Editor’s Note: The following is a series of excerpts from an interview published in the Washington Post. David T. Smith is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney and author of “Religious Persecution and Political Order in the United States.”
Interviewer: One of the key themes of your book is that there’s a big difference between popular prejudice towards religious minorities and government discrimination against them…Why does the government sometimes try to stop the persecution of religious minorities but sometimes aids and abets the persecutors?
D.T.S: For the state, the choice depends on who is the greater threat, the group getting persecuted or the group doing the persecuting?
When Americans suspect a religious group is undermining their country’s free, democratic political order, they demand—often violently—some radical action against that group.
Sometimes state actors will agree, seeing religious minorities as threats to political order and their own authority. The Mormons were forced to flee Missouri and Illinois by militias who feared Joseph Smith’s growing power. In the 1850s, the Republican Party equated Mormon polygamy with slavery. By the 1880s the majority of Democrats in Congress agreed with them, and together they passed measures to deny voting rights to Mormons and even seize Mormon temples.
In the 1940s, police and sheriffs in hundreds of towns allowed mobs to assault Jehovah’s Witnesses as they handed out pamphlets in the streets. The assailants weren’t hoodlums but respectable citizens, often led by members of the American Legion, who were deeply offended by the Witnesses’ refusal to salute the American flag. The beatings ended when the United States entered the war, and the federal government began jailing Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to perform national service.
In those cases, the people doing the persecuting were well-connected to local or national political power. The groups getting persecuted were little-understood, and perceived as not buying in to the political order that united the country.
To read the full article on Washington Post, click here.