Know-Nothing Catholics on Muslim Immigration

“In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles.” ∼ Executive order: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United  States

It can be expected that Catholic bishops will respond with dismay to President Trump’s order banning immigration from seven Muslim nations. When Trump first proposed banning Muslims from entering the U.S., Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the president of the USCCB issued a statement repudiating “the hatred and suspicion that leads to policies of discrimination.” At about the same time, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said Catholics could “not possibly countenance” restricting entry to the U.S. solely on the basis of religious affiliation. It can also be expected that bishops will employ an argument they have long used against opponents of Muslim immigration—namely, that Catholic immigrants were once treated with similar suspicion.

Catholics and non-Catholics alike now laugh at the anti-Catholic prejudice of the Know-Nothings (aka The American Party) and other groups who were opposed to immigration from Catholic countries in Europe. The anti-Catholics based their objection on the belief that Catholics owed allegiance to a foreign power (the Vatican), and thus, Catholics could never be truly loyal to America and its Constitution. More than that, there were dark rumors about a papist plot to take over America, and about an undersea tunnel that connected the Vatican to New York. This view—that Catholics could never assimilate to America’s democratic culture—persisted in some quarters up until the election of John F. Kennedy.

The fact that some Americans once mistakenly considered Catholicism a menace is now used as an argument against critics of Muslim immigration. Just as the Know-Nothings of days gone by were wrong about Catholicism, so also will today’s “Know-Nothings” be proven wrong about Islam. Or, so it is claimed. The open-borders advocates within the Church assure us that Islam will turn out to be as Americans as apple pie: give Islam a chance, and you will discover that the local Iman is just Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley with a beard—a mellow fellow whose biggest concern is to pay off the mortgage on the mosque.


But what if all the things that were once falsely charged against Catholicism are actually true of Islam? The nineteenth century anti-Catholics mistakenly thought that Catholicism was a theocracy, but Islam really is a theocracy. The anti-Catholics wrongly questioned the loyalty of American Catholics, but numerous polls show that a majority of Muslims consider their primary allegiance to be to the ummah (the worldwide community of Muslim believers), and not to whatever nation they happen to reside in. A Pew Research survey of Muslim-Americans under thirty revealed that sixty percent of them felt more loyalty to Islam than to America. The Know-Nothings worried needlessly that Catholics would be subject to foreign influence, but when you consider that 85 percent of fulltime, paid imams in the U.S. are foreign born, then foreign influence on American Muslims does seem a legitimate concern.

What about the anti-Catholic fear that Catholics would be bound by Canon Law not Constitutional Law? There was, of course, little need for worry. The scope of Cannon Law is largely restricted to internal Church affairs, and most Catholics have only the vaguest acquaintance with its requirements. On the other hand, sharia law governs almost every aspect of daily life for Muslims. Moreover, many tenets of sharia law directly contradict the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Sharia law permits cruel and unusual punishments; the open-ended sharia blasphemy laws makes free speech highly problematic; and the apostasy and dhimmitude laws more or less cancel out religious freedom.

How seriously is sharia regarded in Muslim lands? In many Muslim nations sharia law (or Islamic law) is the law of the land. For example, it is written into the constitutions of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­and Iraq. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam which is the Islamic response to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified by all 57 member nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Article 24 of the Declaration states “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia.” Article 25 states “The Islamic Sharia is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration.” All of which sounds a bit like the fine print in a warranty which tells you that your product is completely covered for 10 years except for labor and all the working parts.

But how about Muslims in America? You may think that American Muslims pay no attention to the thousand-year-old requirements of sharia law, but polls show otherwise. A nationwide survey conducted by The Polling Company for the Center for Security Policy reveals that 51 percent of Muslims agreed that “Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to sharia.” In addition, 51 percent of those polled believed that they should have the choice of American or sharia courts. Only 39 percent agreed that Muslims in the U.S. should be subject to American courts.

