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date: 25 March 2017

Anti-Catholicism in the United States

Summary and Keywords

Historian John Higham once referred to anti-Catholicism as “by far the oldest, and the most powerful of anti-foreign traditions” in North American intellectual and cultural history. But Higham’s famous observation actually elided three different types of anti-Catholic nativism that have enjoyed a long and quite vibrant life in North America: a cultural distrust of Catholics, based on an understanding of North American public culture rooted in a profoundly British and Protestant ordering of human society; an intellectual distrust of Catholics, based on a set of epistemological and philosophical ideas first elucidated in the English (Lockean) and Scottish (“Common Sense Realist”) Enlightenments and the British Whig tradition of political thought; and a nativist distrust of Catholics as deviant members of American society, a perception central to the Protestant mainstream’s duty of “boundary maintenance” (to utilize Emile Durkheim’s reading of how “outsiders” help “insiders” maintain social control).

An examination of the long history of anti-Catholicism in the United States can be divided into three parts: first, an overview of the types of anti-Catholic animus utilizing the typology adumbrated above; second, a narrative history of the most important anti-Catholic events in U.S. culture (e.g., Harvard’s Dudleian Lectures, the Suffolk Resolves, the burning of the Charlestown convent, Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures); and finally, a discussion of American Catholic efforts to address the animus.

Keywords: American Protective Association, Anti-Catholicism, Catholic League, Guy Fawkes Day, Governor Al Smith, Know Nothings, Ku Klux Klan, Last Acceptable Prejudice, Maria Monk, nativism, The New Anti-Catholicism, Rebecca Reed

A History of the Anti-Catholic Animus

Colonial Anti-Catholicism

The earliest manifestations of colonial anti-Catholicism were grounded in events and beliefs that predate the European colonization of North America. Indeed, long before the first English settlers arrived in what is now the United States, both the Puritan settlers of New England and the Anglican settlers of Virginia shared a deep hatred and fear of Roman Catholicism. The settlers of both areas had been shaped by a British Protestant culture that counted anti-Catholicism among its most basic values, grounded in part on Catholicism’s anti-national character. The very idea of a “national church”—like that of the Church of England—had been repeatedly denounced by Catholic leaders as schismatic and heretical: such Catholic denunciation made “popery” both a theological and a political threat to the recently “reformed” Christianity coming out of the Henrician and Puritan Reformations. Thus, both the (Anglican) Thirty Nine Articles and the (Puritan) Westminster Confession denounced the beliefs and practices of Catholicism as superstitious and anti-Christian.1

The detection and foiling of treasonous Catholic attempts to overthrow the Elizabethan Settlement in church and state (in which the monarch served as the “Chief Protector of the Church in England”)—most commonly embodied in the infamous Gunpowder Plot—were concerns brought from old to New England and were celebrated annually in Boston and throughout the colonies on Guy Fawkes Day on November 5. Also called “Pope Day,” this yearly public holiday was celebrated by burning an effigy of the pope on town commons up and down the eastern seaboard while children sang anti-Catholic ditties and adults drank rounds of toasts to the overthrow of the Bishop of Rome, more popularly known on such occasions as “The Beast” described in the Book of Revelation. Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated in both the northern and southern colonies until 1775, when George Washington issued an inter-colonial order forbidding its observance, fearful of the effect of such festivities on securing the aid of Catholic France in what was emerging as a revolutionary conflict against the mother country.2

These annual celebrations for over a century and a half served as an emblematic public ritual testifying to a much broader series of social and political constraints on Catholics in colonial America: “papists” were forbidden from holding public office, carrying firearms, or serving on juries in Virginia, by a 1641 act of the House of Burgesses, and in Maryland, after 1654, by a law that stated that “none who profess to exercise the Popish religion can be protected in this province.”3

Far more famous for the virulence of its anti-Catholic animus was the Puritan colony of Massachusetts, whose General Court decreed in 1647 that “any Jesuit or priest coming within the colony was to be banished,” and if he returned, executed. That same body enacted laws that forbad the celebration of the “popish festival of Christmas,” and the importation of “any Irish persons whatsoever” into the colony; the General Court likewise instituted oaths of allegiance that specifically included denunciations of the pope for all public office holders and militia marshals. “Break the Pope’s Neck” was a popular fireside game for children, while the New England Primer—the “hornbook” on which children learned their ABCs while memorizing little phrases that helped them with the alphabet—offered as its phrase for the letter A, “Abhor that abhorrent Whore of Rome.”4

The American Revolution is often presented as the cultural moment when colonial anti-Catholicism was finally put to rest, especially after the entry of Catholic France into the conflict, in 1778, on the side of the colonies. The resulting dampening of prejudice against the Roman Church is often presented as one of the healthy by-products of the triumph of Enlightenment reasoning among colonial leaders and its enshrinement in the founding documents of the new republic. This supposed salutary displacement of older Puritan biases by the egalitarian values of the English and Scottish Enlightenments posits the Revolutionary Era as that moment when Puritans and Cavaliers both became Americans, freed of the tired prejudices of the Old World. But much like the rumors of Mark Twain’s death, this is somewhat exaggerated regarding the religious values of both the Revolution and the Republican Era that followed it.

Scholars like Carl Bridenbaugh, Nathan Hatch, and Patricia Bonomi have documented with compelling evidence the continuing importance of evangelical Protestant loyalties throughout the Revolutionary Era and into the decades that followed it. Several historical incidents illustrate the strong Protestant impulses contributing to the colonial fight against the mother country, most famously the reaction to the Quebec Act of 1774. This Parliamentary Bill sought to pacify the ever-fractious North American colonists by granting religious toleration to Catholics in the British colony of Quebec, the vast majority of whose colonists were Catholics and previously forbidden by British law from publically practicing their religion. But revolutionary propagandist Samuel Adams refused to see in the parliamentary gesture a reasonable granting of religious freedom to a colony denied one of its most basic liberties. To the contrary, Adams claimed to see in the Act an unholy alliance between an autocratic king and an equally autocratic pope, and in response drafted the Suffolk Resolves—arguably the single most virulent and inflammatory colonial petition against the British government produced in the years before 1776. Bridenbaugh and other colonial historians argued that the Resolves, which publicly denounced both king and parliament as “papist tools,” played a crucial role in mobilizing the American colonies against the mother country. More recent scholarship (Ed Countryman and Patricia Bonomi) have offered a more nuanced relationship between the Great Awakening and the Revolution three decades later.5

More arresting and revealing than the bitterness of the Suffolk Resolves in showing the strength of the anti-Catholic animus during the Revolutionary Era was the close association between the Revolutionary cause and the ideology of evangelical Protestantism, uncovered in the brilliant scholarship of Alan Heimert and James Davidson. Heimert’s Religion and the American Mind presented compelling historical evidence that the left wing of the evangelical Protestant tradition, which had supported the revivals of Jonathan Edwards in New England and the Tennant brothers in New Jersey, played a far more important intellectual role among non-elites in sponsoring the American Revolution as an ideological event than the deistic and rationalistic ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, and Tom Paine. The warm and emotionally satisfying “heart religion” of the Great Awakening—which denounced the “carnal Christianity” of the formalized worship of the Church of England—was far more crucial than Enlightenment ideas about natural rights and representative government in galvanizing the colonial Americans to fight the most powerful standing army in Europe.6

In this reading of the new nation that emerged from the American Revolution, while the Constitution hammered out at the end of the war separated the institutions of church and state, the religious impulses driving the great majority of Protestant citizens were left free to craft what Robert Handy termed the “voluntary establishment” of evangelical Christianity in the new nation for the next 150 years. In Handy’s reading of American culture between 1790 and 1930, most Protestants citizens understood their mission to be to create a Christian (meaning “Protestant”) culture in which the Protestant influence would be “voluntary and persuasive, but the goal of a Christian society was as clear as it had been in the days of legal establishment—even clearer.” Thus, those who stood outside this vision of an evangelical Protestant culture—Catholics especially—soon became the object of nationalistic, theological, and political fears. In this “evangelical interpretation” of the American Revolution, the citizens of the young Republic believed that “by separation of church and state they had separated religion from secular concerns [and] seem to have been largely unaware of how much specifically Protestant content they had in fact invested in their understanding of church and society.” Groups that did not share the basic premises of that arrangement—first and foremost Catholic Christians—quickly became of aware of their “outsiderhood.”7

This explanation of the evangelical Protestant basis of the new Republic’s constitutional arrangement helps account for the rise of anti-Catholic activity in the first half of the 19th century, after the ostensible triumph of Enlightenment ideas in the Revolution, and just as Irish Catholics began appearing in steady but hardly overwhelming numbers in the ports of Boston and New York.

