American Journal of Cultural Sociology

, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 355–372 | Cite as

Muslims as outsiders, enemies, and others: The 2016 presidential election and the politics of religious exclusion

  • Ruth Braunstein
Original Article


Despite Americans’ commitment to religious freedom, religious minorities have been marginalized and excluded since the country’s founding. Focusing on the 2016 election, this article analyzes the latest chapter in this history, in which Republican candidates constructed symbolic boundaries that defined Muslims as non-American (outsiders), anti-American (enemies), and un-American (others). It then draws parallels between contemporary anti-Muslim rhetoric and the historic treatment of Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and atheists. In each case, these religious groups have troubled a vision of American belonging that is tightly linked to white Protestant identity, and more subtly, to individualist and voluntaristic notions of the good religious (and democratic) subject. This recurrent pattern complicates the notion that American nationhood is rooted in civic rather than ethnic membership, instead revealing a complex interplay between civic and ethnic logics of exclusion. While efforts to purify the “Christian nation” rest explicitly upon an ethno-religious vision of American peoplehood, a subtler civic logic is also at work in efforts to frame religious minorities as uncivil threats to American values and norms, including religious freedom itself.


national identity religion symbolic boundaries Muslims 2016 election 


Upon Barack Obama’s election in 2008, a movement emerged that questioned his citizenship and attempted to underscore his foreignness by accusing him of being a Muslim. Among the most prominent spokespeople for this “birther” movement, as it was called, was Donald J. Trump, who eight years later, on November 8, 2016, was elected as the 45th president of the United States. If civic inclusion in the U.S. has been marked by a pattern of advances and setbacks (Alexander, 2006), and Obama’s election represented an expansion of the symbolic boundaries of American belonging, then Trump’s ascension to the presidency marked the relatively predictable return of reactionary politics to the national stage.

Although the voters who swept Trump into power were reacting to a great number of changes in American society – from race relations to gender roles – the changing face of American religion became a particularly salient target of their ire. In recent decades, a variety of demographic and cultural changes within the U.S. have led observers to declare the “end of white Christian America” (Jones, 2016). In the context of rising concerns about global terrorism, this shift has provoked questions about whether Muslims can truly be American or whether they intrinsically pose a threat to the country’s culture and security. This became a dominant theme of the 2016 election, particularly among the Republican candidates for president. While President Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton sought to offset Republicans’ exclusionary rhetoric with appeals to religious tolerance and multicultural inclusion, Trump’s political victory was also a symbolic victory for those who wished to define Muslims as outsiders, enemies, and others.

Through the lens of this election, this article analyzes the complex ways in which religious minorities have been marginalized and excluded in the U.S., despite the country’s foundational commitment to religious freedom. It discusses how the Republican candidates constructed symbolic boundaries that defined Muslims as non-American (outsiders), anti-American (enemies), and un-American (others). In each case, the analysis not only dissects the manner in which these boundaries were justified, but also provides the context necessary to understand why this rhetoric appealed to wide swaths of Americans, and particularly Republican voters. It then situates current anti-Muslim sentiment in a longer history of religious exclusion in the U.S. This recurrent pattern complicates the common notion that American nationhood is rooted in civic rather than ethnic membership, instead revealing a complex interplay between civic and ethnic logics of exclusion. As we will see, while efforts to purify the “Christian nation” rest explicitly upon an ethno-religious vision of American peoplehood, a subtler civic logic is also at work in efforts to frame religious minorities as uncivil threats to American values and norms, including religious freedom itself.

Religion and the Boundaries of American National Identity

The U.S. is often held up as a prototypical case of civic rather than ethnic nationhood. By this it is meant that the boundaries of national belonging are rooted in adherence to a set of voluntarily shared civic values rather than ascriptive identities like ethnic, racial, or religious group membership. Practically speaking, a civic conception of nationalism means, “Anyone can join the nation, irrespective of birth or ethnic origins, though the cost of adaptation varies. There is no myth of common ancestry,” as there is in ethnic nationalism (Keating, 1996, pp. 5–6). From a normative perspective, analysts praise civic nationalism as good (“liberal, voluntarist, universalist, and inclusive”), while maligning ethnic nationalism as bad (“illiberal, ascriptive, particularist, and exclusive”) (Brubaker, 1999, p. 56).

