America’s Current Fascination With Catholicism

For at least a few days, Americans will be obsessed with all things Catholic.  Americans–Catholics and non-Catholics– are even willing to watch an entire televised mass.  Some pundits can’t seem to make sense of it all.  For example, here is a tweet from New York Times Magazine writer Julia Ioffe.

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But apparently a mass by the Pope in America does have news value.  I assume that CNN kept running the mass because people were interested in watching it.  Over at MSNBC, Kathy Sprows Cummings of the University of Notre Dame is taking this opportunity to teach non-Catholics (and probably some Catholics as well) about what happens in a Catholic mass and the meaning of Catholic rituals.  (On Twitter I described her as the “Doris Kearns Goodwin” of Catholic history).

What is going on here?

First, this is an amazing moment not only for American Catholicism, but for the nation.  Francis has arrived in an age in which we are all saturated with news coverage and social media commentary.  I know that Benedict XVI also came to America during the current media age (April 2008), but he was not very popular, especially in light of the sexual abuse scandal in the Church.  Francis, on the other hand, is a rock star.  We can only wonder how his visit would compare to the visits of John Paul II in 1979 and 1987 if there was social media back then,

Second, I can’t help but believe that the content of Francis’s message is resonating with people.  So

far he has encouraged Americans to live out their faith in the world and seek God as a source of joy and happiness. I am sure more is coming.

Think about what is happening here. Millions of people are watching Francis preach a Christian message on cable television.  He seems to be meeting a real spiritual need–perhaps a longing–for something transcendent and true.  His homily at the canonization mass challenged people of faith to rise above their complacency and live out the Gospel in the world.

Last week we all watched the GOP candidates for president bloviating in front of millions of people. (I am sure we will see much of the same at the upcoming Democratic debate).  This week we are hearing a message of compassion, grace, humility, and love.  I can’t help but think that many Americans need this right now.

Third, as a historian, the irony is hard to miss. The United States has come a long way since the anti-Catholicism of earlier centuries.  We have commented on this here, but I also want to point you to Ed O’Donnell’s recent piece at The Huffington Post.

Maybe we better rethink the idea that America is becoming a more secular place.

Just some preliminary thoughts here.  I am sure I will return to them later in the week.

Why Do So Many People Think Barack Obama is a Muslim?

I am sure many of you have seen this:

Trump is getting criticized heavily for not responding to this question in the way that John McCain responded to a similar question in 2008:

Several other GOP candidates have condemned Trump for his refusal to rebuke the man who asked this question.  But Trump has been silent.

Why?

The answer is simple.  According to a recent CNN poll:

39% of Americans think Barack Obama is a Muslim

47% of Tea Party supporters think Obama is a Muslim

43% of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim

54% of Trump supporters think Obama is a Muslim.

Donald Trump knows that his campaign is appealing to a very ugly and strong faction within the Republican Party.  Right now they are propping Trump up.  Listen to a Trump rally.  He says nothing about policy.  He is an entertainer.  If he loses the “Obama is a Muslim” crowd his campaign has very little left to stand on.  It makes no political sense for him to condemn the remark this man made at Trump’s recent rally.

Which then leads me to a larger question:

Why do so many people still believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim?

Or better yet:

How many of the people who believe that Obama is a Muslim also believe that America is a Christian nation or should be a Christian nation?

The fact that so many people believe that Obama is a Muslim is yet another example of the fear and anxiety that conservative Christians are feeling as they witness the slow and steady erosion of an American culture defined by Judeo-Christian faith.  The age of Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew is over.

We have witnessed this kind of fear and anxiety before in American history, especially as it relates to the nativism shown towards Catholics in the 19th and early 20th century.  As the United States ceased to be an overwhelming Protestant nation, Protestants responded in ugly ways.  Our society was less-politically correct back then.  Anti-Catholic cartoons and writing appeared in mainstream publications.  Cartoons like the one below were seldom condemned by non-Catholics.  I am sure that many Trump supporters would like to publish a similar cartoon today about Muslims, but I don’t think any legitimate newspaper or online news site–conservative, liberal, or moderate–would run it. Unlike in the 19th century, most non-Muslims today would condemn such a cartoon. Or at least I hope they would.