The Anti-Catholic Impulse in 19th Century America

Perhaps the single most famous artifact in American popular culture that witnesses to the anti-Catholic impulse was the publication in 1836 of Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Monastery in Montreal, a salacious (and almost completely fictitious) escape account of a poor Protestant girl held captive against her will in a convent full of secret doors to priests’ bedrooms, buried bodies of nuns’ illegitimate children, and dark rituals in the convent chapel. Equal parts pornographic depiction of priest and nun couplings and purple prose, Monk’s account was published by a dummy press in New York City funded by several Protestant clergymen, the manuscript having been rejected by the Harper publishing house. It was, nonetheless, one of the best sellers of antebellum culture, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, if aimed at a somewhat less discriminating readership than that classic.8

A number of scholars have applied the deconstruction theories of contemporary cultural or gender studies to Monk’s shocking “expose,” which has made the book something of an iconic piece among students of cultural and women’s studies, although a simple narration of the prurient story line helps to account for its dozen or so reprintings (it is, indeed, still in print today). But, however risible as an historical narrative, Monk’s account led to “convent investigating committees” in several cities, made up of outraged citizens concerned about the unholy doings going on in their neighborhoods under the guise of religion, which in turn led to a number of other “official” convent exposes. Indeed, Monk’s best-seller was just the most famous of a flourishing literary genre with titles like Six Months in a Convent, The Testimony of an Escaped Novice, and perhaps the most intriguing of all Rosamund. In the latter monograph, a self-professed mistress to a Cuban priest confesses to her knowledge of an official Roman plot to capture “Negro” boys, kill them, and then grind-up their bodies into sausage meat to raise money for a penurious Catholic mission in Cuba. Rosamund’s story line represents a disturbing mixture of hilarious ignorance about the details of Catholic convent life, an unsettling fixation on eating flesh that might very well represent a perverted (if unconscious) trope on the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, and a salacious interest in how priests and nuns really remained “pure.”9

This popular genre of convent tales simply represented the “low culture” version of a vast anti-Catholic publishing tradition that flourished in the first half of the 19th century at every level of U.S. society. Both the American Home Missionary Society and the American Tract Society—pillars of the evangelical empire that provided literally hundreds of pamphlets to be read both at home and at Sunday School—produced hundreds of works “exposing” the crimes of Jesuits and other priests against the liberties of freedom-loving American citizens. The title of one of the most famous of these works—written by Samuel F. B. Morse (the inventor of the Code)—encapsulated the theme of most of them: A Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States. Morse’s work was serialized, to sensational popularity, in the pages of the New York Observer throughout the fall of 1834 and was immediately picked up and reprinted by various religious newspapers before appearing in monograph form in December of that same year. Morse’s foreign conspiracy posited a labyrinthine plot between the pope and the crumbling monarchies of the Old World. In order for these European monarchies to survive (so Morse’s story line went), they had to enlist the aid of “the other great foe of liberty: the Catholic Church,” to inundate the United States with Catholic immigrants who were ordered to hatch plots against American Protestants. Morse thus urged his fellow Protestants to rise above their denominational differences and unite against Catholic schools and Catholic officeholders. Morse’s reception was so favorable that he returned to the theme of a Catholic plot the next year, publishing a series entitled Immanent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States, which was serialized in the New York Journal of Commerce throughout 1835.10

That same year, Lyman Beecher, president of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, and patriarch of America’s most revered evangelical clan, produced A Plea for the West. Beecher (father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher) amplified the Catholic plot sketched by Morse, “uncovering” the central role that Catholic schools were intended to play in the looming papal plot. Through the network of parochial schools just then being constructed (aimed at displacing the tradition of “free schools” that had spread from New England, in Beecher’s reading of the situation), Catholic children were to be trained in preparation for that “dreadful day” when Catholic immigrants would win control of the entire nation. In several hundred overwrought pages, Beecher laid out the designs of Catholic teachers to win the souls of Protestant children. Works like those of Morse and Beecher witnessed to the widespread sense of unease with the growing Catholic Church among the educated Protestant middle class, analogous to the coarser concerns of working class readers of Maria Monk and Rosamund.11

Both of these streams had already cooperated in the kind of anti-Catholic violence evinced well beyond literary assaults, witnessed most famously in what has been called “the most important political event in [19th century] Massachusetts prior to the agitation surrounding the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law”: the burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts on August 11, 1834.12

On the very hot evening of August 10, 1834, Lyman Beecher delivered the last of three anti-Catholic sermons in as many churches in the city of Boston. A number of the city’s evangelical pulpits had been given over to denunciations of the Catholic threat that Sabbath, several of them directed specifically against the Ursuline convent across the Charles River. Beecher declared in his last sermon that if Catholics had their way—especially through the ruse of running schools like the one in Charlestown—they would “subvert our free institutions and bring into disgrace all ideas of an effective [democratic] government.”13

In fact, the Ursuline Convent was an exclusive “finishing school” run by the sisters and had been the target of evangelical outrage in Boston long before that Sunday evening for a number of economic and political (as well as theological) reasons. A significant number of the convent school’s students were the wealthy daughters of Boston’s liberal Unitarian aristocracy—a mercantile class that had become increasingly disdainful of the kind of emotional preaching offered in places like the Park Street Church (known as “Brimstone Corner”), which was in fact, the place in which Beecher offered his last and most virulent sermon that August evening. The fact that the working class mob that attacked the convent less than twenty-four hours after Beecher’s sermon was composed largely of Scots-Irish (Presbyterian) bricklayers is thus relevant to the story: one might easily suppose them to be outraged at (and jealous of) Unitarian bankers and merchants who had delivered their own daughters into the hands of Catholic nuns for their education. The expensive education offered these daughters of ostensibly fellow Protestants was well beyond what the rioters could afford to offer their own daughters. Further, misogynist fear and suspicion of such nuns (self-sufficient women living on their own)—a fear that would fuel the publishing careers of Maria Monk and Rebecca Theresa Reed—likewise undoubtedly played a part in the event. One rioter, interviewed a few days after the attack, was reported to have defended his part in burning down the convent by declaring that “bishops and priests pretended to live without wives; but that nuns were kept to supply the deficiency in this particular. He said this in vulgar language.” Theological, sociological, and economic impulses were so thoroughly entangled in the motivations of the rioters as reported in the trial record that any number of explanations might be offered to explain the “real reason” for torching the convent and all be supported by at least part of the court records.14