Yet close attention to the social and symbolic boundaries that constitute national citizenship and belonging troubles the civic-ethnic distinction. Although researchers once sought to sort nations (and even entire regions) into categories defined by these terms, it has become evident that this is problematic (Zubrzycki, 2002). Moreover, the terms civic and ethnic are themselves vague and overlapping, leading to analytic and normative ambiguities (Brubaker, 1999). Recent work in this vein has found it more useful to highlight civic and ethnic discourses, “‘elements’ or tendencies… mixed in different manners and proportions in concrete cases” (Brubaker, 1999, p. 58).

Although these terms still suffer from ambiguity, this latter approach can be fruitfully applied to understanding the complexities and contradictions of American citizenship and belonging (Alexander, 2006). Despite the civic veneer of American national identity, scholars have highlighted various ways in which the rights and privileges associated with both “formal” and “substantive” (Glenn, 2002) citizenship in the U.S. have been delimited according to racial, ethnic, gender, and/or religious identities (e.g., Smith, 1997).

In particular, Americans’ persistent use of race-based symbolic and social boundaries is contrasted to Europeans’ embrace of anti-racist discourses and denial that race is relevant to citizenship (Bail, 2008). Similarly, although the U.S. presents itself as a model of religious freedom and pluralism, Americans have recurrently engaged in the politics of religious exclusion, as will be discussed below in the cases of Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and atheists. Most recently, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have cited concerns that Muslims threaten American security and culture and thus can never truly be (good) Americans (Bail, 2012). As with the prominence of race-based symbolic boundaries, the persistent use of religion-based symbolic boundaries challenges the categorization of the U.S. as a straightforward case of civic nationhood.

At the same time, explicitly racist and Islamophobic language has increasingly been stigmatized in the U.S. – as it has been across much of Europe (Bail, 2008) – and discrimination based on race and religion is prohibited by law. By marking these kinds of exclusionary discourses and laws as problematic, Americans highlight their formal commitment to civic nationhood. But as with all group-making processes, there must still be an outer limit: a group of outsiders that can be contrasted with insiders. This is true even in civic visions of the nation, although in these cases outsiders are not excluded (at least explicitly) on ethnic, racial, or religious grounds, but rather because of their (real or alleged) failure to embrace widely shared civic ideals (Brubaker, 1999; Alexander, 2006).

This subtler form of boundary-work is vividly on display in discussions about race in America. Social and legal prohibitions against racism have not prevented public figures in the U.S. from drawing symbolic boundaries that tacitly map good/bad citizenship onto a white/non-white racial divide. They simply use “color-blind” language that attributes deservedness and worth according to liberal individualist standards that ignore the structural barriers to equality faced by many racial minorities (Bonilla-Silva, 2003). This kind of language blurs the lines between civic and ethnic logics of citizenship insofar as legal and substantive racial exclusions are explicitly justified using civic criteria, such as insufficient individual effort.

A close analysis of the 2016 election reveals that public figures make similar rhetorical moves when engaging in the politics of religious exclusion. They do so by defining good religious subjects, and thus good Americans, in terms of individual authority and moral conscience and voluntaristic membership – Protestant norms reconfigured as civic norms (de Tocqueville, 2003). This conceptualization of good citizenship falters when faced with religious traditions like Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam, which involve external authorities, a communalist ethos, and supranational and/or ethnic membership (Williams, 2007). Moreover, members of these religious groups have also typically been coded as non-white and foreign, compounding their deviance from the white Protestant norm (Williams, 2013).

