By Paul Vitello
Many New Yorkers were suspicious of the newcomers’ plans to build a house of worship in Manhattan. Some feared the project was being underwritten by foreigners. Others said the strangers’ beliefs were incompatible with democratic principles.
Concerned residents staged demonstrations, some of which turned bitter.
But cooler heads eventually prevailed; the project proceeded to completion. And this week, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Lower Manhattan — the locus of all that controversy two centuries ago and now the oldest Catholic church in New York State — is celebrating the 225th anniversary of the laying of its cornerstone.
For those of us Duke Divinity students who are in American Christianity this semester, our reading this week (in Nancy Koester's Fortress Introduction to the History of Christianity in the United States) touched on how public schools in the 19th century largely reflected basic Protestant values. Catholics were described as "papist" and "unpatriotic."
Hostility toward perceived threats to "American values" is nothing new. How might the debate over the Islamic community center in Manhattan run parallel to the Protestant/Catholic debate of 200 years prior? Are they different? How so?