Over the past several years, evidence has been mounting that new forms of an old bigotry, anti-Catholicism, are befouling American public life. Consider these incidents, listed in chronological order:
• In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts funded an exhibition of paintings about AIDS. The catalogue for the show described Cardinal John O’Connor of New York as a “fat cannibal” and a “creep in black skirts,” and referred to St. Patrick’s Cathedral as “that house of walking swastikas on Fifth Avenue.” The New York Times, commenting on the subsequent controversy, referred to these characterizations as matters of “critical opinion.”
• Later that same year, the editors of the Times thought it appropriate to warn the Catholic bishops of the United States that a too-vigorous exercise of their teaching office might destroy the “truce of tolerance” that has permitted Catholics to operate in this country at the sufferance of its non-Catholic majority:
To force religious discipline on public officials risks destroying the fragile accommodations that Americans of all faiths and no faith have built with the bricks of the Constitution and the mortar of tolerance.
• In February 1990, agitated by statements by Cardinal O’Connor and New York auxiliary bishop Austin Vaughan critical of Governor Mario Cuomo’s record on abortion, the well-known historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. informed readers of the Times‘s op-ed page that O’Connor and Vaughan were
doing their best to verify the fears long cherished by the No-Nothings [sic] in the 1850’s, the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s, and a succession of anti-Catholic demagogues that the Roman Catholic Church would try to overrule the American democratic process.
• In July 1990, David R. Boldt, editorial-page director at the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote in an op-ed piece that the bishops risked “reawakening all the old religious prejudices and fears that once inflamed American politics” by “giving them substance.” Boldt continued:
The Roman Catholic Church, it needs to be remembered, is quite literally an un-American institution. It is not democratic. The Church’s views on due process and on the status of women, to name just a couple of key issues, are sharply at odds with those that inform the laws of American secular society. And its principal policies are established by the Vatican in Rome [emphases in original].
• Commenting on Judge Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court in early July 1991, Governor L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia worried that the nominee “has indicated that he is a very devout Catholic. . . . How much allegiance is there to the Pope?” During the ensuing controversy, a Washington Post columnist, Judy Mann, opined that “Clarence Thomas makes much of his education at the hands of Catholic nuns, and much should be made of it during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing.” Another columnist, Ellen Goodman, was similarly distressed, and similarly defensive: “It isn’t liberals, and it certainly isn’t Douglas Wilder who have reopened the can of worms marked religion. It’s the Catholic hierarchy.”
• In September 1991, several public-television stations, including New York’s WNET and KCET in Los Angeles, broadcast “Stop the Church,” a film celebrating the attack in December 1989 on a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by members of Act-Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). During the “demonstration” in the cathedral, Act-Up members drowned out Cardinal O’Connor’s sermon with screams of “bigot” and “murderer”; and at least one activist desecrated the Eucharist by taking the communion wafer and spitting it on the floor. This was of a pattern with previous Act-Up “demonstrations,” including the disruption of an ordination in Boston, which the Boston Globe styled “colorful, loud, and peaceful.” John Leo of U.S. News & World Report had a different view of the Boston event:
[Globe] Readers were not told of the parody of the communion rite featuring condoms as hosts, the mocking of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as an endorsement of sodomy, the simulated anal and oral sex, [and] the level of harassment outside the church. Some of the Act-Up angries swarmed around one newly ordained priest and his elderly mother, pelting them with condoms until police intervened and escorted them away.
• On October 18, 1991, the hosts of the Steve Dahl and Garry Meier Show on radio station WLUP-AM in Chicago suggested an alternative to the eucharistic bread offered at a Catholic Mass: the Church might “cut up a sausage” for a “spicy Body of Christ” and offer “Cajun Jesus—blackened, blackened Body of Christ.”
• On November 14, 1991, the news conference marking the end of the annual Washington meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) was the target of another homosexual “demonstration.” Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, the chairman of the NCCB, was trying to brief some 100 journalists when two activists came up the aisle of the meeting room, unfurled an Act-Up banner in front of the dais, and began tossing packets of condoms at the archbishop. The demonstrators shouted slogans alleging that the Church caused AIDS and that most priests were gay, and batted inflated condoms back and forth like beach balls. Many journalists were reportedly angry at the demonstrators, but news of their disruption of the proceedings did not make it into the prestige dailies.