This may seem to contradict Americans’ explicit embrace of religious freedom and inclusion. Yet it allows Americans to simultaneously embrace both religious freedom and certain tacit forms of religious exclusion. Although religious freedom is interpreted in different ways within different national and historical settings, in the U.S. the concept of “freedom” is not easily disentangled from its liberal individualist underpinnings (Sullivan et al, 2015). Through this lens, religious subjects can only be “free” when endowed with individual agency. Jews, Catholics, and Muslims – framed as subject to illiberal foreign authorities (like the Vatican or the global caliphate), or as more loyal to ethnic/tribal communities than to the nation – have troubled liberal understandings of freedom. Political leaders have thus been able to justify the legal and substantive exclusion of these religious groups on civic grounds, as either incompatible with or threats to American democracy.

Muslims as Outsiders, Enemies, and Others in the 2016 Election

At least since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, American political leaders across the political divide have struggled to draw clear distinctions between Muslims and the terrorists who claim to fight in the name of Islam. A week after the attacks, then-President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington, where he removed his shoes before entering the mosque and read a quote from the Qur’an. In his remarks, he distinguished sharply between Islam and terrorism, noting, “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith” (Bridgeland, 2016). He addressed the Muslims who were gathered as “friends” and “taxpaying citizens,” and he reminded his audience that “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect” (Bridgeland, 2016).

During the fifteen years since Bush spoke these words, Americans have endured wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and watched with rising concern as Al Qaeda and ISIS have wrought havoc around the world, including in the U.S. In particular, when ISIS declared itself the Islamic State, or caliphate, it heightened fears among many Americans that Muslims seek global domination, with Islamic law, or shari’a, as the law of the land.

These fears have been stoked by a network of anti-Muslim organizations and spokespeople whose fringe views of Islam have exerted outsized influenced over mainstream American discourse about these issues. According to Bail (2012, p. 863), they have advanced a view of Muslims as enemies, framing “all Muslims as potentially violent radicals who have a religious obligation to overthrow Western governments.” Although political and civic leaders spoke of Muslims in more careful, nuanced, and moderate terms immediately following 9/11 – exemplified by President Bush’s rhetoric – the more extreme vision of Muslims as enemies “dominated the mass media via displays of fear and anger” (Bail, 2012, p. 855).

This framing appears to have profoundly influenced public attitudes, particularly among conservative viewers of Fox News. Ten years after 9/11, nearly 90 per cent of all Americans agreed that the U.S. was “founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone,” including “unpopular” groups. Yet one-third of Americans and 58 per cent of Republicans who most trust Fox News reported believing that American Muslims are trying to establish shari’a in the U.S., and half of Americans and three-quarters of Republicans who most trust Fox News viewed Islam as incompatible with American values (Jones et al, 2011).

In late 2015, a series of deadly attacks in Paris, closely followed by a December 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California, and a June 2016 attack in Orlando, Florida, among others, brought the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” close to home.1 Meanwhile, as Syrians fleeing civil war sought refuge in Europe and the U.S., reports that ISIS members were hiding among them – including, allegedly, at least one of those responsible for the Paris attacks – fueled suspicion of the refugees.

These developments were like a steady drumbeat throughout the 2016 election, and particularly the crowded Republican primary. With a rapt nation – indeed, world – watching, each incident of global terrorism plunged the candidates into debates about the place of Muslims in America. As members of President Bush’s party, including his own brother, responded to these events, their ways of talking about Islam bore little resemblance to his careful words following the September 11 attacks.

To fully understand the current politics of religious exclusion, we must look beyond the Muslims as enemies frame. Candidates defined Muslims not only as anti-American (enemies), but also as intrinsically non-American (outsiders) and un-American (others). In each case, the candidates slid between making these distinctions on explicitly ethno-religious grounds, and justifying them based on Muslims’ alleged failure to embrace civic norms and values, like democracy, patriotism, and gender equality. In so doing, they appealed to both ethnic and civic logics when constructing a vision of American identity that marginalized and excluded Muslims.

Muslims as non-American

In order for there to be an “us,” there must always be a “them.” In the case of national identity, “them” is typically defined in terms of other nations or peoples. But a nation of immigrants and refugees, like the U.S., draws its population from around the world, necessitating a process through which groups previously defined as foreigners and outsiders can be transformed into citizens. Attention to this process reveals that some racial, ethnic, and religious groups are able to cross over from non-American to American with greater ease. While formally crossing this boundary entails securing legal citizenship status, debates about immigration and national belonging are indelibly shaped by symbolic boundaries between groups (Lamont and Molnár, 2002; Alexander, 2006).

