Catholicism has always been America’s foreign devil
By Sam Haselby, Saturday 15 October 2011 09.00 EDT
At the Values Voter Summit in Washington DC last weekend, leading members of the American religious right rallied around the notion that the US is a Christian nation. One speaker, the leader of a Texas megachurch, cited the advice of John Jay, a revolutionary-era American statesmen, that Americans should elect Christians. In an 1816 letter, Jay wrote: “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” When Jay and other 18th and 19th-century Anglo-American evangelicals spoke of “Christian”, they meant Protestant. Catholics, Jay was implying, are not Christians, as well as suspect Americans.
Then as now, speaking of the US as Christian nation remains as much a negative as a positive act, though the excluded has changed from Catholics to Muslims. Despite the anti-Islamists’ claims of endemic conflict, their particular cause is a new and superficial characteristic of American political culture. The relevant history is not in any inherent conflict with Islam, but in the need of American political culture for a foreign devil. Not so long ago, atheistic communists played that role. For most of American history, however, the foreign devil was Catholicism.
Anti-Catholicism has deep roots in American political culture. A trace of its one-time prominence remains evident in the oath of allegiance for US citizenship. The oath of Allegiance requires prospective US citizens to “renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty”. The “potentate” was the Pope.
Jay and other Americans of the revolutionary era cared little about Islam, and knew even less. On the other hand, anti-Catholicism enjoyed a vibrant career at all levels of American society. It was Jay, for example, who wrote the Continental Congress’s 1774 address to the people of Great Britain. The address alleged that, with the Quebec Act, the British parliament’s policy of religious toleration for Quebec Catholics advanced a plot against America. Recognising the right of Catholics to religious freedom in North America, Jay wrote, would encourage “swelling” waves of Catholic immigrants from Europe. It would soon “reduce the ancient free Protestant colonies” to a “state of slavery.”
Approving Jay’s address, the Continental Congress expressed its “astonishment” that parliament had recognised “a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world”. The Quebec Act, Jay’s address warned, might well lead to Britons themselves reduced to the “same abject state” of subjugation as the American colonists. In a war with more than its share of hyperbole, few flights of patriot conjecture surpassed the address to the people of Great Britain. Its combination of slander and speculation compelled the historian of Canada Gustave Lanctot to remark that Jay’s “terror tactics did not exclude prophecy”.
The fact that the author of such a menacing act of diplomacy as Jay’s address to the people of Great Britain became the first United States secretary of foreign affairs speaks to the depth of American anti-Catholicism. From before the American Revolution through the 19th century (and beyond), anti-Catholicism was one of the few things that American Protestants shared. In 1750, Paul Dudley, the chief justice of Massachusetts supreme court, endowed the Dudleian lectures at Harvard College for the purpose of exposing the “idolatry … damnable heresies” and “abominable superstitions” of Rome. Even the great Hispanist William H Prescott, author of works on the history of Spain and Mexico admired in the Hispanic intellectual world, described his work as an investigation into a barbaric, backward world. In 1816, the same year that Jay advised Americans to elect “Christians”, Prescott advised Protestants to write the histories of Catholic countries. It is, he wrote, “interesting employment for the inhabitants of a free country, flourishing under the influence of a benign religion, to contemplate the degradation to which human nature may be reduced when oppressed by arbitrary power and papal superstition”.
In 1834, the influential Presbyterian intellectual Lyman Beecher’s published A Plea for the West, a popular and sharply anti-Catholic tract. Beecher called on Protestants to settle the frontier and thereby save America from an alleged Vatican plot to take over the United States by peopling the west with Catholic immigrants. Rome, Beecher warned, would then direct Catholic settlers to elect priests, who, subverting the US national mission of freedom, would deliver America to the hands of the Vatican. A year earlier, when Beecher first preached A Plea for the West as a sermon, in Boston, it instigated an anti-Catholic mob that burned down St Benedict’s, a local Ursuline convent and girls’ school.
Jay, Prescott and Beecher had the same message. Catholicism had missed out on progressive historical development. It is not rational, but imprisoned in a benighted culture. Catholics are susceptible to malign clerical influence. They are perhaps not fit for American citizenship. They are certainly a threat to the US, and they are taking advantage of American freedom to live among us, plotting, dissembling. This discourse of conspiracy and counter-subversion has also, with some variations, been turned against Masons, Mormons, Bavarian Illuminati, communists and others, but it cut its teeth against, and for most of American history targeted, Catholicism. Its durability in American political culture is more suggestive of a brittleness in American nationality than it is revealing about the nature of America’s alleged enemies.
Photograph of Benedict XVI: http://annaarcosdiary.wordpress.com/2010/03/16/papal-visit-details-announced-today/