• During the recent debate over school-choice legislation in Pennsylvania, Jack Grier, the teachers’ union president in Easton, Pennsylvania, told the local school board that
The enemy to public education in the state of Pennsylvania is the Catholic Church. If the Catholic Church were to cease to exist and disappear today, it would be better for all of us.
An ad taken out in the St. Mary’s (Pa.) Daily News by a group of public-school parents said that non-public (i.e., Catholic) schools offer “only courses in prejudice and basket-weaving.”
• On January 21, 1992, the homosexual group Queer Nation staged a demonstration at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, during an evening prayer service prior to the annual March for Life in the nation’s capital; Cardinal O’Connor preached at the service. The demonstration featured a scantily clad lesbian “crucified” on a mock cross, to which was affixed a sign that read, “Christ Loves Women and Queers/Why Does O’Connor Hate Us?” During the service, demonstrators outside the shrine chanted, “We’re here, we’re queer, and we want your children.” The next day’s rally was also marred by verbal attacks on the marchers by homosexual and pro-choice activists, and by offensive anti-Catholic pro-choice placards (“Get your rosaries off my ovaries,” etc.).
The list could be multiplied, if not ad infinitum, then at least ad nauseam. For this catalogue of public (and, in some sense, “political”) outrages does not begin to touch the depressingly ubiquitous mockery of Catholic teachings and images in the popular culture, which runs the gamut from Madonna’s costumes through Broadway shows like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. But perhaps the point has been made. Had virtually any other religious institution been subjected to such scurrilities over the past few years, cries of (wholly justifiable) protest would have rung out from sea to shining sea. But there has been no such protest over the new anti-Catholicism. On the contrary: by giving ample space and time to anti-Catholic agitprop on the airwaves and in the editorial and op-ed pages, and by the pervasive use of euphemisms such as those employed by the New York Times and the Boston Globe in reporting Act-Up stories, the prestige press has become very much part of the problem.
Why these things have happened, and why they have been covered (or covered-up) the way they have, tells us something, not only about contemporary anti-Catholicism in America, but about the Kulturkampf the “culture war,” that increasingly defines the basic fault-line in our public life.
There is, of course, nothing new about anti-Catholicism in the United States. The Harvard historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., once told Father John Tracy Ellis, the dean of American Catholic historians: “I regard the prejudice against your Church as the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” Be that as it may, anti-Catholicism has a long pedigree in American culture; nor can anti-Catholicism be regarded simply as a matter of ravings from the fever swamps. In fact, from its earliest (which is to say, Protestant, and specifically Puritan) beginnings, anti-Catholicism in America has frequently been rather tony, even well-bred.
The 1688 New England Primer, for example, taught the heirs of John Winthrop (“Wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill . . .”) to sing, “Abhor that arrant Whore of Rome, And all her blasphemies; And drink not of her cursed cup, Obey not her decrees.” Three generations later the tone quality had improved but the substance remained; and so John Adams would write to his wife Abigail about his explorations of Catholic Philadelphia during the 1774 Continental Congress in these terms:
This afternoon, led by curiosity and good company, I strolled away to mother church, or rather grandmother church. I mean the Romish chapel. . . . [The] entertainment was to me most awful and affecting: the poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood; their pater nosters and ave Marias; their holy water; their crossing themselves perpetually; their bowing to the name of Jesus, whenever they hear it; their bowings, kneelings, and genuflections before the altar. The dress of the priest was rich white lace. His pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar piece was very rich, little images and crucifixes about; wax candles lighted up. . . .
Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination—everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.
To be sure, the higher ecclesiastical put-down was not universal among the Founders. The newly inaugurated President George Washington wrote in rather different terms to the leaders of the small American Catholic community in March 1790:
As mankind become more liberal, they will be more apt to allow, that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are entitled to the equal protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic religion is professed. . . . May the members of your Society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.
