07/30/2010 05:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Memorials, "Mosques" and Burning Convents

In polite society, one supposedly never discusses religion or politics. In America, it seems we can rarely separate the two.

The latest fracas over faith in the public square involves the plans for Cordoba House, an Islamic Center, including a "mosque," to be built two blocks from Ground Zero. Proposed to bridge the differences between Islam and the West, the $100-million project, which includes a prayer room rather than an actual mosque, has won the backing of Mayor Bloomberg, among others. But with the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks looming, the race for Governor of New York heating up, and a Presidential election in the wings, Cordoba House was plunged into America's boiling pot of religious politics. And like New York's recent weather, the political firestorm that has been ignited shows no sign of cooling.

The pot was first stirred when Sarah Palin implored the group behind Cordoba House not to build the center, asking Muslims via Twitter, to "refudiate" the plan.

Raising the temperature was Newt Gingrich on his website,, where he warned that "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization."

This whole argument might be construed as a momentary blip in a slow summer news cycle. But the fear and loathing of faiths that supposedly threaten America's existence is nothing new. The grade school notion of America as a "Melting Pot" nation in which all are welcomed to worship is a myth. Since Spanish Catholics slaughtered French Protestants in Florida in 1565, ingrained religious animosity has been an unhappy and uncelebrated American tradition. For centuries, Catholics, Jews, Mormons and other "foreign" religions have encountered disdain, discrimination and worse.

In fact, the political attacks on the Islamic Center recall an earlier assault on a religious compound built near an American memorial.

It was August 1834 and the place was Charlestown, Massachusetts, outside Boston. The "threat" then came from a Roman Catholic convent where Ursuline nuns ran a private school for girls called Mount Benedict.

But the Ursuline Convent stood near sacred ground -- the site on which the Bunker Hill Monument was being built. To many Americans, the Ursuline compound nearby was an affront, a symbol of a foreign faith that was evil, hateful and a threat to the nation.

On the night of August 11, 1834, a few hundred locals descended on the convent. As the nuns and their young charges cowered, both the convent and school were ransacked and torched by the mob. A mausoleum was then opened, coffins overturned and the remains scattered. When the three nights of arson and mayhem was over, the Ursuline convent and the school it housed were in ruins.

The desolation of the Ursuline Convent in August 1834 is not one of the proud events that historic Boston touts to patriotic visitors. And it is hardly unique. America's past is littered with similar examples of intolerance, sectarian hatred and ultimately, religious violence. A decade after the attack on the Ursuline Convent, Philadelphia was torn apart by the anti-Catholic Bible Riots, in which dozens died and the homes of mostly Irish Catholic immigrants were destroyed along with two Catholic churches in an argument begun over which Bible to use in public school.

For much of America's history, the religious fear and loathing were directed mostly towards Catholics -- especially Irish Catholics -- who were thought to be plotting to turn America over to the Pope. Now, of course, the perceived threat comes from Islam and a symbol like Cordoba House has replaced the nefarious Ursuline Convent.

In 1790, after taking the oath of office just a few blocks from what is now Ground Zero, President Washington wrote a letter to another much maligned and distrusted group -- the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. "Happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens."

His words should be required reading for public officials -- past, present and future. They might even make a good plaque at Ground Zero.

You can read more about the burning of the Ursuline Convent, the Philadelphia Bible Riots and the history of anti-Catholicism in A Nation Rising.