Islam and American Tolerance

What the experience of Jews and Catholics suggests about the future for Muslims

What’s the path to religious acceptance in America—and what can Muslims, Mormons and Buddhists learn from Jews and Catholics?

A Gallup report out last week found that, of all major religious groups in America, Muslims are the most optimistic about their future. When asked what they think their lives will be like in five years, Muslims see themselves as having a better life than do members of any other religious group. They are also most likely to say that their community is getting better as a place to live.

Why is such optimism warranted even though Muslims are also the religious group most likely to report experiencing discrimination?

Consider the experience of two groups that are perceived positively by Americans today: Jews and Catholics. Americans rate Jews and Catholics more warmly than they do mainline Protestants, historically America’s religious establishment, and evangelical Protestants, the single largest religious group in the country. At the end of the scale opposite Jews and Catholics are Muslims, Mormons and Buddhists.

There was once a time when Jews and Catholics faced greater hostility than Muslims (and certainly Mormons and Buddhists) do today, even including mob violence. The accusations commonly leveled against Jews and Catholics—all the way up to the 1960s—should sound familiar. Among other things, their religions were said to be incompatible with America’s democratic system of government, their adherents beholden to foreign influences.

While anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism have not been completely extinguished, today examples of such bigotry are the exception and not the rule. Jews and Catholics have firmly secured a place in America’s kaleidoscope of religions.

Over the last generation, Americans have built a society in which interreligious friendships and even marriages have quietly become the norm. Empirical data make clear the consequences of this religious bridge-building: Feeling warmly toward a given religion follows from having a close relationship with someone of that religion. As Americans become personally acquainted with someone of a previously unfamiliar religion, their good feelings about that individual extend to members of that group in general. The same holds true for being close to someone who has no religion.

It is these interreligious relationships that enable the U.S. to combine religious devotion, diversity and tolerance.

The comparison between Jews and Mormons is especially illuminating—and shows that a religion need not be large to be viewed positively. Jews and Mormons both number between five million and six million in the U.S., but Jews have been particularly adept at building bridges beyond their co-religionists. Mormons, by contrast, are least likely to have close friends outside of their religious circle. Thus Jews are perceived positively, Mormons less so.

Since only 7% of Americans count a Muslim among their close friends, it is understandable that Muslims would be viewed with some suspicion. As that number grows, past experience suggests that Muslims will come to be viewed more positively by other Americans.

But, as they say about the stock market, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. Whether American Muslims’ optimism will ultimately prove to be warranted rests on whether they follow the pattern of making close personal connections to Americans of other religious backgrounds. Indeed, the same is true for all of America’s many religions—large or small.

Mr. Campbell is an associate professor of political science and director of the Rooney Center at the University of Notre Dame. Mr. Putnam is professor of public policy at Harvard University. They are co-authors of “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us” (Simon & Schuster, 2010).  article source