America’s dark and not-very-distant history of hating Catholics
Progressives and conservatives are in a rare unity welcoming Pope Francis to the US, but anti-Catholicism was rampant before John F Kennedy was president
Rory Carroll in Los Angeles
Saturday 12 September 2015
Congress and the United Nations rolling out their red carpets, nuns working overtime to bake communion hosts, prison inmates carving a walnut throne, tickets for events snapped up in seconds: America is gearing up for pope-mania.
Pope Francis is expected to be greeted with huge crowds and across-the-board reverence when he tours Washington, New York and Philadelphia during his first visit as pontiff to the United States.
The rapture, however, will not change the awkward – and largely forgotten fact – that for centuries the US discriminated against Catholics.
The land of immigrants enshrined freedom of religion in the constitution yet spent much of its history despising, harassing and marginalising Catholics.
From the first Puritan settlers to televangelists, leading political, business and religious figures lambasted followers of Rome as theological abominations and traitorous fifth columnists.
“When you look back at the true, hidden history of the United States this strand of anti-Catholicism is very powerful,” said Kenneth Davis, a prominent historian and commentator.
“We want to show this patriotic view that we were this melting pot of religious freedom. Nonsense. People wanted their own religious freedom, not freedom for others. There was a very, very deep hatred of Catholics.”
Thomas Nast’s anti-Catholic cartoon in Harper’s Weekly in 1875. It depicts Roman catholic bishops as crocodiles attacking public schools, with the connivance of Irish catholic politicians. Photograph: Public Domain
Discrimination dwindled in the 20th century, especially after John F Kennedy became the first Catholic president, bequeathing a sort of amnesia, said Davis. “It’s really astonishing how it has been swept under the rug. It’s as if with JFK all the past is forgiven.”
That history will seem distant indeed if, as expected, progressives and conservatives seek to co-opt the Pope, the former cheering his denunciations of poverty, inequality and climate change, the latter his espousal of family values.
The political establishment no longer frets about the religion. Joe Biden, the vice-president, is Catholic, as are three Republican presidential candidates: Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal.
Yet historians agree discrimination once thrived. “The deepest bias in the history of the American people,” according to Arthur Schlesinger. “The most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history,” said John Higham.
Catholics got in an early bit of sectarian homicide in 1556 when Spanish forces slaughtered a colony of French Huguenot Protestants in what is now Florida.
When Pilgrims and Puritans settled in New England half a century later they brought fresh venom from Europe’s religious conflicts, including the idea that the Pope was the “anti-Christ” and the “whore of Babylon”.
At first banned from the colonies, “papists” were grudgingly allowed entry but with severe civic restrictions, including exclusion from political power. Jews and Quakers also suffered discrimination but were seen as a lesser threat.
Justice Hugo Black surrounded by press in Norfolk, Virginia. Photograph: New York Daily News/NY Daily News via Getty Images
The establishment of a secular republic which separated church and state did not end prejudice.
Lurid myths about Catholic sexual slavery and infanticide spread through pamphlets and books such as Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, an 1834 supposed memoir about a Canadian convent.
Demagogues in the nativist movement incited fury and fear about the huge numbers of impoverished German and Irish Catholic immigrants, many barely speaking English, who spilled off ships.
Newspapers and Protestant clergymen, including Lyman Beecher, co-founder of the American Temperance Society, swelled the outcry, warning the influx would take jobs, spread disease and crime and plot a coup to install the Pope in power.
In 1844 mobs burnt Catholic churches and hunted down victims, notably in Philadelphia where, coincidentally or not, Francis will wrap up his week-long visit.
Abuse from Protestant officers partly drove hundreds of Irish soldiers to defect from the US army to the Mexican side before and during the 1846-48 war with Mexico. The deserters obtained revenge, for a while, by forming the San Patricio battalion and targeting their former superiors in battle, only to wind up jailed, branded and hanged after Mexico surrendered.
The growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century gave a new impetus to attacks – mostly verbal – on Catholics. Hugo Black, a KKK member and US senator, gave fiery anti-Catholic speeches before going on to become a defender of civil liberties on the supreme court bench.
Writers and intellectuals had no hesitation bashing the Catholic church. Mark Twain noted he was “educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic”.
The burgeoning power of Irish and other immigrant Catholic communities paved Al Smith’s election as governor of New York but Lutheran and Baptist opposition helped sink his presidential bid in 1928
Catholicism remained an obstacle to Kennedy’s White House run in 1960. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Shutterstock
Hostility gradually dwindled, especially during the collective bonding of the second world war, but remained an obstacle to Kennedy’s White House run in 1960. He tried to neutralise the issue, telling a group of Protestant ministers: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.”
Kennedy’s victory, and the Catholic church’s alliance decades later with Protestant evangelicals on social issues, completed the integration into mainstream public life.
Common ground with evangelicals on abortion and same-sex marriage paved the way for Bush, Jindal and Santorum to court a constituency which once would have reviled them. “They seem to have forgotten this deep, ugly past that they have,” said Davis, the historian.
Sex abuse scandals have in recent years shined a harsh and legitimate spotlight on the church. And the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an advocacy group, claims Catholic bashing is a staple of US society. But Davis thinks discrimination is in the past. “It’s now largely a non-issue.”
If some religious fanatics greet Francis with posters calling him the anti-Christ and Babylon’s whore they will be on the fringe of the fringe. The US, no longer fearful of a papist coup, seems close to a rare unity in wanting to welcome the Pope.