President Washington’s tolerant sentiments did not prevail, however, and the beginnings of mass Irish immigration in the 1820’s and 1830’s became the occasion for a widespread outburst of nativist anti-Catholicism throughout the country. This was abetted by the founding, in 1830, of an openly anti-Catholic weekly newspaper, the Protestant, and by the establishment, in 1842, of the American Protestant Association, whose constitution declared that Catholicism was “subversive of civil and religious liberty.” In the 1830’s, too, Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal—a lurid fiction pretending to detail the steamy goings-on in a French-Canadian convent—enjoyed a brisk nationwide sale (and set a pattern for peekaboo attacks on the Church’s sexual ethic and the celibacy of priests and nuns that persists to this day).
Nor was violence against Catholic institutions unheard of in those days, the most notorious incidents being the burning of an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834 (the mob having been incited by an eminently respectable minister, the Reverend Lyman Beecher) and the three-day-long Philadelphia riots of May 1844, in which two Catholic churches were burned, thirteen people killed, and scores wounded.
Catholic bishops responded as their temperaments dictated. Philadelphia’s Francis Kenrick, a mild-mannered scholar, left his city for several days in order to help calm matters. New York’s “Dagger John” Hughes took a different approach. When local nativists threatened to replicate the Philadelphia burnings, Bishop Hughes stationed armed guards around Catholic properties and announced that, were their churches fired, the Catholics would turn New York into a “second Moscow.” The churches were left untouched.
The nativist fever waxed and waned in antebellum America, and while anti-Catholic mobs could readily be incited when economic hardship intersected with the availability of cheap immigrant labor to make for a volatile social cocktail, these lumpen-agitations were frequently influenced by men of position. Thus one of the most famous nativist tracts of that time, Foreign Conspiracies Against the Liberty of the United States, was written by the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F.B. Morse. The reading of this tome would later lead Mark Twain to confess that “I have been educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic. . . .”
Antebellum nativism reached its peak with the emergence in 1854 of the Know-Nothing party, which ran candidates for Congress and the presidency on an explicitly anti-Catholic platform. (The Know-Nothings were also “anti-foreign,” which in that historical context amounted to the same thing.) The detritus of this experiment in politically organized bigotry survived to help form the new Republican party, although the party’s 1860 presidential nominee, Abraham Lincoln, rejected Know-Nothingism throughout his career.1
The cataclysm of the Civil War put the brakes on the worst of public anti-Catholicism for a brief period, but the nativist fever intensified again in the latter part of the 19th century. Three years after the mudslinging about “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” had prevented James G. Blaine’s election to the presidency, resurgent anti-Catholicism took its most important organized form in the American Protective Association (APA), founded in 1887 in Iowa. As Father Ellis put it:
The customary quota of ex-priests, whether real or bogus, and the so-called “escaped nuns” appeared to tour the land, and the old and familiar charges of Know-Nothing days now enjoyed a second spring.
Prominent Protestants such as Theodore Roosevelt and the Reverend Washington Gladden condemned the APA, but, once again, the crude anti-Catholicism of the stump and the mob was abetted by other members of the nation’s cultural elite. Accordingly, the eminent historian George Bancroft could write to a friend in 1868 about the “Roman clerical party” in these terms:
No band of conspirators was ever more closely welded together. The one will of the Pope rules the creed, the politics, the conduct of all. The selfsame malign influence is at work in Spain, in France, . . . and in Austria. Nay it extends to England . . . and the United States.
As Father Ellis commented:
If the American Minister to Berlin, and the man who was regarded by many as the greatest living historian of the United States, could honestly believe that the Pope ruled the politics and conduct of Catholics throughout the world, it was easy to see how the errant nonsense of the APA persuaded many.
Classic American anti-Catholicism—in both its sweaty and cultured expressions—had both racial and religious foundations. The up-market version of the former was that Catholic immigrants were toxins in the national racial “stock”—a belief that frequently intersected with the economic dislocations of industrialization to produce parallel fevers in working-class people and farming communities. (The fourth wave of this eugenic apprehension eventually yielded the immigration quotas of the 1920’s, which were mainly aimed at restricting the influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans, many of whom were, of course, Catholics.)