Harrison Gray Otis, a Brahmin leader of Boston society, presided over a meeting in Faneuil Hall shortly after the destruction of the convent to “call loudly on all good citizens to express individually and collectively the abhorrence they feel of this high-handed violation of the laws.” But such calls for justice for the sisters went largely unheeded: at the trial of the rioters, the principal defense attorney stated in his opening address to the court that the defendants at the bar “cannot be convicted without Catholic testimony, [and] he will endeavor to show what that testimony was worth.” In the event, it was worth very little in the eyes of the jury. All of the rioters save one were acquitted, an outcome that undoubtedly encouraged the rioters a decade later in Philadelphia, where two Catholic churches were destroyed by an angry mob on May 8, 1844.15

The local “no popery” impulses became organized on a national level in May 1848, with the formation of the American and Foreign Christian Union, whose constitution announced the group’s commitment to “diffuse and promote the principles of Religious liberty, and a pure and Evangelical Christianity, both at home and abroad, wherever a corrupted Christianity exists.” The new Union represented the merging of three distinct Protestant voluntary societies that had been operating for some time: the American Protestant Society, which had dedicated itself to “converting to Christianity” both unchurched Americans as well as recently arrived Irish and German Catholic immigrants; the Foreign Evangelical Society, which had been formed in 1839 to convert French Catholics to “solid Bible Christianity”; and the Christian Alliance in Italy, an American-funded group sending (very frustrated) American Protestant missionaries to convert resolutely anti-clerical and unchurched Catholics in southern Italy (who turned out to be even more hostile to the poor Inglese missionaries than they were to the clergy of the Italian Catholic Church). By all accounts, however, the Union enjoyed remarkable success during the first decade of its existence: by 1854, it had raised $80,000—a princely sum at the time—to fund missionaries and lecturing agents both at home and abroad. The home missionary agents roamed the country “working zealously to save Catholic souls wherever they were to be found,” especially at ports of entry like New York and New Orleans, where Irish and German Catholic immigrants could be found in large numbers.16

The Union also ran an anti-Catholic library in New York City that proudly claimed to be the largest of its kind in the world, and sponsored free lectures on Catholicism so inflammatory that crowds thronged them. A riot broke out at a lecture in Newark, New Jersey, when certain (presumably Catholic) members of the audience attempted to silence the speaker. But such events only galvanized the erstwhile leaders of the group, who responded to such mob violence by proclaiming that the Union would rededicate itself to “enlightening [Americans] about the nature and position of Romanism.” The successful career of the group witnesses to an animus that drove several dozen religious papers in the 1850s to spread the “No Popery” gospel, including Pittsburgh’s Protestant Union, Louisville, Kentucky’s True Catholic, Boston’s Christian Alliance, and the Milwaukee Banner. New Yorkers—then as today—were offered a much broader range of choices, including The Protestant Advocate, the True Freeman’s Journal, the Protestant Standard, and the New York Crusader. All of these papers warned of the special temptation that Catholic worship posed for unprepared American Protestants: “the pale lighting entering softly through the painted windows, the paintings on the walls . . . are all eminently fitted, as they were designed, to take hold of the imagination of all classes. Such excitement is pleasant; it is grateful [sic] to the feelings of men who are naturally superstitious.”17

These journalistic manifestations of a vibrant anti-Catholic impulse found political form and power in the meteoric career of the American Party, more generally known among students of American history as the “Know Nothings.” While the Know Nothings later claimed George Washington himself as their founder and first member, the party in fact grew out of a secret society gathered in 1849 by Charles B. Allen of New York with the fervently patriotic name of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. Initially the Order was to avoid direct political organizing in favor of behind-the-scenes support for nativist anti-Catholic candidates in the existing political parties. For several years it languished as a local society largely unknown on the national scene. But in 1852, Allen handed leadership of his group over to James W. Barker, whose organizational skills were such that, within four months, a thousand new members were enrolled, and the New York City municipal elections of 1852 saw several candidates sponsored by the Order elected to city office. The Order’s candidates in the 1852 elections were popularly labeled “Know Nothings” after being questioned about the political goals of their new party: each and every one responded that he knew nothing about such matters.18

With the marked success of the Order in local elections, a State Wigwam was created to encourage the formation of branch lodges throughout New York State. Lodges were eventually formed in New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Ohio. By June of 1854, a national convention with delegates from thirteen state lodges was convened in New York City to create a national network of Local, Grand, and National Councils, and to formally designate the rituals proper to each level: special hand-shakes, passwords, phrases of recognition, signals of distress—all were successfully invented by Barker and his staff to lure curious but patriotic citizens into the Order. The ritual of the Order further provided for two distinct degrees of membership: the First Degree, in which the initiate had to prove that he was born in the United States, that both of his parents were Protestant, that he was not married to a Roman Catholic, and that he would vote only for native born citizens “to the exclusion of all foreigners, and Roman Catholics in particular.” Second Degree initiates were called to bring the Order’s vision into the public sphere by running for political office themselves, in which office—if elected—they would work to “remove all foreigners, aliens, and Catholics from office.” The Order’s unifying ideological bond of anti-Catholicism was something the major political parties lacked in the tense decade before the Civil War, when sectional rivalries split party loyalty along the Mason-Dixon Line. The Order thus attracted scores of candidates who swept into political office in a series of triumphs in the elections of 1854 and 1855: whole tickets of the Order’s candidates in Massachusetts, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, not even listed on official voting ballots, won election. Seventy-five newly-elected members of the Order were sent to the federal Congress in 1854, while the Massachusetts State Senate was composed almost entirely of the Order’s candidates. The latter state’s House of Representatives was composed of one Whig, one Free Soiler, and 376 Know Nothings.19

The success of the Know Nothings on both the local and national levels, however, came to a grinding halt after the elections of 1855, when the even larger political and economic storm over slavery took up the lion’s share of concern and passion. The Civil War buried the deep anti-Catholic feelings that had swept the Know Nothings into office; but as Reconstruction’s reformist agenda following the Civil War was abating, a new crop of secret anti-Catholic societies sprang up at the end of the 1870s and throughout the 1880s, in reaction to the mushrooming numbers of parochial schools, the massive tides of Irish immigrants, and the Catholic Church’s new-found organizational maturity following the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884. Josiah Strong, the progressive Congregational minister who oversaw the Evangelical Alliance (something like the 19th century forebear of the National Council of Churches) published Our Country in 1885, which warned of the deleterious effect of recent Catholic immigration on America’s democratic institutions. In 1889 an eminently respectable group of influential New Yorkers founded the National League for the Protection of American Institutions with the sole aim of protecting public schools from “Catholic aggression.” Likewise, the United Order of Native Americans, the American Patriotic League, and the Loyal Men of American Liberty all attracted loyal followers. But the most influential of all of these post-Reconstruction groups was the American Protective Association (the “A.P.A.”), founded in Clinton, Iowa in 1887.20

The Association’s founder, Henry F. Bowers, blamed the deficiencies of his own public school education on the “subversive Jesuit conspiracy against the public schools of Baltimore,” and traveled widely in the Midwest, lecturing publicly on the Catholic threat and secretly founding A.P.A. councils modeled on the Masons: its members swore a solemn oath never to vote for a Catholic, never to join one on strike, and to avoid hiring one if a Protestant was available. By 1893, A.P.A. membership stood at around seventy thousand, most in the larger towns of the upper Midwest from Nebraska to Michigan, where Catholic were rising in political and social power. That year, leadership of the Association passed into the hands of former saloon-keeper, “Whiskey Bill” Traynor, who oversaw the group’s success on the national stage: by the summer of 1894, the Association claimed half a million members nationwide, with 10,000 members in Columbus, Ohio, and 16,000 in Buffalo, New York. Riding on the coattails of the economic recession then at full tide, A.P.A. speakers preached to crowds of unemployed Protestant workers that their jobs had been stolen from them by the flood of Catholic immigrants washing up on American shores. To prove those accusations, the A.P.A. distributed a fictitious set of “Instructions to Catholics,” supposedly sent by the pope to his followers in the United States: “in order to find employment for the many thousands of faithful who are coming daily to swell the ranks of our catholic army, which will in time possess this land” (the Pope supposedly ordered) “we must secure control of every enterprise requiring labor. This will render it necessary to remove or crowd out the American heretics who are now employed.” For several years in the mid-1890s, A.P.A. boycotted Catholic merchants, discriminated against Catholic labor, and played a major role in at least two anti-Catholic riots, But by the end of the decade its political and social influence had dissipated, owing in part to its very success in mobilizing working-class anger, to the ambivalent discomfiture of middle-class Protestants.21