Take over the country? That’s what some of the anti-Catholic nativists thought that the Catholics were planning to do. There is no evidence, however, that any Catholic groups, whether lay or clerical, ever entertained notions about subjugating America. On the other hand, numerous Islamist leaders have, in no uncertain terms, expressed a desire to conquer America. And the crazy talk is not confined to terrorist chiefs hiding out in the deserts of Libya or Iraq. “Death to America” is now the unofficial motto of one large and well-armed Islamic nation (Iran). Moreover, subjugating nations to Islam is not simply something that Muslims like to talk about. It’s what they have done throughout history. The spread of Islam is the raison d’être of Islam.

How should it be spread? Not necessarily with bullets and bombs. Prominent Islamic spiritual leaders such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi have expressed confidence that Islam can conquer Europe through immigration and through higher birth rates. 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed has expressed similar sentiments about the defeat of the U.S. Although not at all adverse to the use of violence, KSM revealed that al-Qaeda’s plan to crush America was more subtle than that. According to James Mitchell, the CIA contractor who interrogated him, KSM told him:

The “practical” way to defeat America was through immigration and by outbreeding non-Muslims. He said jihadi-minded brothers would immigrate into the United States, taking advantage of the welfare system to support themselves while they spread their jihadi message. They will wrap themselves in America’s rights and laws for protection, ratchet up acceptance of Sharia law, and then, only when they were strong enough, rise up and violently impose Sharia from within.

It is that possibility, and not a D-Day type invasion that worries serious critics of Islamic immigration, and it is that possibility that the new executive order is meant to forestall. More to the point, the ban on Muslim immigration is not based in bigotry, but on a realistic assessment of Islam. If, as Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other Islamists have said, the plan is to conquer the West through immigration, then putting restrictions on Muslim immigration is the logical thing to do.

Last February, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy gave a speech which rehashed all the old clichés about “anti-Islamic prejudice.” He reminded his audience about the anti-Catholic bigotry of the past; he cautioned them about a “new nativism”; he advised them that they should view with repugnance the “repeated falsehoods” that Islam is inherently violent or that Muslims seek to replace the Constitution with sharia law; and he told them that Catholics must speak out against “distortions of Muslim theology … because these distortions are just as devastating in the present day as the distortions of Catholic teaching … which were disseminated in American society in the nineteenth century.”

Except that the “distortions” of Islam that McElroy talks about are not distortions at all. They are established facts. And the fears that many in the U.S have about Muslim immigration are well-founded fears. Rational discrimination against Muslim immigration in the twenty-first century is not the same as irrational discrimination against Catholic immigration in the nineteenth century. Unless, of course, you are naïve enough to believe that all religions are basically of the same peace-loving sort.

The term “Know-Nothings” originally referred to its members’ habit of responding to every question about its activities with the reply “I know nothing.” The moniker also captured the ignorance of its nativist members. Their opposition to Catholic immigrants was largely based on misinformation. Today, however, the situation is reversed. It’s not the opponents of immigration that are ill-informed, but its proponents. Today’s equivalent of the Know-Nothings are not those who have fears about Muslim immigration. In general, their fears are based on facts about Islamic beliefs and Islamic history—facts which are easily accessible to anyone who bothers to look. The “Know-Nothings” of today are those who think Muslim immigration can only be a good thing—those who are so ignorant of Islam that they proudly proclaim their solidarity with it. The Know-Nothings of today are all those willfully blind groups and individuals who refuse to look at the facts about Islam, and prefer instead to cling to the fantasy Islam of their own imaginations.

Today’s Know-Nothings are smug in their assurance that they hold the moral high ground. Hence they absolve themselves from examining the evidence on which moral judgments should be based. They are sure that the conventional wisdom of yesterday is adequate to understand today’s radically different situation. In their own way, they are as much of a threat to American society as the terrorists who plan to take advantage of their ignorance.

William Kilpatrick


William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong; and Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, Investor’s Business Daily, and First Things. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website,

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