But the enduring quality of classic anti-Catholicism in America was due in large part to the demographics of American religion. It was a matter of faith for generations of American Protestants that the United States (heir to England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688) was a Protestant country whose moral and political bedrock consisted of certain Reformation concepts of the right relationship between the individual and God, between the believer and the church, and between the church and the political process. For all practical purposes, “Americanism” and “Protestantism” were deemed moral synonyms.
This conviction assumed high cultural forms (as in Francis Parkman’s books on the struggle for North America between the English and the French) and also issued in the more vulgar anti-Romanism of Morse and Maria Monk. But it is of more moment, in thinking through the distinctiveness of our current situation, to mark the fact that classic American Protestant anti-Catholicism in the 19th and early 20th centuries simply took it as self-evident that American democracy required a religious foundation: specifically, a Protestant religious foundation. Absent this, it was widely believed, there were but two possible outcomes to the American experiment: a revival of premodern despotism (linked to Rome), or moral anarchy leading, in short order, to political collapse.
In other words, for all that they were exercised by the possible malign influence of an ascendant “Romanism,” neither Lyman Beecher, nor George Bancroft, nor the founders of the APA ever dreamed of advocating a secularist polity in which religion would be ruled out of the public debate—what Richard John Neuhaus would call, much later, “the naked public square.”
Yet this is precisely the turn anti-Catholicism took in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, when it was transformed ideologically under the influence of the secularist Paul Blanshard. Indeed, Blanshard’s best-selling diatribe, American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949), can be considered a kind of notional courtesy grandfather to the form of anti-Catholicism that is all too frequently encountered these days in the prestige press, the American academy, the feminist and homosexual lobbies, and the popular-entertainment industry.2
Blanshard, a former State Department official turned freelance publicist and activist in the causes of secular humanism and eugenics, believed that America had a “Catholic problem.” The Church was an “undemocratic system of alien control,” in which the laity were fettered by the “absolute rule of the clergy.” To Blanshard, the Church’s “system of global discipline” was so similar to the Kremlin’s that (in his 1950 book, Communism, Democracy, and Catholic Power) he could discuss without blushing the parallels between the “structure of power,” the “management of truth,” the “thought control,” and the “strategy of penetration” practiced by those “two alien and undemocratic” centers, Moscow and Rome. In the face of this Catholic monolith, “cooperation is not feasible”; the only thing that true patriots could do was to organize a “resistance movement” aimed at thwarting “the antidemocratic social policies of the hierarchy. . . .”
Blanshard’s great Catholic antagonist was the Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray—the man whose defense of the American constitutional arrangement on matters of church and state helped clear the path for the Second Vatican Council’s landmark “Declaration on Religious Freedom” in 1965. Murray found much in Blanshard’s work that was familiar, including the master charge that Catholics had “never been assimilated” into American democracy. True, the “cold, cultured manner of its utterance” was new, and Blanshard had deplored “the religious bigotry of the old nativist attack.” But this pretense to civility in fact indicated that the nativist cancer had metastasized in a new and even more virulent direction.
This time around, said Murray, the inspiration for anti-Catholicism was not “Protestant bigotry.” Rather, it was a “secularist positivism that deplores bigotry at the same time as it achieves a closure of mind and an edge of antagonism that would be the envy” of the most fevered circuit-rider or Ku Kluxer. The argument, in that sense, was not really about Catholicism and American democracy. The larger strategic goal of Blanshard’s polemic was to nail down the claim that “democracy is necessarily based on a naturalist or secularist philosophy.”
In short, Murray argued that the threat posed by Blanshard’s “new nativism” was not to Catholics alone: the new nativism was a threat to anyone who believed that democracy had something to do with a polity that held itself accountable to transcendent values. Blanshard’s secularist/naturalist concept of freedom, Murray wrote, would proscribe anyone from seeking “to introduce, or . . . to make operative, in public life an absolute standard of morality.” Those who made such an effort were, by definition, “anti-democratic.”