Thomas Nast, “The Promised Land,” 1870

The decline of traditional Judeo-Christian culture in the United States is real.  Students no longer pray or read the Bible in public schools. Abortion is legal. So is same sex marriage. Popular culture seems to be no longer tempered by Christian beliefs.  The divorce rates are high and many families are broken. All of this is undeniable.

(Of course there are examples in which Christianity has also made us a better society–just ask African Americans, the poor, and many others who have benefited from those who have used the Bible to fight for justice in this world. In some ways, we are better off today because the true spirit of Christianity has been applied wherever injustice has been present).

As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, prior to the 1970s Americans considered themselves to be living in a Christian nation. It was a given. (See, for example, Kevin Kruse’s treatment of this issue in the mid-20th century).  At the same time, Christians have always believed that Judeo-Christian culture in the United States is declining or is under threat. The “decline” has been attributed to many things: evolution, higher criticism, non-Christian religions, Catholics, abortion on demand, progressives, immigrants, communists, liberals, the Supreme Court, etc….

It is thus not uncommon for people to be afraid when the world is changing all around them.  People respond to this fear in different ways.  Sometime the response to such fear can turn ugly, and that is unfortunate.

The idea that Obama is a Muslim also comes from a politically-charged and rather judgmental approach to Christian faith that defines a true Christian as someone who is pro-life, supports traditional marriage, and believes in limited government (as opposed to the kind of “big government” that comes up with laws like the Affordable Care Act).  In this view, Obama cannot be a Christian by virtue of the fact that he supports these things.  And his biography–the son of a Muslim from Africa–provides a convenient and useful way to decipher who he really is.  One way to react to the decline of Judeo-Christian culture in the United States is to put the blame on a President who is not a Christian.

Trump is tapping into a long-standing American tradition. It appears to be working–at least for now.

Preparing for a "Papal Invasion"

The Pope is coming to the United States later this month.  But before people refer to his arrival as a “papal invasion,” they should read Thomas Rzeznick‘s piece at Catholic Philly

There was a time in American history when Protestants feared that the Catholic Church was not only going to “invade” the United States, but would overtake it and make it a Catholic country.

Here is a taste:

The city and the nation are getting ready to offer the pope the warmest of welcomes. That, in and of itself, is quite remarkable given the way that many Americans would previously have reacted to such news. Hard to believe, but there used to be a time when the very thought of a papal visit to the United States would have been cause for alarm.

For much of the 19th century, anti-Catholic hostility was fueled in part by a belief that the Vatican was plotting to take over the country and subvert our democratic institutions.

Contributing to the 1844 Nativist Riots here in Philadelphia, for instance, were rumors that Catholics, under order from the pope, were working to have the Bible removed from public schools. The “Bible defenders” saw the need to rally to protect the country from foreign “Popish banditti,” as one broadside asserted.

But perhaps no one depicted these alarmist views better than Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist famous for his critiques of New York City’s Tammany Hall political machine. In an 1870 cartoon titled “The Promised Land,” he depicted the pope standing atop the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, which he made to look like a ship’s crow’s nest. From that vantage point, the pope and an entourage of clerical minions look across the Atlantic to American shores with an eye for conquest.

Ultimately, Rzeznick argues, this anti-Catholicism strengthened the Catholic Church in America.

Read the entire post here.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #99

A small taste from the manuscript.  This comes from chapter seven: “The Bible is the Religion of Protestants”


