Yesterday we linked to John Turner’s Anxious Bench essay “Muslims are the New Mormons.” Turner is not the only one making historical analogies these days. In a recent essay at Religion Dispatches Patricia Miller reminds us that 19th-century Americans were not always very friendly to Catholics.
Here is a taste of her piece: “When Catholics Were the Muslims“:
A well-known national figure tries to rally Americans to the danger posed by a poorly understood minority religious group that’s increasingly making its presence felt in the country. He charges that their faith is a “political” religion inimical to American concepts of civil and religious liberty. He speaks darkly of how it treats women, cloistering them from the world. And he claims the press is held captive to its agenda and is failing to alert Americans to the growing threat at their door.
No, it’s not Donald Trump talking about Muslims, it’s a prominent Presbyterian minster talking about Catholics in the 1830s, and it serves as a reminder that when it comes to political demagoguery, Catholics were once the Muslims.
Robert Breckinridge was a leader of the Old School Presbyterians and the pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, a city that had one of the largest Catholic populations in the country in the 1830s. He hailed from a politically prominent Kentucky family (his father was Thomas Jefferson’s attorney general), which gave him national clout even early in his career.
Breckinridge, along with his brother John, the previous pastor at Second Presbyterian, used the pulpit to whip up concern about the growing population of Irish and German Catholic immigrants, who he held couldn’t be good Americans because they owed their fealty to the pope.