This article by Stephen Prothero originally appeared on Politico.com on March 7, 2017.
It should have been a simple question: Last week, Trump counterterrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka was asked by a radio host whether the president believed that Islam was a religion. Instead of coming back with a quick yes—of course it’s a religion—he demurred. “This is not a theological seminary,” he said. “This is the White House, and we’re not going to get into theological debates.”
It wasn’t that he’d been caught off guard. It was the second time he’d been asked by the same NPR host, Steve Inskeep. The first time, Gorka had evaded the question in a different way: “I think you should ask him that question. I’m not a spokesperson for the president,” he said.
The question has been dogging Trump advisers for months. At a conference in Dallas last August for the anti-Muslim group ACT for America, Michael Flynn, who was recently forced to step down from his post as President Trump’s national security adviser, said Islam was not a religion but a “political ideology” that “hides behind the notion of it being a religion.”
What is going on here? There’s no serious debate, theological or otherwise, about whether Islam is a religion. Any basic primer on world religions will teach you that there are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world; that observant Muslims practice the “Five Pillars of Islam,” by praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, going on pilgrimage to Mecca, giving alms to the poor, and testifying that there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet. I have been a religious studies professor for over a quarter century and I have never heard anyone in my field question whether the world’s second-largest religion is really a religion.
But if there’s no theological precedent for this, there’s definitely a political one. American politics has a long history of questioning the “real” status of religions—generally with an eye to stripping their members of constitutional rights. In the past it wasn’t Muslims who were under fire, however. It was Roman Catholics and Mormons.
The colonies that later became the United States were largely settled by Protestants, and they brought the anti-Catholic biases of the Protestant Reformation with them. There weren’t many Catholics to hate, however, until Ireland’s potato famine of the 1840s sent many in search of a better life across the Atlantic. Germans came too, and French Canadians, turning Roman Catholicism into America’s largest Christian denomination by 1850. Many Protestants responded with hostility to what they saw as a threat to their dominance. And they responded much the same to the invention and spread of Mormonism also in the middle of the 19th century.
In attacking Catholics and Mormons, the ancestors of Gorka and Flynn and other anti-Muslim culture warriors claimed that these growing religious groups were un-Christian, immoral, and un-American. In short, they were theological imposters, amoral villains and traitors to the nation—labels hate groups now widely apply to Muslims. But some went further in their efforts to safeguard Protestant America, arguing that Catholicism and Mormonism weren’t really religions at all. To wage cultural war on these fake religions, they argued, was not to violate our constitutional right to religious liberty. It was to safeguard it.
This wasn’t just a fringe position. Samuel Morse is remembered today as the inventor of the Morse code. He was also one of the leading members of the alt-right of his time. A nativist and Protestant nationalist radicalized by a visit to Rome in 1830, Morse repeatedly sounded the alarm against the dangers posed by Catholics and other immigrants to the lives and liberties of “native Americans.” Like white nationalists today who view Islam as a Trojan horse secreting terrorists into the heartland under the cloak of religious liberty, Morse wrote of American Protestants as the “dupes” of their own hospitality in his 1835 book Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. The “infallibly intolerant” faith of Rome, he wrote, was leaching “into every nook and corner of the land.” American Protestants must not allow the “political designs” of the Vatican to be “shielded from attack” by the “sacred cloak” of so-called religion.
Morse portrayed ordinary Catholics more as victims than perpetrators—cogs in the machinery of “Popery.” But he was apoplectic over the machinations of the Roman Catholic order of the Jesuits, which he described as “a secret society, a sort of Masonic order, with superadded features of revolting odiousness, and a thousand times more dangerous.” Regarding “the impression that the order of Jesuits is a purely religious Society … and therefore comes with the protection of our laws, and must be tolerated,” Morse wrote, “there cannot be a greater mistake. It was from the beginning a political organization, an absolute Monarchy masked by religion.”
Morse recognized the irony of refusing to tolerate the intolerant, and of denying freedom of religion in the name of freedom of religion, but he refused and denied nonetheless. “Americans will not be cowed into silence by the cries of persecution, intolerance, bigotry, fanaticism,” he promised, adding that when it came to Roman Catholicism, he would proudly “glory in intolerance.”