Anti-Catholicism in 20th Century America

The animator of the anti-Catholic impulse in the 20th century was the Ku Klux Klan, originally a southern response to Reconstruction efforts to bring African Americans into state and local governments in the decades after 1865. The modern Klan was revived in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 16, 1915, by William J. Simmons, who proclaimed himself Imperial Wizard. “Colonel” Simmons (a rank earned not in military service but through membership in a Masonic-like order known as Woodmen of the World) modeled his 20th century group on the then-defunct Reconstruction Era Klan, which had been made up of ex-Confederate soldiers dedicated to intimidating Yankee Carpetbaggers and “uppity” African Americans running for political office. The Colonel, however, envisioned a broader range of targets than just Yankees and the descendants of freed slaves: the Klan’s ranks of Kleagles, Cyclops, Geniis, and Goblins (all ordered according to the ritual of the Kloran) attracted hundreds of small-town patriots concerned with a growing list of foreigners threatening American ways: Jews, socialist radicals, and Catholics among them. D. W. Griffith’s immensely successful film, The Birth of a Nation—the first blockbuster movie hit in American popular culture—valorized the bravery of white hooded ex-Confederate soldiers riding in the night to protect their womenfolk and children from the brutal designs of such threats. But while the old Klan had championed racial superiority as its chief agenda, Simmons’ group championed a more complex mix of nationalist, ethnic, and religious loyalties.22

For several years after its founding, Simmons’ Klan achieved a modest success, with perhaps five thousand members; but in the summer of 1920, a rapid expansion began in terms of numbers and activities. Both were the result of new social conditions at the end of World War I, as well as Simmons’ hiring of a pair of hard-boiled publicity agents, Edward Clarke and Mrs. Elizabeth Tyler. In return for $8 on every $10 gathered in initiation fees, Clarke and Tyler prepared a massive membership campaign in Masonic lodges throughout the United States, bringing in ninety thousand new Klan members in sixteen months. The advertising pair now defined the Klan’s mission as “protecting the interests of those whose forebears established the nation,” a mission in which racial, economic, political, and religious impulses would mix freely. Fear of the “New Negro” (which had played such a central role in the Reconstruction Era Klan), declined as American blacks either “accepted their place,” or moved to northern industrial cities. By the 1920s, anti-Catholicism had emerged as the most effective rallying cry. Clarke and Tyler’s propaganda refreshed the old stories about stores of arms stockpiles in the basements of Catholic churches. And these older stories found special resonance among preachers dedicated to a new form of militant anti-modernism called Fundamentalism. This resolutely new form of the Old Time Religion had caught fire in 1919 (a year that has been labeled the “Great Reversal” by historians of Fundamentalism), which witnessed the demobilization of military troops, significant economic disruptions, and the disquieting cultural discovery that “others” (Jews, Catholics, atheists) were now in positions of cultural and literary authority, and that Protestant leaders responsible for America’s (Protestant) culture had betrayed their trust. Many cultural conservatives felt that strangers had taken over the culture in the decade after World War I, and the Klan’s denunciatory finger pointed at Catholics as the most powerful source of such “otherness.”23

By 1921, the Klan had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into the north and claimed to be operating in forty- five states and enrolling a thousand new members every day. The following year witnessed massive initiation rituals, like that at which a thousand new Klansmen were sworn in simultaneously. Hundreds of candidates for political office publicly acknowledged the debt they owed for their successful elections to Klan support, including the governors of Georgia and Oregon. The invisible empire reached its zenith in 1923, claiming three million members dedicated to legislation against parochial schools and Catholic-owned saloons, the intimidation of Catholics with too much power; Catholic city councilmen, state legislators, and newspaper editors were the special objects of a repertoire that ranged from crosses burned on front lawns at midnight to personal physical violence.24

But by 1924, disputes and tensions within the Klan itself (over access to admission fees, among other issues) led to murder and nasty newspaper headlines, which in turn led to denunciations of hooded patriots by northern urban intellectuals, outraged evangelical pastors, and small town mayors embarrassed by such goings-on. The governor of Kansas (a state that boasted flourishing chapters of Kleagles and Goblins) brought suit to forbid all public appearances and activities of the Klan within his resolutely Protestant state, while a mob of six thousand anti-Klan protesters in Perth Amboy, New Jersey (led by Catholics and Jews) broke through a police barricade and fell on five hundred hapless Klansmen, kicking and beating them as they fled. New York State’s Catholic governor, Al Smith, sponsored a series of typically canny and quite successful legislative riders that effectively closed down Klan operations in the Empire State, while Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan passed laws forbidding the wearing of masks in public. By 1925, the once-flourishing Klan fell on hard times, save for its role in the presidential campaign of Al Smith.25

The much-weakened Klan had one last hurrah in the presidential election of 1928, in which the Catholic “wet” governor of New York ran as the Democratic candidate against the Republican “dry” Herbert Hoover. Smith lost the election by a landslide, a defeat that has fueled a cottage industry about what really happened in the most acrimonious presidential campaign of the 20th century. Certainly Smith’s anti-prohibition stance worried southern and Midwestern Americans (areas of the United States especially dedicated to that cause); Smith’s urban ethnic style of leadership and campaigning likewise concerned small-town voters uncomfortable with big city politics. But it was Smith’s religion that generated the most controversy, both at the time and since, and is usually credited with his crushing defeat. Even before the campaign began in earnest, there were seismic warnings that large the nation were uncomfortable with the idea of a Catholic president: in the April issue of the Atlantic Monthly, New York lawyer Charles Marshall (a respected member of the Brahmin class and himself an Episcopalian) published an open letter to Smith, explaining what he believed was an “irreconcilable opposition” between the egalitarian principles of the U.S. Constitution and the hierarchical loyalties demanded by the Roman Catholic Church. While Smith offered a coached but compelling response in the May issue of the Atlantic, prescient pundits knew that the gloves would be taken off in what was going to be a bitter political fight.26

For both Republicans and Democrats looking for organizational networks to oppose Smith, the Klan now appeared as a godsend. Alabama Senator J. Thomas Heflin addressed ten thousand Klansmen gathered on an open outside Jamesville, New York, having been introduced by the mayor of Syracuse as the man who would “lead the forces of Protestant Americanism at the coming Democratic Convention.” His two-hour harangue against the duplicities of the Catholic Church was interrupted by the collapse of the wooden platform on which he and the other speakers were standing—which Heflin immediately announced was a Roman Catholic attempt on his life.27