ABS agents also reported stories of the “Bible doing its work” through dramatic confrontations with the Catholic laity.  As one agent working among Catholics along the St. Lawrence River put it, the Bible’s “pages, when read with prayer and attention…give no countenance and leave no excuse, to fatal errors that destroy the soul.” The leadership of the Young Men’s New York Bible Society added that “Wherever Catholics are induced to read the Scriptures, we soon discover a decrease in hostility, a willingness to read religious Tracts, and a readiness to send their children to Protestant Sabbath schools. Frederick Buel, the ABS agent in California, squared off against a Catholic priest he encountered in San Francisco in a fashion resembling the Old Testament showdown between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  When Buel informed the priest that he planned to distribute ABS Bibles “throughout the length and breadth of the land,” the priest encouraged him: “Go,” he said, “carry the Bible where you please and we will go after you, and the more Bibles you scatter, the more Catholics we will make.” Undeterred, and assured of the “power of Protestantism,” Buel welcomed the challenge.  “Let us scatter the truth to every family,” he wrote to the ABS leadership back in New York, “and if truth makes Catholics, let truth and error meet and grapple.”  He was confident that in a “free and open encounter” the truth of the Protestant message would prevail.

On Writing a History of the American Bible Society: Update #25

Theodore Frelinghuysen, ABS President 1846-62

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

Week two in the ABS archives is in the books.  I have pushed myself through the anti-Catholic years of the Bible Society Record and I am now ready to start next week with the Civil War in view.  I am a little behind schedule, but the 1840s and early 1850s were so rich in material that I am not too worried about it.  The book will be better for taking the time to dig into the material from these decades.

And we also have Tom Van Dyke, one of the greatest game show contestants in the history of American television, on board with the project!  (See some of his comments on previous ABS History Update posts).  My weekend is made.

This weekend I continue to write chapter one, exploring the intersection of Federalism, millennialism, Christian nationalism, evangelicalism, and the Second Great Awakening.  Jonathan Den Hartog–I need your book on patriotism and piety in the early republic!  Can you convince University of Virginia Press to speed up the publication date?

Stay tuned and enjoy the weekend.  Thanks again for reading, tweeting, and posting.

On Writing a History of the American Bible Society–Update #23

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

More news today from publishing front, but first a few words on what I read today in the American Bible Society library and archive.  

I managed to get up to 1846 in what is now called The American Bible Society Record.  A lot of anti-Catholicism, nativism, and attempts to define the ABS position on slavery.  Due to a meeting today (see below) I am behind schedule again. I am going to have to push very hard today and Friday in order to reach my goal of making it to 1865.  I am already checking to see how late New Jersey Transit runs trains back to to Denville on Thursday and Friday nights.

I had a meeting today with the members of the ABS staff responsible for the Bicentennial. They reminded me of our agreement:  to deliver a history of the American Bible Society by May 2016. Apparently the book is going to be given to those supporters of the ABS in attendance at a bicentennial gala on May 11, 2016 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

I am still anxious about a publisher.  When I returned from my meeting today I received an e-mail from a university press publisher who seemed to be very excited about the book until I told him that I needed the book in print by May 2016 and could not deliver a first draft until May 2015.  He said that it would take his press one year to bring the book to fruition after the manuscript was reviewed by peers.  This means that I would have to deliver the first draft of the manuscript to the press in January 2015.  That is not going to happen.  My fear–and it is a very real one–is that most university press editors will respond the same way. Oh boy.  This is a very unique experience in history book publishing.

The proposal is just about done and I feel really good about it.  I am sending it off to one of my research assistants for proofreading as soon as I finish this blog post and read it over one more time.  Now all I need to do is finish the first chapter so I can use it as a writing sample.  The fun will really begin once I send off the proposal and sample chapter.  Stay tuned.

Missionaries of Republicanism and Anti-Catholicism

I was thinking about Lyman Beecher today.  He was one of two secretaries at the May 1816 New York meeting of local Bible society delegates who formed the American Bible Society.  

Beecher, the father of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriett Beecher, was very concerned about the influx of Catholic immigrants to the United States.  He feared that they would settle the American West and eventually take over the entire country unless Protestants did something about it.  (See Chapter One of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?)  His most famous anti-Catholic tract was “A Plea for the West.”

