From Hatred to Acceptance: Catholics in America

Many Americans would be shocked to learn about the long history of anti-Catholicism in the United States. The standard narrative of U.S. history is one of religious liberty and toleration. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. From the beginning, the majority of the U.S. population has been composed of various Protestant sects. Protestantism’s roots were anti-Catholic in origin and the Protestant Reformation kicked off years of violent conflict between the two Christian rivals. This legacy of hatred was inherited by the Protestants that settled in America. Following independence many states banned Catholics from holding public offices out of fear that “Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.”(1) Anti-Catholic sentiment only grew as Catholic Irish and Italian immigrants flocked to the U.S. during the nineteenth century. One of the more violent outbursts against Catholics came during the Kensington and Southwark Bible Riots in Philadelphia (1844).

Maura Jane Farrelly, in an interesting piece at Aeon, reminds us of that past. Noting the recent change in attitudes towards Catholics, she argues that “Americans no longer consider Catholicism to be a threat because the very idea of ‘freedom’ in the US has changed into something more compatible with the corporate approach to freedom that the Catholic Church has always insisted upon. The Catholic understanding of religious liberty and church-state relations has also changed, becoming more compatible with the US vision and the reality of religious pluralism.”

She also examines the shifting attitudes about the separation of church and state among evangelicals, Catholics, and Muslims. Based on polling, she concludes, “Only 28 per cent of US‑born Muslims think that mosque leaders should refrain from politics, but 60 per cent of Muslim immigrants recently told researchers at Pew that mosque leaders should ‘keep out of political matters’. It’s a directive that suggests Muslim immigrants in the US might be more ‘American’ than some of the Catholics and Protestants voting and campaigning in the US today.”

Given the importance of this topic in light of the increasing anti-Islamic attitudes, I think Farrelly’s review of our anti-Catholic past is apropos. Read her entire essay here.

Kensington Bible Riots 1844

Kensington Bible Riots 1844

(1) Major Thomas Lusk at the Massachusetts Ratification Convention (February 4, 1788) in The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, vol. 6, p. 1421.

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