During the 2016 election, the power of these symbolic distinctions was on display in Republican primary candidates’ fearful rhetoric about a potential influx of Syrian refugees, many of whom were Muslim. Most of the Republican primary candidates expressed a desire to help the Syrian refugees, but concluded that a sense of moral obligation did not justify the inherent risks this posed to national security, citing the possibility that a terrorist could be hiding among them (Kaplan and Andrews, 2015).

Yet the debate became more complex when two candidates – Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz – suggested that some refugees should be allowed to enter, but only if they were Christians. They argued that the U.S. should provide “safe haven” to Syrian Christians fleeing religious persecution, whereas Muslim refugees should be resettled in Muslim-majority countries (Kaplan and Andrews, 2015). While framed as a middle ground between policies of absolute openness and closure, this proposal was actually quite radical: it implied that Muslims belonged in Muslim-majority nations and Christians belonged in Christian-majority nations like the U.S.

Democrats balked at the idea of a religious test for entry into the U.S., but many Americans – and especially the GOP’s white evangelical Christian base – viewed this position as sensible. This is not surprising when we consider that white Protestants – and particularly evangelicals – have long viewed themselves as prototypical Americans, and viewed the nation as a Christian nation (Smith, 2000). Although religious freedom is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and religious minorities have been present since the country’s founding (Manseau, 2015), it is true that for most of the country’s history a majority of its population has been Christian, and that this has informed America’s “historic identity as a Christian nation” (Wuthnow, 2005, p. xv). Although early American history was marked by intense infighting among varieties of Protestants as well as between Protestants and Catholics, American society was nonetheless widely understood as Christian, particularly in contrast to non-Christian native people. Moreover, although the founders’ faiths little resembled the Christianity of contemporary evangelicals, most were at least nominally Protestant and sought “to create a nation that embraced diversity while functioning within a framework of values derived broadly from Christianity” (Wuthnow, 2005, p. 19). Additionally, many features of American political culture, including those that appear to be secular, have Protestant roots and resonances (Williams, 1999). And normatively, a majority of Americans continue to believe that “being a Christian makes one more ‘truly American’” (Straughn and Feld, 2010).

Even so, the white Christian majority in the U.S. is now in question as both an empirical reality and a normative vision (Jones, 2016). Changes in the American religious landscape since the 1960s – including rising numbers of non-Christian religious minorities and religiously unaffiliated individuals – have eroded the percentage of Christians in the country (Pew Research Center, 2015). Those espousing a multicultural vision of American identity have embraced these changes (Wuthnow, 2005). But just as previous influxes of religious minorities were met with nativist backlash and calls for social closure (Higham, 1955), so too have these recent changes prompted urgent calls to preserve a “tribal” vision of a white Christian America that never truly existed (Williams, 2013; see also Kruse, 2015; Gorski, 2017).

Although American citizenship has never explicitly been rooted in ethnicity or blood descent, Christian nationalists nonetheless promote an “ethnic”-style vision of the nation that is closely linked to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, language, and history (Gorski, 2016). And just as other ethnic identities serve as a basis for claims of both national peoplehood and transnational solidarities, Christian nationalists in recent decades have also presented Christians as locked in a “civilizational” battle against Islam, in effect aligning themselves with a global “Christianism” (Brubaker, 2016; Gorski, 2016).

Referencing these global battle lines, Cruz justified his proposal to distinguish Christian from Muslim refugees on the grounds that “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror. If there were a group of radical Christians pledging to murder anyone who had a different religious view than they, we would have a different national security situation” (Atkins, 2015). From this perspective, Christians everywhere were presumed innocent, while all Muslims were intrinsically suspect.

