|Herman Cain at the GOP debate in New Hampshire on Monday night|
Eboo Patel is not Irish, which is not surprising given his decidedly non-Hibernian name. Patel is a Rhodes Scholar who is fascinated by American diversity -- in particular, the increasing amount of religious diversity in the U.S.
Patel, who also runs a group called Interfaith Youth Corps, is concerned that as more and more Americans celebrate different religions, more and more will experience conflict.
Patel has worked with the White House and countless other local organizations to minimize this conflict. He likes to point out, as The New York Times noted this week, that a diverse range of immigrants have always come to America, experienced conflict but then “built a new pattern of relationships.”
Patel regularly points out that “English Protestants and Irish Catholics eventually overcame their enmity on these
shores.” True enough, though it is very important to recall just how difficult it was to bridge those gaps.
We forget that Irish Catholics and Protestants literally brawled on the streets of New York up until the early 20th Century, leaving scores dead and maimed, particularly around the summer months we refer to as the “marching season,” which many of believe is confined to modern times in Northern Ireland.
As the 20th century progressed, those attempting to uphold the Protestant ideal long questioned the notion that Roman Catholics of any ethnicity could by loyal Americans.
That’s what Woodrow Wilson suggested when he blasted “hyphenated Americans” in the 1910s. That is what the resurgent Ku Klux Klan of the 192os believed.
That’s what Paul Blanshard said in his best-selling 1949 book American Freedom and Catholic Power. And that’s what many of John F. Kennedy’s most vociferous critics said on the campaign trail in 1960.
And it is with this in mind that we should consider fringe Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s recent comments about Muslims and loyalty.
He told CNN’s John King that he would only appoint a Muslim American to his administration if they took some kind of loyalty oath to prove allegiance to the U.S. Constitution.
"That's not discrimination. It's called trying to protect the American people," Cain said.
"This nation is under attack constantly by people who want to kill all of us, so I'm going to take extra precaution."
The former CEO of Godfather’s pizza clarified this position Monday evening in New Hampshire.
"You have peaceful Muslims, then you have militant Muslims, those that are trying to kill us," Cain said. "I was thinking about the ones that were trying to kill us."
How serious should we take all of this? Cain is, again, a fringe candidate.
And he is not wrong that some Muslims are out to destroy America, as are a handful of isolated white psychopathic gun nuts, such as the various self-styled revolutionaries who have launched crusades against the American power structure, from the Unabomber to Timothy McVeigh.
Here, though, is why Cain’s comments are important. Cain may be a fringe candidate, but he is apparently in this race for the long run. Therefore, his comments put pressure on more serious candidates to balance a commitment to American diversity and a commitment to American security.
Given the weak field and unstable nature of the Republican presidential primary, Cain’s comments could have been seen as an opportunity to make even more dumb comments about “disloyal” Muslims.
The early reports, however, are more encouraging.
At Monday evening’s Republican debate, Mitt Romney reacted to Cain’s comments by saying, “I think we recognize that the people of all faiths are welcome in this country.
Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance.”
Then again, you would expect such namby-pamby comments from a sneaky Mormon, now wouldn’t you?
On a more serious note, targeting “disloyal” Americans has been code language for much more ugly tactics for far too long.
Irish Americans were targeted or jailed, their newspapers shut down and their mail intercepted, for alleged anti-American acts a century ago. Let’s hope we don’t reach that point again.
If Cain -- or anyone else -- has questions about a potential cabinet member, he can interview them as an individual and make decisions based on that interview.
Let’s just hope he never gets a chance to assemble a presidential cabinet.