Over at Religion in American History, Charles McCrary calls our attention to John Pinheiro‘s new book Missionaries of Republicanism: A Religious History of the Mexican-American War.  As McCrary points out, Pinheiro’s book shows how anti-Catholicism (Pinheiro calls it the “Beecherite Thesis) informed both the supporters and opponents of American involvement in the war.  Here is a taste of McCrary’s review:

The term “Beecherite Synthesis” is useful because it emphasizes how, in the mind of nineteenth-century Americans, categories (especially categories of otherness) reinforced each other and melded together. We should see, then, for example, “the connection between religion and race, and the degree to which they are indelibly tied together in American history” (9), Pinheiro writes, with a nod to Ed Blum and Tracy Fessenden. We could write similarly of other pairings—religion and gender, religion and politics, politics and region, region and economics, and so on and so on. Given the, well, synthetic nature of the Beecherite Synthesis, should we find it odd that Pinheiro’s book is subtitled “A Religious History of the Mexican-American War”? Isn’t it also a political, racial, diplomatic, military, cultural history? Yes—and, even better, it’s a book that doesn’t seem to be very interested in the unnecessary lines demarcating these sub(sub)genres. This is not really a criticism of Pinheiro or his book, and for all I know it could have been the publishers’ decision and not his anyway. But the label “religious history” on this book, combined with the idea of a “synthesis,” prompts historical and historiographical reflection.


Pinheiro’s Beecherite Synthesis, like David Sehat’s Protestant Moral Establishment or Fessenden’s secularism, relied upon and even created a definition of “religion” in a particular context. In Beecher’s case, that context was the American frontier, during a time of immigration, national expansion, and financial uncertainty, written for a primarily white (Anglo) Protestant audience. We could call Lyman Beecher a religious figure; we could call A Plea for the West a religious book; we could call the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown an act of religious intolerance. But their very religious-ness is entirely dependent on what “religion” meant in that historical context, and that meaning was synthetic. However, whereas historians readily acknowledge the constructedness of race or gender, religion often is treated differently. Thus, a primary task for historians of American religion ought to be to show how religious discourse is wrapped up with—constituting and constituted by, reinforcing and reinforced by, legitimating and contradicting—“other” discourses and knowledges. Otherwise, what exactly is to be gained by conceiving of one’s project as a “religious history”?

I have been hoping to interview Pinheiro for our “Author’s Corner” series, but we have not been able to connect.

The First Catholic Easter in Boston

Pope’s Day in Boston, Nov. 5, 1769

Yesterday I did a phone interview with John Turner‘s American religious history class at George Mason University and one of the students asked me about anti-Catholicism and the founding fathers. I talked a little bit about why Catholicism was a threat to the largely Protestant colonies and how many of the founders were anti-Catholic in their religious sentiments.

I could have also called the students’ attention to Emilie Haertsch’s recent post at The Beehive, the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Haertsch writes about the first Roman Catholic parish in Boston.  I was struck (but not surprised) that a Catholic parish was not founded in this Puritan stronghold until 1788. 

Here is a taste of the post:

…when the Massachusetts Constitution took effect in 1780 it became legal for Catholics to practice publicly. The Rev. Claudius Florent Bouchard de la Poterie, a former French naval chaplain, established the first Catholic parish in New England in 1788 on School Street in Boston, and he celebrated the first mass there on November 2, the Catholic feast of All Souls’ Day.

So exotic was Catholic worship to Bostonians when the parish opened that La Poterie felt it necessary to write an explanation of Catholic practices in order to show that there was nothing to fear. In 1789 he published a pastoral letter titled “The Solemnity of the Holy Time of Easter: The Order of the public Offices, and of the Divine Service, during the Fortnight of Easter, in the Catholick Church of the Holy Cross at Boston,” a copy of which the Society has in its collections. His explanation begins with Palm Sunday, continues through Holy Week, and finishes with Easter Sunday. He writes of the “paschal duty” of Catholics to receive the sacrament of reconciliation and the subsequent availability of daily confession to Catholics throughout Holy Week. La Poterie also illuminates the ritual surrounding Holy Thursday mass, including the washing of the “feet of 12 lads, between 10 and 14 years of age; the poorest will have the preference.” The 12 boys represented the 12 apostles, who had their feet washed by Jesus in the Gospel. La Poterie also describes the importance of the Easter Vigil mass as the time when new Catholics are welcomed into the Church through baptism.

Read the entire post here.