The fact that Blanshard had defined the ideological contours of the new anti-Catholicism in terms that portended a much larger argument about the moral foundations of American democracy was obscured for a time by the politics of the 1960 presidential campaign. John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, ran for the White House while looking nervously over his shoulder at the ghost of Al Smith, whose drubbing by Herbert Hoover in 1928 was due in part to a hysterical wave of anti-Catholicism in the once-Solid South.3 Kennedy thought he had put the “religion issue” behind him by winning an early primary in overwhelmingly Protestant West Virginia. But when he continued to be dunned on the question of his Catholicism after securing the nomination (and by such high-visibility Protestant leaders as Norman Vincent Peale), Kennedy decided to tackle the matter head-on, and scheduled an appearance on September 12, 1960, before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
Kennedy’s tactical aim was to neutralize the potential antagonism to his candidacy that he sensed among Protestants, particularly evangelicals; and in that respect the Houston speech was a success. But the cost of his tactical victory was a massive concession to Blanshard’s secularism on the strategic level. For Kennedy’s answer to nativisms old and new was to affirm his belief in
an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish—where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source—where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.
Clause by clause, this famous section of the Houston speech involved three moves in a rapid retreat from what had once been taken for granted about religion’s public role in American life. The first third of Kennedy’s proposition was, and is, unobjectionable: the First Amendment clearly prohibits a national ecclesiastical establishment. The second clause, however, is odd: if a religious institution or leader has wisdom to offer on matters of public policy, why should he, she, or it be constitutionally disbarred from offering it to public officials? But it was the third part of the proposition that raised Kennedy’s argument from the objectionable to the dangerous. In Kennedy’s extreme parsing of the Framers’ intentions, religious institutions were not only to avoid any “direct” role in the public-policy process; they were to avoid any “indirect” role, too.
Kennedy had thus met the attack of the Protestant nativists by adopting (probably unwittingly) the theory of the secular nativists: that moral arguments whose roots were to be found in religious convictions had no business in American public life.
As things actually turned out, Kennedy’s Houston speech contributed far more to Blanshard’s secularizing campaign than it did to the cause of religious tolerance in America. The United States did become more religiously tolerant in the 1960’s, and while Kennedy’s presidency may well have had something to do with this development, other and more powerful forces were also at work. The pontificate of Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council, the vigorous entry of American Catholics into the ecumenical movement, and the increasing fissiparousness of theological liberalism—all these combined to take much of the edge off traditional mainline Protestant anti-Catholicism.
Then, a decade later, in the 1970’s, bridges began to be built across the other gulf in the old Catholic-Protestant divide—the one between Catholics and evangelical Protestants. For these former antagonists now found themselves in political common cause in the right-to-life movement that emerged after the Supreme Court’s abortion decision in Roe v. Wade, and in response to Carter-administration efforts to exert greater governmental control over independent religious schools. Indeed, by the early 1980’s, it was arguable that the old anti-Catholic nativism, of either the mainline/oldline or evangelical-Protestant varieties, was largely a thing of the past. The electoral numbers certainly suggested that such was the case: Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants were key elements of the Reagan coalition.
But if the old religiously based nativism was dead or dying, the new secularist nativism had taken a new lease on life, and was busily advancing Blanshard’s larger agenda while continuing his attack on the dangers Catholicism posed to American democracy. This newer anti-Catholicism was activated by a number of forces: the (decidedly profane) counterculture of the 1960’s; the trend toward a fashionable philosophical skepticism in the American academy (including American seminaries); and the anti-establishmentarianism of the popular-entertainment industry. And the same forces also forged new beachheads for the secularist cause in American culture and politics: particularly in terms of the sexual revolution which, predictably enough, became the centerpiece of the secularists’ agenda (and of the secularists’ attack on Catholicism).
But the newer nativism got an additional boost from an unexpected source. Its animadversions now began intersecting with new forms of dissent in American Catholicism itself to help promote a vulgarized picture of the Catholic Church as inherently authoritarian, oppressive, and dogmatic—in a word, “undemocratic.”
