My Take: An American tradition of bigotry
A member of the Miwaukee area Sikh community weeps as he listens to information about the shooting spree in Wisconsin.
August 7th, 2012
01:37 PM ET

My Take: An American tradition of bigotry

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN)–Like many Americans, I reacted to the murders at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, with horror, and to the apparent arson at a Joplin, Missouri, mosque with sadness.

But I did not react with shock.

As the adviser to the Sikh Association at Boston University and a professor of many Muslim students, I am aware of the day-to-day discrimination these religious minorities experience in the United States. And as a historian I am aware of the history of discrimination against both groups throughout U.S. history.

The first decade of the 20th century saw a series of riots against Sikh laborers. On September 4, 1907, in Bellingham, Washington, hundreds of men attacked “Ragheads,” as they called them, burning their homes, beating them up, looting their property, and driving them across the border into Canada. Similar riots occurred in that decade elsewhere in Oregon, Washington, and California.

Immediately after 9/11, a Sikh named Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed at a gas station in Mesa, Arizona, by a bigot who mistook him for a Muslim.

We Americans flatter ourselves as citizens of a “land of liberty” where religious freedom is sacrosanct. And we have much to brag about in this regard, not least a First Amendment that guarantees religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Yet the United States also has a long history of religious bigotry.

In a 2007 speech on “Faith in America,” Mitt Romney courageously outlined not only “our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty” but also key moments when we traded in that tradition for hate. He spoke of Ann Hutchinson, the Puritan renegade banished from colonial Massachusetts and of Brigham Young, who led Mormons persecuted in the East to freedom in the West.

All too often, Romney observed, “Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths.”

Sikhism is one of the world’s leading religions, with 22 million followers in India and sizable Sikh populations in the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada. This 16th-century religious creation echoes both Hindu devotionalism and the Sufi mysticism of Islam. Like Hindus, Sikhs believe in the karmic cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Like Muslims, they are monotheists who are wary of picturing God in human form.

Yet Sikhism is a distinct religious tradition, with its own traditions, including the practice of the langar meal, open to all people regardless of race, ethnicity, caste, or religion.

In the United States, where religious illiteracy remains a national malady, we know next to nothing about Sikhism. And many bigots ignorantly mistake Sikhs for Muslims because, like Osama bin Laden, many Sikh men (and some Sikh women) wear turbans.

Clearly Americans need to learn more about the world’s religions, including the elementary fact that Sikhs are not Muslims, and the more subtle yet equally important fact that Sikhs have been here for more than a century. In fact, the first Sikh gurdwara, or temple, was built in Stockton, California, 100 years ago - in 1912.

But we also need to reacquaint ourselves with our “grand tradition” of religious liberty, and with an equally grand tradition of political conciliation - of putting the common good of our nation above the special interests of whatever groups we favor.

When murderers target and kill religious minorities simply because they are nonwhite or non-Christian, something of each of these traditions dies. So we need to redouble our efforts to keep both vibrant.

Only the blind fail to see the easily availability of guns as a major problem in American society today. But hateful invective is a weapon too, and it can be heard not only among white supremacist extremists but also on our mainstream radio and television talk shows.

As we try to make sense once again of yet another attack on our citizens by extremism, I hope we will choose religious liberty over religious hatred. I also hope we will remember from whence hate comes, and do whatever we can to bar the door.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Church and state • Culture wars • Immigration • Interfaith issues • Islam • Mitt Romney • Opinion • Politics • Religious liberty • Religious violence • Sikh • United States

soundoff (782 Responses)
  1. Hdegt

    Dear Kuljit Singh,I was very deeply tohuced by your rabab playing, which I experienced as very peaceful and soothing. I have two questions. One is if you have made any CD's or mp3 that one could download. Two is if it is possible to buy a rabab like you have?Thank you for answering,Sat Nam,Satya SinghHamburg

    September 9, 2012 at 1:06 am |
  2. tuvia






    September 7, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  3. Majav

    I do not need to study any of world's religions and be an armchair expert to confront America's cultural xenophobia. Too many Americans hate Mormons as much as they hate Muslims and Sikhs. I could be a completely ignorant atheist and still embody dignity by minding my own business. It is not educating ourselves in the details of exotic religions, rather, it is more to the point if we simply live and let live.