Governor Smith’s defeat was certainly aided in part by the efforts of hundreds of thousands of Klansmen throughout the United States, but other factors also played an important role: Reformation Sunday (the Sunday nearest October 31—the date on which Martin Luther had posted his 95 Theses that began the Protestant Reformation) in 1928 was utilized by hundreds of Protestant pastors to preach against Smith’s candidacy. The American Lutheran observed in its September 1928 issue that “the mere mention of a Roman Catholic as President of the United States has aroused Lutherans all over the country.” Likewise, the Baptist Progress of Dallas, Texas, predicted, in its October 4 issue, “if Al Smith is elected President, the Catholics will not rest until they have succeeded in stealing the garments of the Goddess of Liberty and given them to some nun to cut up for dish rags for a Catholic convent.” And in its leading editorial on October 9, the Christian Leader of Cincinnati observed that a “Roman Catholic assassinated Abraham Lincoln; a Roman Catholic assassinated President McKinley. Al Smith for President!” On November 3, 1928, Herbert Hoover was elected president by a majority of almost six million votes, including five states of the Democratic “Solid South.”28

By the outbreak of World War II, anti-Catholicism as a vibrant cultural issue seemed to have disappeared, save for its periodic outbreak in the backwater local culture of small southern and Midwestern towns. Several explanations have been offered for the surprising evanescent fate of a once quite sturdy and respected prejudice. The most famous explanation for this disappearance is Will Herberg’s spin on secularism in his classic 1955 essay on religious sociology, Protestant, Catholic, Jew. In Herberg’s estimation, the labels identifying one as a Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish American had—by the mid-1950s—become largely irrelevant in identifying the real religion of post-war America. This real religion of U.S. culture Herberg labeled the “American Way of Life.” Catholicism and Judaism, religious traditions once used quite effectively as boundary markers by the Protestant mainstream, now represented culturally safe manifestations of America’s true creed: one might thus see the social structure of the U.S. as “one great community divided into three big sub-communities religiously defined, all equally American.” One could quite correctly describe Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism “as three great branches or divisions of the [true] American religion . . . three diverse representatives of the same ‘spiritual values’ [that] American democracy is presumed to stand for (the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the dignity of the individual human being, etc.).”29

Another set of explanations for the disappearance of overt anti-Catholicism in the 1950s and 1960s can be described as the “assimilationist account”: this explanation argues that by sheer dint of numbers, educational level, per capita income, political party affiliation, and self-described values, Catholics (along with other “outsider groups” like Jews and Mormons) had become so successfully embedded in the fabric of American middle class culture—helped in no small part by the G.I. Bill—that their perceived threat to the American Way of Life had all but disappeared. Sociologists Andrew Greeley and Seymour Martin Lipset had long pointed out that, by the mid-1950s, the occupational status of Protestants and Catholics when first and second generation immigrants were excluded. Further, they noted that, by the mid-1960s, there was little doubt that Catholics had achieved economic and social parity with Protestants. This sociological parity, however, posed its own challenges for the U.S. Catholic community: sociologists further pointed out that it remained an open question whether American Catholics were going the way of the mainline Protestant denominations in terms of cohesion and numbers, to eventually become “just another mainline bod, specializing in comfortable pews, while slowly sliding downhill.” But whatever the reality of these dire possibilities, it was an incontrovertible fact that by the end of the 20th century Catholics had become indistinguishable from their erstwhile Protestant opponents on a spectrum of economic, political, ethical, and educational indicators. Precisely because of these assimilationist demographic indicators, purportedly resting on “hard evidence,” most social scientists took it as axiomatic that the anti-Catholic animus had all but disappeared by the last quarter of the 20th century. Why should anyone bother to single out Catholics for any kind of animus if they were indistinguishable as a demographic group from everyone else, especially indistinguishable from mainline Protestants?30

A third set of explanations for the supposed disappearance of the anti-Catholic impulse in the last quarter of the 20th century focuses on the “Americanizing” changes within the Catholic community sponsored by the Church itself in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II formally ended its sessions in 1965, but its decrees sponsored a distinct “Catholic version” of the Sixties that could be dated as stretching from 1965 to 1975. During that decade, the older theological and liturgical traditions of Tridentine Catholicism came under frontal attack by Catholics claiming the blessing of an ecumenical council of the Church itself.31

The “New Anti-Catholicism” after 1965

Despite widespread rumors of the disappearance of the animus, in 1977, sociologist Andrew Greeley—with his usual habit of having a finger on the pulse of things Catholic in American culture—published An Ugly Little Secret, which announced that the old cultural bias against Catholics was alive and flourishing in the United States in the final quarter of the 20th century. At the time, Greeley’s argument seemed remarkable anachronistic: surely after the presidency of John F. Kennedy, the Second Vatican Council, and the much-commented-upon rise of Catholic ethnics into middle class affluence, the older fears had been long-since buried and forgotten.32

But Greeley’s work represented the first of a number of works published in the decade after its appearance, produced by Catholics of various ideological stripes, which commented on the resurgence (or continuance) of America’s “deepest bias”: neo-conservative public intellectual George Weigel christened this late 20th century phenomenon “the new anti-Catholicism,” a label that “stuck” and was picked up by Catholics as ideologically diverse as James Martin of America magazine and William Donahue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. But what Catholic observers as diverse as Greeley, Weigel, Martin, and Donahue have noted in common is that official Catholic positions on abortion, homosexuality, and the role of women in the community are so targeted for cultural ridicule, media carping, and political litmus-testing so often (and in some cases so dismissively) in comparison with other religious groups who espouse analogous or identical beliefs (African American Protestants, Orthodox Jews, devout Muslims) that a palpable but indefinable “something else” could reasonably be argued to be going on.33

The evidence supporting the fear of such a something else is impressive when presented in summary form. Sexually rapacious and physically abusive nuns and priests appeared as stock characters in TV sitcoms like Ally McBeal, as well as in off-Broadway shows like Late Night Catechism. Greenwich Village tourist shops sold an amusing but disturbing Boxing Nun wind-up toy (presumably to bring back pugilistic memories of parochial school days), while Hollywood movies like Dogma and Stigmata (probably more irreverent than anti-Catholic) nonetheless presented religion in ways quite consciously targeted to highlight and offend Catholic sensibilities. The San Francisco Board of supervisors granted permission to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—a Bay area group of gay men parading in nun costumes with names like Sister Homo Fellatio—to hold a “Condom Savior Mass” on the streets of the city, during which the presider would hold up a Latex “host” before the assembled worshippers to pronounce “this is the flesh for the life of the world.” During an especially fraught act of political theater in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989, sponsored by the New York chapter of ACTUP, against the Catholic Church’s repeated condemnation of the use of condoms (despite the latter’s efficacy in slowing the spread of the AIDS virus), a consecrated host was desecrated in an act so religiously repugnant that it provoked Catholic outrage across the ideological spectrum. Catholics agreed with the response of a furious Mayor Ed Koch (himself Jewish): “If you don’t like the Church, go out and find one you like, or start your own.”34

The debate in the U.S. House of Representatives over the proposed appointment of a Roman Catholic chaplain eventuated in arguments on the floor of that body that made some Catholics uncomfortable, while Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder, commenting on Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991, noted that the nominee “has indicated that he is a very devout Catholic . . . How much allegiance is there to the Pope?” In the ensuing controversy over Wilder’s remark, Washington Post columnist Judy Mann weighed in on Wilder’s side by observing that “Thomas makes much of his education at the hands of Catholic nuns; how much of this during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing?”35

An expert on the PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer, discussing mandatory DNA testing for criminals, identified Catholic priests—along with homeless people and teenagers—as being “at risk” for criminal behavior, while Tony Kushner, author of the Broadway hit “Angels in America,” referred to the pope as a “homicidal liar who endorses murder” in an article in The Nation. Journalist Jimmy Breslin wrote, in a 1993 Newsday column entitled “Old Men in Rome Still Don’t Get It,” that unless the Catholic Church changed its mind about abortion, celibacy, women in the priesthood, and the like, it will die. As several commentators observed at the time (and since), it is difficult to imagine analogous articles appearing with titles like “The Old Rabbis in Jerusalem Don’t Get It,” or “Harlem Pastors Should Keep Silent on Controversial Topics.”36