To anyone familiar with the history of anti-Catholicism in America, the new Catholic Catholic-bashing was truly bizarre. No longer was it Paul Blanshard who worried about the alleged affinities between the Kremlin and the Vatican; now it was the former chairman of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, Father Richard McBrien, who compared Pope John Paul II, unfavorably, with Mikhail Gorbachev. The feminist leader Gloria Steinem (child of a Protestant mother and a Jewish father) could lay down the cudgels she had once taken up against the alleged “anti-woman” ideologues among the Catholic bishops; that job was now being regularly performed on the op-ed page of the New York Times by a Catholic feminist, Anna Quindlen. And with Catholics like Senator Edward Kennedy leading the charge against school choice and House Speaker Thomas Foley, also a Catholic, assuring the nation that the Congress would statutorily save Roe v. Wade, it was no longer necessary for the correspondents of small-circulation Baptist newspapers in the farther reaches of the Old South to warn against the threats to American democracy posed by “Romanism.” Indeed, the grandsons of Mencken’s “political parsons” were now more likely to be found shoulder-to-shoulder with the papal “foreign potentate” and his more assertive American bishops on these questions.
The new anti-Catholicism is best understood, then, not as a secularized form of the old Protestant disdain for “Romishness,” but as a crucial component in a more radical and comprehensive campaign to establish secularism—the naked public square—as the official doctrine of the United States. Nor is the secularism in question the public expression of a benign and tolerant deism. The new secularism (with its attendant new nativism) has set its face resolutely against any notion of transcendence, and particularly a religiously informed transcendence. If the columnist Ellen Goodman may be taken as representative of this sensibilité, her reference to religion as a “can of worms” reveals, not a concern for the maintenance of democratic civility amid social and religious pluralism, but the secularizers’ contempt for religious conviction as something inherently repressive and authoritarian.
The claim of the new secularists, like that of the old nativists, is that Catholicism is not safe for democracy: that Catholicism is inherently anti-pluralistic and that, if truth be told, the preferred Catholic arrangement would be something on the order of Franco’s Spain. But this not only ignores the fact that the Church explicitly rejected the old altar-and-throne model at the Second Vatican Council. It also misses the crucial role that the Catholic Church has played in transitions to democracy in Spain, Portugal, and the Philippines, and throughout Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe. (If Mikhail Gorbachev and Time can recognize this, surely Anna Quindlen and Governor Wilder can make the effort.) Moreover, the new anti-Catholicism conveniently represses the history of American Catholic patriotism, even as it skips lightly over the indisputable fact that there is no monolithic “Catholic voting bloc” in the United States today.
But there is more here than ignorance (or malice); there is also great irony. The charge, most often raised in terms of issues like abortion and “gay rights,” is that the Catholic Church is seeking an unconstitutional establishment of religion or, in the current parlance, to “impose its values” on others. But it is those who make this charge who are actually guilty of it: it is they who are the new establishmentarians, the real anti-pluralists, the true social monists. For it is they who wish to level the crags and peaks of American conviction into a flat and monotone secularism, enforced by the coercive power of the state.
The new secularist attempt to impose this monism on American public life in the name of “liberalism” is yet another irony in the fire. For the new secularist nativism is profoundly illiberal. It seeks to dislodge the venerable Western conviction that society is prior to the state, and that the state exists to serve society rather than the other way around.
In the classic Western tradition of political philosophy, the independence of certain “prior” institutions (including religious institutions) was understood to be a crucial social barrier protecting the individual and society from the state’s temptation to expand continuously the sphere of its power. In the brave new world of the new secularist nativism, however, there are no “self-evident truths,” there is no transcendent moral horizon by which public policy can be critically analyzed, and the status of the traditional “prior institutions” is suspect. There is, at bottom, only power—and power in its basest form, the capacity to force others to acquiesce to one’s will. Thus Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s worries in 1990 were precisely backward: as he may now recognize, thanks to his service on the New York state commission reviewing “multicultural” approaches to the teaching of history, the real threat to American pluralism is not Cardinal O’Connor, but the forces of political correctness, imposing their own radical deconstruction of reality through the public purse and public institutions.4 One suspects that many parents whose public-school children are currently being indoctrinated into a state-approved sexual ethic (which may be charitably described as “libertine”) have reached a similar conclusion.
