I will eventually come back to the topic about Vatican II being under attack from within the Church, but I have noticed that questions of the history of the Church in the United States tend to draw considerably more interest than European Church history or “history in the making” issues. And so today I want to go back to the subject of the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States. In earlier blogs we looked at the Charlestown Convent burning, the Philadelphia Riots, the Know-Nothing movement and other episodes in nineteenth century America of prejudice against Catholics resulting in violence and discrimination. At some point I want to take a deeper look at anti-Catholicism in the pre-Revolutionary colonies, especially Massachusetts, New York and Virginia. Today however I want to pick up the thread where we had left off with the American Civil War and Catholic involvement in the Lincoln assassination.
In a certain sense the Civil War was a bit of a draw for Catholics. On the one hand the remarkable work of the nursing sisters on the battlefields, the diplomacy of Bishop John Hughes of New York, and the Irish immigrant troops that fought for the Union built up the esteem of Americans for the Catholic faith. On the other hand, the Diplomatic Recognition of the Holy See for the Confederacy, the support for the Confederacy of Archbishop Oder of New Orleans and Bishop Lynch of Charleston, along with refusal of Bishop Elder of Natchez to have prayers said for the President of the United States, and the predominance of Catholics in the Lincoln conspiracy cast Catholicism in an unfavorable light, at least among the Northerners in general and Republicans in particular.
In the years immediately after the Civil War, veterans of the Confederate army organized the original Ku Klux Klan to resist the Northern “Carpetbagger” politicians who were enforcing “Reconstruction” in the South in order to disenfranchise those who had been loyal to the Confederacy and to keep the African American population, almost all former slaves, from exercising their political and civil rights. This “First Klan” (as opposed to the revived Klan, or “Second Klan” of the 1920’s and 30’s did not have a specifically anti-Catholic agenda but that is not to say that there wasn’t strong anti-Catholicism in the Southern United States. Catholicism was virtually unknown in the South whose population—with the exception of Maryland and Louisiana— was almost entirely Baptist and Methodist Protestant. Catholicism’s being unknown was both a blessing and a curse. Catholicism was not a strong threat and thus did not provoke as strong a reaction as it did in places such as Ohio and Indiana where the Catholic-Protestant balance was more delicate with the rural population being Protestant and Catholics often holding the political edge in the cities and larger towns. But also being unknown, it became the subject of negative myths and stories.
The greater problem, however, was in the North where a rapidly growing Catholic population was a threat to the economic and political establishments. The fierce Catholic attachment to the Democratic Party with its ties to labor and its openness to immigrants along with the stories of Catholic involvement in the murder of President Lincoln generated a strong anti-Catholicism in Republican circles. This often worked against the Republican interest such as in the 1884 Presidential campaign when a Presbyterian Minister, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Burchard in a speech at which Blaine was present, declared: “We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and Rebellion." Blaine failed to repudiate the statement (he probably had not even noticed it) and it ended up costing him the election and returning the White House to the Democrats for the first time since 1856, before the Civil War.
Even more acrimonious was the Republican cartoonist Thomas Nast. Nast, a German Protestant immigrant, is best known for his visual creation of “Santa Claus” drawn for an 1863 illustration of the Rev. Clement Clark Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” in Harper’s Bazaar, but he had a pathological hatred for the Catholic Church, accompanied by a particular hatred for the Irish. Nast depicted the Irish as violent drunks and Catholics as dangerous to American liberty. His cartoons were carried in scores of newspapers and journals across the country.
Much of the anti-Catholicism of the period had to do with the huge flood of immigrants sweeping in the United States from the end of the Civil War right up until World War I. Irish (almost entirely Catholic) and Germans (more than half Catholic) composed the largest number of immigrants, but considerable numbers came also from such Catholic populations as Italy and the Austo-Hungarian Empire, including parts of Poland. While these immigrants were almost invariably relegated to menial work and the poorest of living conditions, it was clear to the old Anglo-Saxon establishment that America was changing and would soon be nation in which they—the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants—would be a political and economic minority. This put them in a conflict between their traditional intellectual liberalism and their self-interest. Social evolution would in time create a more homogenous society where the descendents of the immigrants would “Americanize” but in interim fear and anxiety fed stereotypes and prejudices.
The image today is one of Thomas Nast's (1840-1902) anti-Catholic and anti-Irish cartoons