The anti-Mormon culture wars were the most wide-ranging assault on any religion in American history. The state of Missouri and the U.S Army waged war against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mobs killed its missionaries and burned down its places of worship. President Chester Arthur decried Mormons in four straight State of the Union addresses. Congress took away their suffrage and seized church property. The House of Representatives and the Senate both refused to seat duly elected Mormons. And the Supreme Court, in its first decision on the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, ruled that religious liberty extended only to belief, not to the controversial Mormon practice of “plural marriage.”
And Mormons, too, were told that their religion was not really a religion. Many anti-Mormons argued that they were opposed not to the LDS Church but to its practice of polygamy. “It is not a matter of religion,” said Rep. John Letcher of Virginia. “It is a matter of vice.” But other anti-Mormon culture warriors went further, insisting that Mormonism wasn’t just a false religion or an immoral one: It wasn’t really a religion at all. It was a front for sexual license or political or economic gain (or all three). Some put the term religion in scare quotes, as in “the vileness and villainies of [their] ‘religion.’” The Rev. A. J. Bailey, a Congregationalist minister from Odgen, Utah, was more explicit, insisting that Mormonism “is not a religion according to the American idea and the United States Constitution.”
But that’s not precisely the argument Sebastian Gorka is making. In an emerging field known as “agnotology,” scholars describe how politicians, lobbyists, and corporations sow the seeds of doubt to advance their own purposes. Sometimes our ignorance is as simple as not yet knowing how to count to 10. But at other times ignorance is deliberately engineered. In their book Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe how corporations cultivate doubt on questions from acid rain to tobacco smoking to climate change in order to profit economically and to overturn government regulations.
That is what Gorka is doing in his rope-a-dope interviews with NPR. He isn’t asserting, as televangelist Pat Robertson did in 2007, that “Islam is not a religion—it is a worldwide political movement bent on domination of the world.” He is doing something more subtle and more dangerous, something akin to what Trump and his supporters did with President Barack Obama’s birth certificate and his Christian faith. Trump and other “birthers” did not typically say outright that Obama was born in Kenya: They just suggested that he might have been. And while some did assert that Obama is a Muslim, most just called the question. This strategy has been extraordinarily successful. Obama is a churchgoing Christian born in Hawaii, and yet in surveys conducted during the past year, 41 percent of Republicans said they did not believe he was born in the United States, and two-thirds of Trump supporters said they believe Obama is a Muslim.
In a 2011 interview with Fox News, Trump played the agnotologist to perfection, calling into question both Obama’s faith and his birth: “He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there’s something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t want that.”
This is the playbook out of which Gorka is operating. Don’t baldly assert what we know to be false. Just call what we know to be true into question—turn it into a matter of “debate.” When Gorka says he does not want to engage in a “theological debate” over whether Islam is a religion, he is not just begging off a question the way politicians so often do. He is engaging in the far more toxic flimflam of other “merchants of doubt,” by suggesting that there’s a debate here to be had.
In another arena of agnotology—Holocaust denial—Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt has famously refused to debate Holocaust deniers. The Holocaust happened. That fact is not a matter of debate. So why debate it? To do so is like engaging in a debate about whether the Earth is flat.
A “debate” about whether Islam is a religion is similarly pointless. Islam is a religion. Why debate it? To engage “merchants of doubt” on this “question” is to engage in a sleight of hand that seeks to legitimize the un-American and unconstitutional treatment of Muslims as second-class citizens—by denying them the First Amendment rights that all of us enjoy. And yfou don’t have to be a theologian, or a religious studies professor, to know that.
Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage (HarperOne).
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About Megan Finley
In between writing short stories she’ll never finish and marathoning Marvel movies, Megan Finley is often found missing the loves of her life, her two cats Leia and Loki. Her passion for “geek culture” extends into her passion for academics, as she is an optimistic MA student with plans to be the next Professor X (with hair). Her life’s dream is a simple one—to drink a hot chocolate in every Disney park in the world.