In a 1989 exhibition of paintings about AIDS funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the show’s catalogue described New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor as a “fat cannibal” and a “creep in black skirts” whose St. Patrick’s Cathedral was “that house of walking swastikas on Fifth Avenue.” The New York Times’ coverage of the controversy that ensued opined that these characterizations were simply “matters of critical opinion,” and should be received as such.37

Arguably, the journalist most famous for offensive anti-Catholic commentary was the late Christopher Hitchens, a self-described atheist. In articles like “The Devil and Mother Theresa,” and in his scurrilous monograph about her entitled The Missionary Position, Hitchens seemed to delight in attacking the “ghoul of Calcutta” in language especially targeted to provoke Catholic offense. He described the founder of the Missionaries of Charity as having a “face like a cake left out in the rain,” whose “lifestyle was butch.” In a 1995 article in Vanity Fair, entitled “Mother Theresa and Me,” Hitchens observed that while the image of the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was sweet, unworldly, and selfless, she was in fact a tough-minded ideologue who had “cozied up to the likes of Baby Doc Duvalier and Robert Maxwell.” Hitchens more than implied a lack of truth in advertising in the nun’s taking money intended for the poor but actually used to proselytize for what he termed the “religious fundamentalism of the Catholic Church” on issues like birth control and abortion. Hitchens thus posited that Mother Theresa’s putative holiness actually masked a sinister liar committed to spewing “propaganda for the Vatican’s heinous policy of compelling the faithful to breed.”38

The Last Acceptable Prejudice?

Anti-Catholicism is hardly the last bias in the United States, nor is “Catholic bashing” acceptable in most middle class enclaves in North America. Given the resiliency of anti-Semitism in the United States—at least as evinced in hate messages still spray-painted on the walls of suburban synagogues and yeshivas—as well as the deeply problematic statistics linking race and class in the United States, it would be risible to insist that bias against Catholics alone remained after other forms of discrimination had disappeared. Further, the unsettling homophobic impulses manifested in the Laramie, Wyoming murder of a gay college student (with some incendiary justifications pressed by several Christian ministers after that tragic event) make any claim of Catholic uniqueness on the topic of cultural derision or violence deeply problematic: violence against Catholic Americans based on religious prejudice is extremely rare, now largely absent in North American regional cultures.

Nonetheless, the perception of anti-Catholicism as the last acceptable prejudice rings true for many U.S. Catholics, and few of their fellow believers would dismiss it as completely groundless. While most Americans would hardly dare to voice any kind of overt prejudice of political candidates, job applicants, or potential spouses for their children on the basis of Catholic affiliation, there are regular depictions of Catholic belief and practice in popular entertainment that are deeply offensive to practicing Catholics. It would be highly unlikely that any depiction of an other-than-Catholic house of worship as a “house of walking swastikas” would be defended by the New York Times as simply as “matter of personal opinion”—even if it’s teaching on abortion, women clergy, or homosexuality were exactly the same as that of the Roman Church. The unlikelihood of such an offensive ascription being applied to any other house of worship in New York was first observed by the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights. Whatever one thinks of its often pugnacious stance toward the New York press, the League’s observation was probably correct: both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Times could get away with it only because the slur was made against St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Discussion of the Literature

The perception of Roman Catholic faith, practice, and polity as superstitious, undemocratic and “un-American” is as old as North American culture itself. Thus anti-Catholicism has been labeled “the deepest bias in the history of the American people” by political and cultural historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Others have termed it the “anti-Semitism of the intellectuals” and the “last acceptable prejudice in the United States.”39

In the welter of interpretive voices attempting to explain this bias, one can discern three distinct groups of explanations for the animus: cultural, intellectual, and social-scientific. Perhaps the oldest set of explanations for the anti-Catholic impulse in the United States can be categorized as “cultural,” although there is a fair amount of disagreement within this set about the dating and location of the roots of the fear and distrust of Catholicism. What unites this set of explanations, however, is an understanding of North American public culture itself—the concrete political processes of democracy; the economic protocols of capitalism and its work ethic; the cultural expectations of public education—as rooted in a profoundly Protestant ordering of human society. Scholars pressing this cultural explanation locate the deepest roots of the anti-Catholic bias in the settling of British North America in the 17th century. Distrust of Catholicism (in this explanation) was transported from the Old World to the New by British Puritans, whose bitter memories of 16th century Catholic persecution of their forebears by “Bloody Mary” Tudor, the treasons of the infamous “Gunpowder Plot,” and the Spanish Armada were regularly refreshed through reading texts like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.40

This cultural interpretation of the British Protestant origins of anti-Catholicism sees in the national identity of the United States itself evanescent traces of its Puritan founding (and thus of anti-Catholicism): a fear of unlimited government, and a deep commitment to political democracy (rooted in the Puritan doctrine of original sin); a pragmatic and experimental understanding of both physical science and politics (rooted in the British Reformed tradition of personal conversion as a basis for church membership); a “Protestant work ethic” based in what Perry Miller once termed the “Augustinian strain of piety” (rooted in the Puritan understanding of every believer’s “calling” in the world); a revered tradition of literacy and public education (offered so that every believer might encounter God’s Word directly in the Scriptures); a deep suspicion of Catholic nations like Spain and France (both of which were absolute monarchies and avowed enemies of Protestant England). For the white Protestant descendants of New England Puritans, these essentially Protestant traditions defined what the North American cultural experiment was about at its very core, and also provided a handy score-card for distinguishing “ours” from “theirs.”41

The second set of explanations for the anti-Catholic impulse can be labeled “intellectual.” In place of embodied cultural traditions like the work ethic and a commitment to public education, this set of explanations posits a group of philosophical ideas that undergird and define the political and social culture of the United States. These ideas have been presented as arising variously from the Protestant Reformation, the English (Lockean) or Scottish (“Common Sense Realist”) Enlightenments, the Whig tradition of political thought, or a combination of all of them. The specific intellectual content of this course of American democratic thought varies considerably, depending on the interpreter, although the ideas of religious liberty and the inviolability of individual conscience, the free expression of personal opinion in both speech and print, the separation of religion from a secular state, and belief in America’s mission as the universal beacon of democracy (represented as either “manifest destiny” or “millennialism”) invariably show up as core ideas.42

Ralph Henry Gabriel’s Course of American Democratic Thought might be seen as the classic embodiment of this understanding of the philosophical roots of the American democratic experiment. Gabriel’s book, published in 1940, influenced several generations of intellectual historians, political scientists, and cultural commentators, and came close to being considered the “authorized version” of American intellectual history. Gabriel’s “history of defining ideas” was organized around what the author termed three “doctrines.” The foundation of America’s “democratic faith” (Gabriel’s phrase) and the first of his doctrines was a “frank supernaturalism derived from Christianity”; by the mid-19th century, this supernatural doctrine was conceived of as a fundamental law that transcended and judged all human leaders (including divine right kings and infallible popes). Gabriel’s second doctrine was a belief in the “free individual . . . derived from the moral order.” In this article of the common faith, individual rights always took precedence over communal obligations and religious authority; indeed, it made civil disobedience against an immoral government or a moribund church a moral duty. Gabriel’s third doctrine was a belief in “the mission of America” (because of its unique origin and destiny) to function as something like a chosen people appointed to lead the world to freedom, decency, and economic prosperity.43