The Bismarckian term Kulturkampf is sometimes used these days to describe the “culture war” in American public life. The Kulturkampf can be defined along several axes of confrontation, but one way to think of it is as a struggle between those who affirm the classic Jewish and Christian notion of an objective moral order, and those who deny on epistemological grounds that there is any such thing as an “objective moral norm.” The former conviction seems to be affirmed by the overwhelming majority of Americans; the latter is the regnant shibboleth in the high culture, and especially the American academy. In the former understanding, democracy is a substantive experiment, in which moral norms shape law and public policy through a complex intellectual and political mediation. In the latter understanding, democracy is simply an ensemble of procedures (increasingly, about litigation).
But democracy that is merely procedural will likely not remain democracy over the long haul. And that is what is at stake for the United States in the contest with the new anti-Catholicism. The new anti-Catholicism is a particularly nasty weapon in a broader Kulturkampf in which one party, determined to impose its secularism and moral relativism on public life through the use of state power, has clearly taken up where Paul Blanshard left off, even as it judiciously avoids Blanshard’s more fevered assertions about a great international Catholic conspiracy. Should this secularization project win out, the Catholic Church will surely survive—but American democracy will have been fundamentally transformed. And the results, we may be sure, will not be very agreeable for some of those who cannot bring themselves, now, to challenge the charge that the Catholic Church, when it acts like the Catholic Church, is an “un-American institution.”
1 Asked by an old friend in 1855 to define himself politically, Lincoln replied that he thought he was a Whig, but was “certain” that he was not a Know-Nothing: “How could I be? . . . Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”
2 American Freedom and Catholic Power went through six printings between March and August 1949, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies during the 1950's. Interestingly enough, Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures was also reissued in 1960.
3 Writing in the Baltimore Sun on August 6, 1928, H.L. Mencken confessed that, “with the nomination of Al in the hot, hell-bent city of Houston, I resumed an old vice: the reading of denominational papers. . . . As of July 10 I subscribed to all the Baptist and Methodist organs south of the Potomac . . . and [from] them I learn a great deal that is confidential and surprising about the plot of the Pope to seize the United States.”
Thus the Richmond Christian Advocate hinted that Douglas Southall Freeman, editor of the Richmond News-Leader, was “now owned and controlled by Catholic and Jewish interests,” because he had failed to join the anti-Al Smith crusade. And the terms of that crusade were not genteel. Writing in the Wesleyan Christian Advocate of Atlanta, the Reverend A.M. Pierce claimed to be “strongly persuaded” that Catholicism was but a “degenerate type of Christianity” which had to be replaced by a “purer type.” Dr. A.T. Robertson of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, limning “The Romish Peril” in the Baptist Courier of Greenville, South Carolina, warned that “the Pope undoubtedly longs for the wealth and power of the United States to be in his hands. . . . He will never give up that hope. He will leave no stone unturned to gain that end. . . . Rome means to get control of the United States sooner or later. Protestants may well understand that purpose.”
But Dr. Robertson was mild-mannered compared to Elder W.C. Benson, writing in the Arkansas Baptist and Commoner. “To vote for Al Smith would be granting the Pope the right to dictate to this government what it should do. A vote for Al Smith would be the sacrificing of our public schools. Rome says to hell with our public schools. A vote for Al Smith would be to say that all Protestants are living in adultery because they were not married by a priest. To vote for Al Smith is to say our offspring are bastards. Are you ready to accept this?”
These hyperventilations produced some mordant humor among Catholics, as such things often do. A joke quickly began circulating soon after Smith's defeat: “Did you hear about Al Smith's telegram to the Pope on November 7? It was only one word long—‘Unpack.’”
4 See Heather MacDonald's review of Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, beginning on p. 61 of this issue.—Ed.