Religious Freedom, Then and Now: Suspicion of Catholics Once Common in U.S.

Responding to recent discussions about the lower Manhattan Islamic center, two religious scholars recall the rise of nativism in the nineteenth century, when the Catholic religion, and Catholics themselves, were widely seen as disloyal and anti-democratic.

Protestants, by far the largest majority at the time, feared the then-new immigrants who were bringing the Roman faith to North America. Writing in the New York Review of Books this past summer, scholars Scott Appleby and John McGreevy discuss the parallels between the suspicions surrounding Muslims today, and the prejudices held against Catholics in early American history:

As historians of American Catholicism, and Catholics, we are concerned to see the revival of a strain of nativism in the current controversy over the establishment of an Islamic center some blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

For much of the nineteenth century Catholics in America were the unassimilated, sometimes violent “religious other.” Often they did not speak English or attend public schools. Some of their religious women—nuns—wore distinctive clothing. Their religious practices and beliefs—from rosaries to transubstantiation—seemed to many Americans superstitious nonsense.


Thomas Nast, "Foreign Reptiles"

As the immigration pattern in the nineteenth century changed and more and more immigrants arrived ashore from countries other than England, the number Catholics increased dramatically. Their arrival was met with suspicions and xenophobia. As a result, the historical journey of American Catholics was long and difficult:

In the 1840s and 1850s these anxieties about Catholicism in American society turned violent, resulting in mob attacks on priests and churches as well as the formation of a major political party, the American Party, dedicated to combating Catholic influence.

Fears of Catholics often centered on the assumption that Catholic sentiments and commitments would prove incompatible with their life in the new nation. These long-standing fears among Protestant Americans stemmed from the beliefs that the Catholic Church demanded loyalty from its adherents above and beyond their allegiance to their nation, and that Catholics would therefore undermining the fabric of American democracy. Americans—many of them only a generation or two in the country—also distrusted their fellow Catholics because they believed that Catholicism was rooted in Old-World, autocratic, and impoverished nations, and that as a result Catholic immigrants would hold back a new country whose outlook highlighted progress, prosperity, and modernization.

Anti-Catholics feelings lasted throughout the first part of the twentieth century, continuing, for example, in Klu Klux Klan campaigns of intimidation in the 1920s. Acts of opposition to Catholic communities ranged from deadly riots to assaults on church properties and attempts to shutter Catholic schools.

Critics of Catholicism pointed out that while American Catholics were able to practice their religion openly, non-Catholics in other countries were not (a claim that’s echoed in many statements about the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries today). And it obviously did not help to ease the minds of Protestant Americans that some more belligerent Catholics made deeply antagonizing claims.

For example, Appleby and McGreevy say,

New York’s own Bishop John Hughes thundered in 1850 that the Church’s mission was to convert “the Officers of the Navy and the Marines, commander of the Army, the legislatures, the Senate, the Cabinet, the President and all.”

But those remained lonely voices and the vast majority of Catholic Americans became loyal citizens in short order. Indeed, within a generation or two, Catholicism established itself as a respected community in the American landscape, moving from isolation and exclusion to the center of the national political establishment. This once feared minority produced not only the widely-admired President J. F. Kennedy, but also elected officials at unprecedented numbers.  These days, Catholics hold more seats in Congress than any other religious group, the vice-president and speaker of the house are Catholics, and so are six of the nine Supreme Court justices.

Noting that “historical comparisons are bound to be inexact,” the two historians nonetheless bring to life how our current debates can be informed by historical understanding.

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