Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tyranny, Anti-Catholicism, and the Birth of a Country

Anti-Catholicism has a long and storied history going back around 500 years to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Following Henry VII's split with Rome in 1534, anti-Catholic bias was elevated from being an articulated position within the Church to an institutionalized bias within the British government. This was codified with the Act of Supremacy, which replaced the Pope as the head of the Church with the English Crown.

The following centuries would be rife with Catholic/Protestant conflicts within England and, more importantly, between England and France. The Protestant Church, and English Protestants, would refer to the Catholic church as the Whore of Babylon, the Pope as the anti-Christ, and frequently use the word tyranny in association with Catholic rule.

This is very important to the founding of America, as this bias was imported with the colonists. This is evidenced through a number of early laws in multiple colonies that would forbid Catholic settlers, forbid Catholics from holding office, etc. This would eventually change with the passage of Religious Toleration laws, however suspicion towards Papists
would continue to bubble beneath the surface well into the 20th Century.

With Catholicism and the French inextricably mixed, the words tyranny, liberty, virtue, vice, etc. were commonly used in both political and theological arenas.

It is perhaps fortuitous for the birth of the United States that the Seven Years War occurred when it did. Religious leaders in the colonies had little difficulty getting their congregations to support the "liberty protecting" British against the "tyrannical" French. Preachers of the day used such strong language and imagery that tyranny became associated with anything and anyone that threatened the colonists way of life.

Within 2 years of the end of the war, the Stamp Act was passed. With the memories of the bloodshed still fresh in the colonists minds, it wasn't too much of a stretch for the religious leaders to subtly shift the target of who the tyrant was from the Catholic French and their Pope to the English Crown. I believe that this, along with Mayhew's Discourse, made revolution against their mother country a little more palatable to the colonists.

In essence, one could come to the conclusion that one of the major factors in the birth of the United States was the rabid anti-Catholic bias imported here by the colonists.


Mark D. said...

Yet, during the Founding period, Americans proved remarkably willing to extend toleration to Catholics in an effort to win over French support. This happend over time, and was a product of necessity, but it is telling that Americans as a whole were not so bound to their prejudices against Catholics as to deny us civic equality and the freedom of worship.

When one looks at the petitions from the Continental Congress to the King, they drip with anti-Catholic sentiment towards the French in Quebec and the English settlement with the French Canadians and their papal religion. A watered down version of this bias is even contained with the Declaration of Independence, although the Declaration's language was moderated, again in an effort to court the support of France and Spain, both unambiguously Catholic powers at the time.

After the Revolution, though, America proved a good home for Catholics, due in no small part to the willingness of Americans to allow civic freedom for those with whom the majority disagreed. Washington set a pattern here, with his uniform treatment of minority religious traditions, for example (see his various letters to religious congregations that congratulated him on his election to the presidency). The First Amemdment helped enormously as well. But undergirding all of it was a conviction about religious liberty -- even for religions that the vast majority of the population disagreed with and found repugnant.

This isn't to say that there wasn't a lot of anti-Catholicism. There was. This isn't to say there wasn't a lot of injustice against Catholics, discrimination, poor treatment by employers, etc. There was. And in some instances still is. But the legal climate of the country changed dramatically between the late colonial period and the early Republic as far as the status of Catholics went. And all at a time when Catholics were just a tiny part of our nation's people.

Christian Salafia said...

Oh, I completely agree that the attitude towards religious toleration shifted greatly between the late colonial and early republic periods.

What I have found fascinating lately is that the language used by Protestant preachers regarding Catholics was identical to that used regarding the Crown.

I would even posit that the public perception in both instances is one of the influences in ensuring that the government's powers were "derived by the consent of the governed" instead of a religious authority or a monarch.