same warm regard by other Americans as mainline Protestants, Beecher's tradition, according to the research.
"Jews are the best liked religious group in the country," Putnam and Campbell write.
Yet the nation still has a long way to go to embrace religious diversity.
Putnam and Campbell found that other groups such as evangelicals and nonreligious Americans were moderately unpopular relative to mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, and Muslims and Buddhists were among the least liked religious groups in the nation.
• When people met across faith lines, the experiences were mostly positive, according to the Religion and Diversity Survey. About two-thirds of respondents said their contacts with Muslims were mostly pleasant; 6 percent said they were mostly unpleasant. Three-quarters said their contacts with Buddhists were mostly pleasant, with 3 percent saying they were mostly unpleasant.
And therein lies the hope for the future.
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From the Urantia Book:
140:8.11 "The Jewish rabbis had long debated the question: Who is my neighbor? Jesus came presenting the idea of active and spontaneous kindness, a love of one's fellow men so genuine that it expanded the neighborhood to include the whole world, thereby making all men one's neighbors. But with all this, Jesus was interested only in the individual, not the mass. Jesus was not a sociologist, but he did labor to break down all forms of selfish isolation. He taught pure sympathy, compassion. Michael of Nebadon is a mercy-dominated Son; compassion is his very nature."
100:4.5 "... If you could only fathom the motives of your associates, how much better you would understand them. If you could only know your fellows, you would eventually fall in love with them.
"You cannot truly love your fellows by a mere act of the will. Love is only born of thoroughgoing understanding of your neighbor's motives and sentiments. It is not so important to love all men today as it is that each day you learn to love one more human being. If each day or each week you achieve an understanding of one more of your fellows, and if this is the limit of your ability, then you are certainly socializing and truly spiritualizing your personality. Love is infectious, and when human devotion is intelligent and wise, love is more catching than hate. But only genuine and unselfish love is truly contagious. If each mortal could only become a focus of dynamic affection, this benign virus of love would soon pervade the sentimental emotion-stream of humanity to such an extent that all civilization would be encompassed by love, and that would be the realization of the brotherhood of man. "