This set of philosophical explanations for the anti-Catholic animus, however, also helped produce a 20th century intellectual distrust of Catholicism that was especially prevalent in the academy. John McGreevy has brilliantly reconstructed the herculean efforts of public intellectuals and academics between the 1930s and 1950s to demonstrate the “nonhierarchical roots of American culture” to combat the threatening ideological propaganda of communist and fascist intellectuals. According to McGreevy, these American public thinkers sought to construct a resolutely democratic national vision in which a hierarchical, monolithic, and authoritarian Catholicism served as foil. McGreevy notes that John Dewey asserted that America’s “common faith” was a pragmatic belief that truth discovered in “cooperative human endeavor is more religious in quality than is any faith in a completed revelation,” and that Walter Lippman had observed (without objection from fellow intellectuals) that “of course [Catholicism] was hostile to democracy and to every force that vended to make people self-sufficient.”44

The third set of explanations for the anti-Catholic impulse in U.S. culture and thought is rooted in the social sciences, and is usually presented as an instance of “nativism” or “secularization.” Nativism (a fear and distrust of “outsiders”), usually rests on the arguments of founding social theorist Emile Durkheim, who famously posited that social deviance in all of its forms (the persecution of religious heretics, the hunt for political subversives, the oppression of ethnic and racial outcasts) actually performs an essential service in human societies by establishing the boundaries that define the group. “Deviance” (in Durkheim’s reading) supplies a focus for group identity by drawing attention to those values and beliefs that constitute the boundaries of any group’s collective ideology. Thus, Durkheim argued (in one of the founding texts of the modern discipline of sociology) that all societies might be said to “invent” deviance by conferring on certain kinds of political, racial, or religious values a boundary marker where a line is drawn between behavior and values that belong to the group, and the behavior or beliefs that define “outsiders” or “others.” Further, Durkheim observed that such boundaries are never fixed in any group, but always shift as the group discovers new outer limits to its universe. Thus, whenever a community confronts a significant relocation of its social boundaries—either through a realignment of power, the appearance of new groups of aliens in its midst, or the appearance of a new set of religious or political beliefs—the identification of a new group of “outsiders” threatening the heart of the community is almost essential.45

Social historians have applied these insights to the North American tradition of anti-Catholicism to read the animus less as a cultural or intellectual inheritance than as a function of “boundary maintenance.” Thus John Higham (in one of the most thorough and reliable historical studies of nativism in the United States) argued that the distrust and persecution of Catholic Christians was “by far the oldest, and in early America the most powerful, of the anti-foreign traditions.” Higham’s interpretation of anti-Catholicism in the United States has enjoyed a long life as the preferred explanation for the riots and convent burnings of the 19th century, the rise of the Native American Party (giving the animus its name), the reappearance of the Ku Klux Klan after World War I, and the political opposition to Al Smith in his run for the presidency in 1928. Catholic historians like John Tracy Ellis, Thomas McAvoy, and James Hennessey have also tended to interpret the anti-Catholic animus largely in terms of nativist fears of economic competition from recently-arrived Catholic immigrants stealing jobs at the bottom of the pay scale, concern over the establishment of Catholic schools which threatened the cultural monopoly of public schools, and urban politicians who were perceived to cater too readily to the “Catholic vote” through chicanery or “sharp” political practices.46

The other sociological category used to explain the fear and distrust of Catholics in the United States is “secularization,” which has a revered if contested intellectual pedigree. Peter Berger has offered one of the most sophisticated interpretations of secularization as a social and religious process: Berger argued that social pluralism and the privatization of religion (his definition of secularization) go hand in hand. Thus, in modern cultures like that of the United States, religious claims and loyalties are removed from the public to the private sphere in order to gain political peace and civilized public discourse; this “social insurance” becomes necessary in pluralistic cultures precisely because no single church or religious tradition enjoys enough loyalty to serve the tradition function of religion: “however real it may be to individuals who adopt it, [religious faith] can no longer fulfill the classical task of religion—that of constructing a common world within which all of social life receives ultimate meaning, binding on everyone . . . The world-building potency of religion is thus restricted to the construction of sub-worlds, the plausibility structure of which may be, in some cases, no larger than the nuclear family.”47

Utilizing Berger’s brilliant insight, it becomes easier to understand why secularization as the privatization of religion is useful in understanding the anti-Catholic impulse in the United States. Catholicism as a magisterial religious tradition has resolutely refused to play by the rules of the privatized religious game. Even though Catholicism’s legal status, like every other religious body in the United States, is that of a voluntary denomination and not of an established church, it has consistently refused to claim authority only in the private realm. Indeed, on a wide spectrum of very public issues that divide the culture—including abortion, school vouchers, sexual education for school children—it has continued to make loud and very public claims to morally authoritative teaching in ways that anger significant segments of the culture, not least journalists and academics who fear precisely such “authoritative teaching” as the death blow to democratic life in pluralistic cultures like that of the United States.

These cultural, intellectual, and sociological interpretations—brilliant in many cases and for the most part compellingly argued—do in fact explain a great deal about the attitudes, fears, and specific historical incidents targeted at Catholics that stretch from the earliest years of European settlement in North America to World War II. The ubiquity of these cultural manifestations makes it difficult to offer anything like a complete history, but a brief historical overview shows that it is reasonable to believe that there is something to all this talk about an anti-Catholic prejudice in America.

Primary Sources

Beecher, Lyman. A Plea for the West. Cincinnati: Truman & Smith, 1835.

Blanshard, Paul. American Freedom and Catholic Power. Boston: Beacon Press, 1949.

Brewer, Bartholomew. Pilgrimage From Rome. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University, 1982.

Bunkley, Josephine M. The Testimony of an Escaped Novice from the Sisters of St. Joseph, Emmitsburg, Maryland. New York: Harper, 1855.

Buzzell, John R. Trial of John R. Buzzell, the Leader of the Convent Rioters, for Arson and Burglary. Boston: L. Gulliver, 1834.

Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, “A Survey of Jack Chick Publications.”

Culbertson, Rosamund. Rosamund, or a Narrative of the Captivity and Sufferings of an American Female under Popish Priests in the Island of Cuba. New York: Leavitt, Lord, 1836.

Martin, James. “The Last Acceptable Prejudice?” America 182, 25 March 2000.

Monk, Maria. Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Monastery in Montreal. New York: Howe and Bates, 1836.

Morse, Samuel F. B. Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. New York: Leavitt, Lord, 1835.

Murray, John Courtney. “Paul Blanshard and the New Nativism.” The Month 191 (1951): 214–225.

Reed, Rebecca Theresa. Six Months in a Convent. Boston: Russell, Odiorne, & Metcalfe, 1835.

Swaggert, Jimmy. Catholicism and Christianity. Baton Rouge, LA: Jimmy Swaggert Ministries, 1986.

Weigel, George. “The New Anti-Catholicism.” Commentary 93 (June 1992): 25–28.

Woodrow, Ralph. Babylon Mystery Religion. Riverside, CA: Raplh Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1983.