    Cultural sensitivity is one thing, but being a religious scholar? Why? Religions come and go. Religion is something to free yourself from. John Lennon was right- "Nothing to die for, no religion too." Studying why people worship and ingest their brand of peas and carrots is not going to bring peace. Peaceful co-existence does not demand a religious life, it only requires attending to people's prosperity and well being. It is so simple that dogs do it. is it so hard to believe that humans could actually relax and play like other mammals do?

    Bigotry runs rampant from Los Angeles to Amsterdam to Bangkok to Costa Rica. America does not have a monopoly on bigotry. What sets Americans apart from the Dutch, Thais, and Costa Ricans is a penchant for violence that forces the cruelest brand of bigotry upon victims. We look more like Russians, Chinese, and Iranians when it comes to bigotry.

    We have wed irrational bigotry to uncompromising violence. This is historical and there is not much promise for a hate-free peaceful future given our love affair with guns and ammo.

    August 28, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      I would be happy to agree with you, except for this reference: "completely ignorant atheist".

      It shows you to be exactly the same as the irrational bigots you complain about.

      August 28, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • rg500g

      Yes, "completely ignorant atheist" was a poor choice of words. I'm an atheist, and have studied Buddhism, Islam in various guises, Shinto, Hinduism, Judaism, and multiple flavors of Christianity. Though I am utterly convinced that god does not exist I want to know why others do, not to mock them or argue with them, but to better understand their world view and not accidentally insult their faith or traditions. You could have gotten the point across w/o the atheism remark.

      September 4, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • Randy

      I interpret this differently than the other two, an interpretation that seems to be more in line with the OPs tone. The phrase "...a completely ignorant atheist..." is following by an explanation that even the condition of extreme unfamiliarity or ignorance about the details of religion would not prevent a person from embodying dignity. It's not a blanket statement about atheists, its an extreme example to emphasize the point of the comment.

      September 5, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  4. Uncle Bernie

    The Sikhs are good people. Muslims, not so much. But, to be fair, American muslims have shown themselves to be peaceful and law abiding, except for the odd whack-job now and again.

    August 25, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • The Woof

      Uncle Bernie, what about the Christian "whack jobs" in America that have commited mass murders, hate killings and just were all around buttholes? Ignorance, bigotry and hate doesn't recognize or single out any specific race, creed, color or religion.

      August 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Cindy

      Woof-give some examples please of real Christians who did all that.

      August 29, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • NutGrinder

      @Cindy – Oh Cindy, please go read a history book. If you prefer American history, start with the Salem witch trials. Christians killing people out of ignorance and fear... want more, go further back to the 17th century.

      August 30, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      What's your definition of a "real Christian"? Everyone has their own definition.

      August 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Oh and before you spout off about the bible, every self-professed christian cites certain bible verses or certain interpretations to justify their definition.

      August 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Doug Jenny

      Your a pretty close minded guy to believe Muslims are bad people.

      May 2, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  5. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    Wot's devine venjeance?

    August 10, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • NutGrinder

      Sounds like some delicious beverage.

      August 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    August 10, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • Cantard

      Prove it. I dare you. I double dog dare you.

      August 26, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • NutGrinder

      lol I LOVE this guy, he spams that line literally ALL over the place just to get the religious nutters all riled up.. ahha! funny stuff.

      August 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Lying troll.

      May 2, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • Science

      Hey RC you found cap't ass wipe ?

      May 2, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    August 10, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • Really

      It is evil to lie to children. Why would you tell little kids to believe in your fairy tail under penalty of eternal torture? That is disgusting and it is also a practice common to all sects of Christianity. Christians are some really twisted people to do that to children.

      August 27, 2012 at 5:22 am |
    • Cindy

      Its the truth,you will find out one day.

      August 29, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Doug Jenny

      Yur not healthy for childre

      May 2, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  8. ..

    Read about a custom by the sikh called langur. They feed anyone who comes in on the feast day. very admirable.

    But you think they may be feeding deviant like g . a . y or p . e . d . o?

    do you think this could be devine venjeance for commiting such act?

    August 10, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • WASP

      @dot dot: hmmmm well if this horrible attack was punishment from your war-god, then what punishment does he have insotre for the pedo/gays your church is hiding, or those that he designed gay that are lying everyday about whom god made them to be?................it's only logical that god made gays just like he made everyone else.

      August 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.