It makes sense that those espousing such views would see Syrian Christians facing persecution by Muslims as linked to American Christians as if by blood – they not only share a Christian identity, but also a common enemy. By extension, it would not seem inappropriate to offer them “safe haven” in this “Christian nation.” Although Christian Syrians are technically foreign, the U.S. is framed as a more natural home for them than Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East. This framing enables Christians to cross over the non-American/American boundary with relative ease. In contrast, Muslim refugees, symbolically mapped onto the wrong side of this civilizational battle, are framed both as foreign and as enemies, and thus face significantly higher barriers to social and symbolic inclusion in the U.S.

Muslims as anti-American

Donald Trump took a more explicitly exclusionary stance, not only declaring that no refugees should be accepted, but also calling for the deportation of refugees who had already entered the country. Going even further, he called for heightened surveillance and potential closure of mosques in the U.S., “because some of the ideas and some of the hatred, the absolute hatred, is coming from these areas” (Rappeport, 2015). This perspective goes beyond worries about a single foreign terrorist gaining entry to the country; in his view, all American Muslims were also suspect.

Trump traced this view to an experience he claims to have had on September 11th. During a campaign rally, he recounted that he had witnessed thousands of Muslims in the U.S. cheering as the World Trade Center collapsed (Haberman, 2015). Even though his story was widely debunked by law enforcement officials, this narrative of hateful Muslims in our midst became a prominent feature of Trump’s rhetoric. Following the June 2016 Orlando attack, Trump blamed the American Muslim community as a whole for abetting terrorists like the perpetrator of the attack. As he told CNN, “The communities that we’re talking about, they know about this guy. They knew that this was tremendous potential for blow up (sic).” He continued, “Right now we have thousands of people in the United States who have the same kind of hate in their heart as he had” (Wright, 2016).

With these comments, Trump sewed seeds of doubt about the loyalties of all Muslims, whether they were foreign or American. Although he was clear to say that he did not believe all Muslims hate America, his insistence on surveillance of Muslim communities within the U.S. sent the clear message that Muslims were guilty by association and should be treated as such until proven innocent. Yet he claimed this suspicion was not because of their religion, per se. Rather, he pointed to Muslims’ failure to uphold civic values and norms: they allegedly lacked the loyalty and patriotism expected of good Americans. In so doing, he shifted the logic of exclusion from ethnic to civic grounds, at least explicitly.

Of course, the fact that he focused exclusively on Muslims’ alleged “hatred” highlights complex entanglements between ethnic and civic boundaries. After all, to the extent that surveillance of mosques revealed that some Muslims expressed anger toward the U.S. or were critical of its policies, they would certainly not be alone. Yet when Muslims engage in any kind of political critique, they are branded as dangerously anti-American. Similarly, Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright sparked fear and outrage among conservatives when he harshly criticized America’s history of racial oppression. When he said, “The government … wants them to sing God Bless America. No! No No! God damn America…for killing innocent people,” he was speaking in a prophetic style intended to call the nation to account for failing to uphold its covenant with God (Gorski, 2008). Conservative Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell have deployed a similar style, yet few conservatives have interpreted their language as dangerous. As Gorski (2008) notes, “Clearly, there is a double standard at work here. It is acceptable for a white preacher to speak in the angry voice of a prophet; it is not acceptable for a black preacher to do so.”

Obama understood that he faced a racialized double standard, and in the wake of Wright’s comments focused on “calming the fears of white middle-class voters that he is just another angry, black, man” (Gorski, 2008). Similarly, American Muslims navigate a landscape in which political critique is interpreted as disloyalty by engaging in performances of good citizenship (Bilici, 2016). This kind of performance was exemplified by Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq in 2004, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016. He began his remarks by offering his “thoughts and prayers” to the men and women of the armed services, and by introducing himself and his wife as “patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country” (ABC News, 2016). His reference to “undivided loyalty” served as a pre-emptive response to those – primarily on the political right – who were primed to believe that all Muslims were primarily loyal to the global caliphate and privileged shari’a over American law.