Further Reading

Billington, Ray. The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism. New York: Macmillan, 1937.Find this resource:

Brown, Thomas. “The Image of the Beast: Anti-Papal Rhetoric in Colonial America.” In Conspiracy: The Fear of Subversion in American History. Edited by Richard Curry and Thomas Brown. New York: Holt Rinehart, and Winston, 1972.Find this resource:

Davis, David Brion. The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of UnAmerican Subversion from the Revolution to the Present. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971.Find this resource:

Franchot, Jenny. Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Fuller, Robert. Naming the AntiChrist: The History of An American Obsession. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Greeley, Andrew. An Ugly Little Secret: Anti-Catholicism in North America. Kansas City, MO: Sheed, Andrews, and McMeel, 1977.Find this resource:

Haller, William. “John Foxe and the Puritan Revolution.” In The Seventeenth Century. Edited by Richard F. Jones. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1951.Find this resource:

Hatch, Nathan. The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.Find this resource:

Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1850–1925. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1958.Find this resource:

Kinzer, Donald L. An Episode in Anti-Catholicism: The American Protective Association. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964.Find this resource:

Martin, James. “The Last Acceptable Prejudice?” America 182 (25 March 2000): 9.Find this resource:

Massa, Mark. Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. New York: Crossroad, 2003.Find this resource:

Monk, Maria. Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Monastery of Montreal. New York: Howe and Bates, 1836.Find this resource:

Schultz, Nancy Lusignan, ed., Fear of the Veil: Nineteenth Century Convent Tales. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Tucker, Richard K. The Dragon and the Cross: The Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Middle America. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1991.Find this resource:

Weigel, George. “The New Anti-Catholicism.” Commentary 93 (June 1992): 25–31.Find this resource:


(1.) William Haller, “John Foxe and the Puritan Revolution,” The Seventeenth Century: Studies in the History of English Thought and Culture from Bacon to Pope, ed. Richard F. Jones (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1951), 122ff; and Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre: Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics, 1689–1775 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

(2.) Hugh Ross Williamson, The Gunpowder Plot (New York: Macmillan, 1952); and Mark Nichols, Investigating the Gunpowder Plot (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1991), 7ff.

(3.) Billington, Protestant Crusade, 6, 7–8.

(4.) Ibid., 6–7, 16.

(5.) Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre, 333; and Patricia Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, society and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

(6.) Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind from the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966); and James Davidson, The Logic of Millennial Thought: Eighteenth Century New England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977).

(7.) Robert Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 56, 58.

(8.) Maria Monk, Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Monastery in Montreal (New York: Howe and Bates, 1836); and Nancy Lusignan Schultz, ed. Fear of the Veil: Nineteenth Century Convent Tales (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1999).

(9.) Rebecca Theresa Reed, Six Months in a Convent (Boston, 1835); Josephine M. Bunkley, The Testimony of an Escaped Novice from the Sisters of St. Joseph, Emmitsburg, Maryland (New York: Harper, 1855); and Rosamund Culbertson, Rosamund, or a Narrative of the Captivity and Sufferings of an American Female Under Popish Priests in the Island of Cube (New York, 1846).

(10.) Samuel F. B. Morse, Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States (New York, 1834); and Morse, Immanent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States through Foreign Immigration (New York, 1835).

(11.) Lyman Beecher, A Plea for the West (Cincinnati, 1835).

(12.) Jenny Franchot, Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 136.

(13.) Nancy Lusignan Schultz, Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834 (New York: Free press, 2000), 166.

(14.) Shultz, Fire and Roses, 165–182. On the vulgar language of the ringleader of the mob, see “Statement of the Leader of the Knownothing Mob, Destruction of the Charlestown Convent,” U.S. Catholic Historical Society, Historical Records and Studies 12 (1918): 66.

(15.) John Buzzell, Trial of John R. Buzzell, the Leader of the Convent Rioter, for Arson and Burglary (Boston, 1834), 15–16; and Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (New York: Macmillian, 1938), 226–228.

(16.) “Address of the American and Foreign Christian Union to the Public,” New York Observer (30 June 1849): 1.

(17.) American and Foreign Christian Union I (January 1850): 1; and Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 269–270. Quote from Ryan Smith, “The Cross: Symbol and Contest in Nineteenth Century America,” Church History 70 (December 2001): 716–717.

(18.) Carlton Beals, Brass-Knuckle Crusade: The Great Know-Nothing Crusade, 1820–1860 (New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1960), 22–23.

(19.) Higham, Strangers in the Land, 382–385; and Billington, Protestant Crusade, 384–385, 388.

(20.) Donald L. Kinzer, An Episode in Anti-Catholicism: The American Protective Association (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960), 12–14, 34–35.

(21.) Kinzer, An Episode in Anti-Catholicism, 178–179, 182–189. Quote from Kinzer, An Episode in Anti-Catholicism, 36.

(22.) Stanley F. Horn, Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, 1866–1871 (Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1960; and Leonard J. Moore, “Historical Interpretations of the 1920s Klan: The Traditional View and Recent Interpretations,” 17–38, in The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1930s, ed. Shawn Lay (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

(23.) Richard K. Tucker, The Dragon and the Cross: The Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Middle America (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1991), 62–66; and George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 85–92.

(24.) Higham, Strangers in the Land, 296–297.

(25.) Higham, Strangers in the Land, 298–299.

(26.) Michael Williams, The Shadow of the Pope (New York: Whittlesey House, 1932), 170–172.

(27.) Williams, The Shadow of the Pope, 178; and New York Times, June 17, 1928.

(28.) Williams, Shadow of the Pope, 1297, 198, 200–201, 292.

(29.) Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 38–39.

(30.) Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in the American Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 162, 271.

(31.) “Forward,” in Giuseppe Alberigo, Jean-Pierre Jossua, and Joseph Komonchak, eds., The Reception of Vatican II (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1987); and Frederick McManus, “Vatican Council II,” Worship 37 (February 1963): 146–148.

(32.) Andrew Greeley, An Ugly Little Secret: Anti-Catholicism in North America (Kansas City, MO: Sheed, Andrews, & McMeel, 1977).

(33.) George Weigel, “The New Anti-Catholicism,” Commentary 93 (June 1992): 25; James Martin, “The Last Acceptable Prejudice,” America 182 (25 March 2000): 9; and William Donahue, The Deepest Bias: Anti-Catholicism in American Life. One hour video cassette (New York: Catholic League, 1996).

(34.) “‘Catechism’ Controversy Accused of Anti-Catholic Bias,” Los Angeles Times May 15, 1999; Brian Brown, “Pride and Prejudice,” Wall Street Journal, July 2, 1999; and Bill Steiggs, “Troup Irks San Francisco Catholics,” New York Times, 26 March 1999. On the St. Patrick Cathedral event, see New York Times, December 11, 1989. Mayor Koch’s remark in New York Post, December 12, 1989.

(35.) George Weigel, The New Anti-Catholicism, 25.

(36.) Jimmy Breslin, “Old Men in Rome Still Don’t Get It,” Long Island Newsday, August 15, 1993.

(37.) Weigel, The New Anti-Catholicism, 25.

(38.) Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair (October 2001): 170; and Coleman McCarthy, “A Mini-Career in Kicking Mother Theresa,” Washington Post February 28, 1995.

(39.) James Martin, “The Last Acceptable Prejudice?” “Last Acceptable Prejudice,” from Andrew Greeley, An Ugly Little Secret.

(40.) Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (New York: Macmillian, 1938). See especially chapter 1.

(41.) Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1982), 3–34; and Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Scribners, 1930).

(42.) Merle Curti, The Growth of American Thought, 3d ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1964); Stow Persons, American Minds: A History of Ideas (New York: Henry Holt, 1958); and G. Adolf Koch, Republican Religion: The American Revolution and the Cult of Reason (New York: Henry Holt, 1933).

(43.) Ralph Henry Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought: An Intellectual History since 1815 (New York: Ronald Press, 1940), “The Doctrines of the American Democratic Faith,” 14–16, 22–23.

(44.) John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1934), 26; Walter Lippman, Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Present Unrest (New York: M. Kennersley, 1914), 115; and John McGreevy, Catholicism, and American Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 101–105

(45.) Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, trans. George Simpson (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1947), 102ff.

(46.) John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1850–1925 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1958), 3 ff. John Tracy Ellis, American Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969); and Thomas McAvoy, “The Formation of the American Catholic Minority,” in Catholicism in America, ed. Philip Gleason (New York: Harper and Row, 1970).

(47.) Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 133–134.