The Founding Fathers and a Usable Past: Religious Liberty and Anti-Catholicism

Earlier today I wrote a post on David Barton’s claim that the founding fathers of the United States did not employ anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Shortly after the post went live I received this tweet from “Paul”:


It’s a great question. I  have spent some time pondering it today.  Paul understands what David Barton may have had in mind with his statement about the founders’ view of Catholicism. The similarities between Catholics in the eighteenth century and Muslims today are obvious.  The founders thought Catholics had to conform to republican ideals.  And today, Barton believes (because whatever the founders said is always right) Muslims must do the same thing.

Barton insists that the founders would only accept Catholics if they were willing to embrace republican principles.  This is true to an extent.  Many of the founders did believe that Catholicism was incompatible with republicanism.  Many also believed that Catholicism was little more than superstition.  But I can’t think of any colonial or revolutionary-era policy that prohibited Catholics from entering the country.  Whatever sense of nativism did exist in eighteenth-century America paled in comparison to what happened in the early nineteenth-century.

So there is a sense in which Barton may have some of the founders on his side.  Many of them were indeed skeptical of Catholics becoming republican citizens due to their papal loyalties.

But the founders also believed in religious liberty–not just for Protestants or Christians, but for all self-respecting citizens who came to these shores, including Muslims.

The founders distrusted Catholic outsiders.  The founders believed in religious liberty.  Both are true.

The legacy of the founders is a complicated one.  This is something we must always remember before we start to invoke them in contemporary debates.