As Bilici (2016) points out, Khan also “felt it necessary all along to carry a copy of the Constitution in his pocket, like an amulet against Islamophobia. When Mr. Khan, in his public shaming of Trump, pulled out that pocket Constitution on the stage of the Democratic National Convention, he proved himself irreproachably American.” Having done so, he then flipped the script, challenging Trump’s status as a patriotic American. “Let me ask you,” he directed his words at Trump, “Have you even read the U.S. Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.” And then, “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America – you will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one” (ABC News, 2016).

Khan’s speech was a rejection of Trump’s civic logic of exclusion – it was inappropriate, he demonstrated, to single out Muslim communities as sources of hatred. Not only were Muslims like his son patriots who loved and made sacrifices for America, but scores of non-Muslims, including Trump himself, failed to meet this standard. In making this case, he revealed the ethno-religious bias at the heart of Trump’s definition of Muslims as anti-American.

Muslims as un-American

Trump responded to Khan’s speech by tapping into another common stereotype of Muslims: that they are anti-liberal and anti-modern, qualities that are framed as incompatible with American values specifically and liberal democracy more generally. In an interview shortly after the convention, Trump pointed out that Khan’s wife had not spoken, although she had stood on stage, clad in a blue headscarf, while her husband spoke. Trump said, “If you look at his wife, she was standing there, she had nothing to say, she probably – maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say, you tell me” (Haberman and Oppel, 2016).

Although his choice to attack Gold Star parents drew condemnation from politicians in both parties, Trump’s comments nonetheless reflected stereotypes that many Americans hold about Islam’s “backwardness,” exemplified by its alleged emphasis on male dominance and female subservience and disapproval of homosexuality. Indeed, following the Orlando shooting, which had targeted patrons of a gay nightclub, Trump made this point explicitly:

Many of the principles of Radical Islam are incompatible with Western values and institutions. Radical Islam is anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-American. I refuse to allow America to become a place where gay people, Christian people, and Jewish people, are the targets of persecution and intimidation by Radical Islamic preachers of hate and violence (Beckwith, 2016).

In so doing, the symbolic “othering” of Muslims was justified using a civic logic – their values were incompatible with Western values, rendering them not only threatening to “real” Americans, but also intrinsically un-American.

These ideas about Islam are not new – they are the product of an Orientalist perspective that frames the Middle East and Islam as culturally backwards counterparts to the modern and Christian West (Said, 1978). This perspective has had a profound effect on American public discourse and foreign policy, particularly (although not exclusively) on the political right. Part of the Bush administration’s public justification for intervention in the Middle East was that this was a democratizing mission, with special attention paid to expanding women’s rights. Images of veiled Muslim women and stories of their mistreatment in Muslim-majority countries are commonplace in American media (Abu-Lughod, 2013). And in recent years, there has been a proliferation of books penned by conservative commentators that criticize Islam as backwards and un-American, while holding up Christianity as its inverse (e.g., Spencer, 2009; Geller, 2011).

Brubaker (2016) notes the irony that as a foil to Islamism, modernity, liberalism, and even secularism have become closely aligned with Christianity. Not only have European secularists become Christianists, as Brubaker argues; American Christians have also embraced many of the values typically associated with secularism. In the context of a “civilizational” battle with Islam, conservatives in the U.S. have positioned the West and Christianity as modern carriers of liberal values including respect for women’s and gay rights, even as they decry the ascendance of these “secular” values in other contexts. Indeed, although evangelicals in the U.S. are not monolithic and their positions on these issues shift in salience (Guhin, 2016), many have staunchly resisted the cultural changes wrought by feminism and the LGBT movement (Fetner, 2008). The fact that Muslims are framed as fundamentally un-American for holding similar views reveals a familiar double standard and slippage between civic and ethnic logics of exclusion. Still, it is unsurprising that when Trump inserted these stereotypes into the election, a large share of the electorate was primed to view this as yet another example of Trump rejecting “political correctness” and speaking the truth.

Religious Exclusion in Historical Perspective

Anti-Muslim rhetoric during the 2016 election was only the latest chapter in a long history of religious exclusion in the U.S. Although today’s anti-Muslim sentiment takes place against a specific political backdrop and has been shaped by the confluence of particular events, similar language has also been used to symbolically (and to varying degrees socially) marginalize and exclude Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and atheists at different points in American history.

Anti-Catholic sentiment was prevalent in the U.S. as early as the colonial era, but reached new heights during the mid-nineteenth century as immigration drove a massive increase in the Catholic population of the country. As Dolan (1985, p. 295) documents in his history of the American Catholic experience, Protestants during this period believed “Catholic immigrants could not be considered true Americans, because of their religion and their foreign birth.” Anti-Catholicism spiked again during the 1920s, fueled by the rise of a reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan, which in its twentieth-century nationalist incarnation was primarily directed at Catholics and immigrants and dedicated to defending “100 per cent Americanism” (aka white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism) (Higham, 1955). This sentiment was exemplified in the treatment of Al Smith, the Catholic governor of New York, during his 1928 presidential run. Questions about Catholics’ loyalty dominated the election, and Smith’s opponents – including the Klan – stoked fears that he would be controlled by the Pope, essentially a foreign power suspected of trying to infiltrate the U.S. They also framed Smith as a threat to Protestants’ religious freedom, claiming he would not allow them to read the Bible and would annul their marriages (Slayton, 2011).

Jews have been framed as an inherently “uncivil” people since their earliest struggles with Christians, and these stereotypes followed them when they migrated to the U.S. Sarna (2004, p. xv) writes in his history of American Judaism that during the colonial era Jews were “grouped with exotic religions and non-believers, as in the well-known colonial-era phrase ‘Jews, Turks and Infidels.’” Still, when they began to arrive in larger numbers between the late-nineteenth century and the 1920s, they were originally granted entrée to elite educational and cultural institutions. WASP elites soon felt their status threatened in these spaces, however, and began to restrict Jewish participation (Alexander, 2006). Meanwhile, public anti-Semitic discourse also became more acceptable, with old stereotypes about Jews – as greedy rather than moral, “tribal and particularistic,” and exclusively loyal “to members of their own community, with whom they conspired against the civil majority” (Alexander, 2006, p. 463) – rearticulated in light of emergent fears about radicals, communists, and shady global powerbrokers.

Mormons, too, were treated for much of their history as outsiders. Unlike Catholics and Jews, Mormons did not arrive in the U.S. as immigrants; their religion was American-made. Yet they were nonetheless treated as foreigners within. As Givens (2012) writes, a century ago “polygamy was likened to slavery…. Brigham Young was compared to an Asian despot. Mormon women were victims….” And as they moved westward seeking space to freely practice their faith, they were viewed as the “antiheroes” of the American frontier, charged by the U.S. government with “rebellion and sedition” (Givens, 2012).

While Americans have worried that certain religions are incompatible with their values and culture, they worry more about those who eschew religion altogether. As Edgell et al (2016) have shown, although Americans’ acceptance of other marginalized groups has increased in recent decades, atheists continue to be viewed as immoral, uncivil, and un-American. This is in spite of substantial growth during the past few decades in the number of religiously unaffiliated individuals (Pew, 2015), and despite recent efforts by some political leaders to symbolically include them, as when President Obama, in his first Inaugural Address, announced, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Highlighting the novelty of an American president saying these words, one commentator noted that Obama had “touched the untouchables” (Waldman, 2009).

Even amid struggles over which religious groups belong, the symbolic boundary between the religious and the non-religious does not appear to be up for debate. Widely shared religious values, practices, and notions of the sacred are woven into the fabric of American civic life and ideals of good citizenship (Herberg, 1955; Bellah, 1967). “We” are “people of faith,” even as those faiths multiply; modern presidents continue to ask God to bless the American people, even as that God goes by new and different names. The incorporation of atheists into understandings of Americanness would destabilize this aspect of American identity.

On one hand, these outcroppings of exclusionary sentiment have involved an effort to purify the “Christian nation” and an explicit rejection of the ostensibly inclusive principles of religious freedom and pluralism on which the U.S. was founded. This kind of ethnic logic is evident in each of these examples, as it is in the Muslim case. Yet a closer look at this pattern of exclusion also reveals a subtler civic logic at work, through which these religious groups were framed as uncivil threats to American values and norms, including religious freedom itself. This slippery style of symbolic boundary-work, like color-blind racism, allows members of the dominant group to engage in the politics of exclusion yet deny claims that they are themselves breaching inclusive American values and norms. On the contrary, it justifies their elevated social and cultural status as the result of their superior morality, patriotism, and citizenship, suggesting they are just more truly American.


As we consider the hostility faced by Muslim Americans during the 2016 election, there are lessons to be learned from these other religious groups’ paths to symbolic and social incorporation. Following World War II, public anti-Semitism declined after the full scope of Hitler’s genocide was revealed to the public and Americans chose to be “with the Jews” (Alexander, 2006, p. 523). The concept of the Christian nation was also gradually expanded during this period to refer to America’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage (Sarna, 2004). Although this category conspicuously excludes Islam and other minority faith traditions, which largely comprise racial minorities, it does represent a move toward greater inclusion. Herberg’s (1955) portrait of American religion suggests that by mid-century Catholicism and Judaism were embraced, alongside Protestantism, as authentically American. In 1960, Americans elected the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.

The symbolic incorporation of both Jews and Catholics during this period was enabled by the fact that many of the European immigrants who were once considered racial/ethnic “others” were gradually reclassified as “white” as they assimilated into American society (Roediger, 2005). Moreover, American Jews and Catholics “became more ‘protestantized’ in their organizations and ethos (for example, accommodating ‘de facto congregationalism’)” (Williams, 2007, p. 54). Together, these dynamics supported the gradual folding in of European Catholics alongside Protestants as part of a “Christian” majority, and of Jews alongside both as part of a “white” majority.

Meanwhile, as Givens (2012) argues, “the Mormon has not only been assimilated into American society, but has become American society.” Put differently, Mormons have come to be viewed as one of the many varieties of white conservative Christianity. The fact that Mitt Romney rarely spoke of his Mormon faith as a candidate for president in 2012 suggests that some Mormons may harbor concerns that their claim on Americanness is tenuous. Still, the Mormon experience is similar to that of European Catholics in that their path to symbolic inclusion came through their status as white Christians.

While it is tempting to view American identity as an ever-expanding circle that incorporates new arrivals into the national whole, this process has never been smooth or linear. Indeed, anti-Semitism has continued to thrive among right-wing groups, and even made an appearance in the 2016 election when Donald Trump tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton against a backdrop of one hundred dollar bills and the words, “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” inside a six-sided red star that resembled a Star of David. And in the weeks after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented large numbers of anti-Semitic incidents (Miller and Werner-Winslow, 2016).

Moreover, rather than significantly reworking the boundaries of the American belonging, these cases reveal that marginalized groups have typically been folded into existing “cultural categories of worth” (Steensland, 2006) – Catholics and Mormons became “Christian” and Catholics and Jews became “white.” This is neither a neat story of multicultural recognition nor of pure assimilation. It depicts something more akin to cultural extension: existing categories are not replaced but gradually broadened; new groups become “American,” yet large numbers of citizens – and particularly conservatives – continue to map Americanness (albeit implicitly) onto white Christian identity.

This history complicates a vision of the U.S. as a case of civic nationhood, and reveals that religious exclusion is justified using a slippery mix of civic and ethnic logics. As Muslims continue to press for recognition as truly American, this history serves as a hopeful reminder that there are paths to symbolic inclusion in American identity for religious minorities, however circuitous and incomplete they may be. Yet it also suggests that in addition to explicitly anti-Muslim rhetoric, they must be prepared to respond to a variety of less visible – yet equally powerful – efforts to tacitly define them as outsiders, enemies, and others.


  1. 1.

    The term “radical Islamic terrorism” itself became an issue of debate during the 2016 election. Responding to Obama’s refusal to use the term, Republicans argued that Democrats’ “political correctness” was preventing them from effectively addressing terrorism (Wright, 2016).



I would like to thank Jeffrey Guhin as well as Jeffrey Alexander and Jason Mast for their valuable feedback on previous drafts.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of ConnecticutStorrsUSA

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