Tag Archives: Anti-Catholicism

Greece v. Galloway and America’s Long Sacred/Secular Mix

Where to drawn the line between the sacred and the secular in American society has always been a point of debate, and it probably always will be.

Where to drawn the line between the sacred and the secular in American society has always been a point of debate, and it probably always will be.

America has always been a deeply religious country. That’s just a plain fact. But saying that the U.S. is a religious country isn’t the same as saying that it’s a country with an official state religion. America has never been a theocracy, and trust me, we’re better off that way. This is why, despite the pipe-dreams of would-be modern theocrats on the Religious Right who want to impose their brand of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity onto every aspect of American life, the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids the recognition of any state religion.

And while some religious-minded folks work themselves into an apocalyptic tantrum over this inconvenient truth, they should consider that church/state separation is beneficial to both entities. Think about it: let’s say you want to make Christianity the official religion of the United States. Well, which version of Christianity do you mean?

Surely you don’t mean those cracker-munching, incense-huffing, indulgence-selling Catholics and their sinister Papal overlord — right? Or what about America’s home-grown Appalachian snake-handlers? How’d you like to make a serpent-fondling suicide cult the centerpiece of your national spirituality? Or what about the Church of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons)? Sure, they say they’re Christians, but did you know they’re technically polytheists who wear weird, Minnesota ice fisherman-style long underwear? What about the Amish?! Okay, forget the Amish, they’re wise enough to generally avoid politics, but as for the rest of these groups: are these the “official” Christianities you want enshrined into state law?!

If you’re the typical, non-denominational, fundamentalist, white bread ‘Murican WASP, the idea of any of the above “Christianities” gaining state recognition should scare the (literal) Hell out of you. Wouldn’t it be better to have no state religion so that ALL faiths, regardless of their level of weirdness, can flourish in private — including yours? Of course it would better. That’s why it IS better that we have church/state separation.

This is why the recent Supreme Court decision in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway is really, really dumb. The case came before the Court after Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens — two persnickety, anti-God crusaders who are doomed to roast in the flames of Hell while listening to an endless loop of John Tesh playlists — claimed that the podunk city of Greece, New York violated the Constitution’s Establishment clause by opening its legislative session with a prayer. Galloway and Stephens had Americans United for Separation of Church and State on their side, but nonetheless received a legal smackdown in the form of a 5-4 decision — authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy — arguing that “Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.” This is legalese for, “Yeah, they’re praying to God, but no one’s forcing you to pray along.”

Susan Galloway (left), an atheist, and Linda Stephens who is Jewish, recognize that in Greece, they're prayin' to a VERY specific God.

Susan Galloway (left), who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, recognize that in Greece, they’re prayin’ to a VERY specific God.

Despite Kennedy’s claim that opening a governmental session with prayers is fine ‘n dandy as long as the prayers invoke “traditional” themes and are “addressed only to a generic God,” this decision is a cheap way to slide Christianity into official state recognition because, to absolutely no one’s surprise, the prayer offered in Greece, NY was a Christian prayer. As Slate’s Dhalia Lithwick observes, “What Kennedy did here…was to announce that as a matter of constitutional law, some religious traditions that are universal and longstanding are basically Christian.” Because Kennedy deemed that “Christian values are basically universal,” Lithwick writes, he “drew a line between ‘traditional’ and accepted religions, and religions that are ‘other.'”

The biggest problem with the Supreme Court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway is that it essentially sanctions non-Christian religions as “others” in the public square while suggesting that “traditional” Christian beliefs should be given some form of state recognition. This is counter to the entire American legal precedent of promoting religious pluralism. In terms of numerical representation, America may indeed be considered a “Christian” nation, but it’s never been just that — and has never been defined as such by law. Multiple faiths have always thrived within U.S. borders, including versions of Christianity — such as Mormonism — that were once violently persecuted by “mainstream” Christians before finally gaining acceptance (for the most part) after the passage of time. Prohibiting a state religion ensures that minority and upstart groups like the Mormons can thrive rather than submit to persecution by the state.

This unique relationship between the sacred and the secular in American life helped forge a country in which religions could flourish and influence public policy while never explicitly directing public policy. In his excellent book Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History, historian R. Laurence Moore describes the U.S. as “a secular state indifferent in formal ways to all religious institutions but dependent for its survival on their health.”* Indeed, the health of religious pluralism reflects the health of American equality. “[I]n the United States the expansion of equality has always involved the erasure of difficulties attached to being different,” Moore writes. Because religion has always been a “constitutionally privileged form of difference,” he adds, “religious pluralism has played an important role in advancing the struggles of many Americans held back because of their race, or ethnicity, or sex, or national origins.”*

C'mon folks, do you REALLY want teh government to give preference to this guy's religious beliefs?

C’mon folks, do you REALLY want the government to give preference to this guy’s religious beliefs?

In other words, by not privileging one religion over another, the U.S. has historically allowed different belief systems to grow and influence the public sphere in ways they could never do if there were an official state religion. The separation of church and state, then, has historically been less about the exclusion of religion and more about its unofficial inclusion. As scholars Marjorie Garber and Rebecca Walkowitz explain in their book One Nation Under God?, “those who use the language of secularism would have to speak to a secularism of presence, not absence.” What they mean is that, while the U.S. is unquestionably a secular nation with secular laws, religions always have — and always will — play a role in the pubic sphere “negotiating for voice and influence in public discussion.”*

The important thing is that Christianity shouldn’t get special treatment in the public sphere via the state’s Christening (see what I did there?!) of it as the one-true religion. The decision in Greece v. Galloway tramps all over religious pluralism like a drunk, cleat-sporting golfer on a putting green. By claiming that Christian prayer, no matter how generic and “traditional” it may be, can be used to open government functions — even local meetings in upstate New York — the Supreme Court is getting uncomfortably close to saying, “Christianity’s fine, but everything else isn’t cool, bro.” American religious pluralism has long protected and expanded the rights of religious minorities, both of the Christian and non-Christian variety. This is a tradition worth holding onto — unless you’re fine with taking up poisonous serpents as a prerequisite for voting.

* See R. Laurence Moore, Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 6, 5.  

* See Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., One Nation Under God? Religion and American Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999), 17.

Rush Limbaugh, the Marxist Pope, and American Anti-Catholicism

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

The United States is, in theory, a secular nation. Despite the occasional verbal hat tips to a supernatural watchmaker by some of the more deistic leaning founders, all of America’s founding documents are secular: they embrace no official state religion of any kind and maintain a strict separation between church and state. This political structure has, in turn, made the U.S. one of the most religiously pluralistic societies in the world. After all, having  freedom of religion ensures that all religions can be practiced openly.

In practical terms, however, for much of its history the U.S. has been a majority Christian Protestant nation. The first European settlers (with the exception of some pesky Spanish Catholics in Florida and out west) to America were Protestants, and a Protestant religious tradition has shaped much of American history. And, of course, the violent, sectarian brouhaha that is Christian history ensured that a predominantly Protestant United States would also have its fair share of Anti-Catholic sentiment.

Modern anti-Catholicism in the U.S. has nowhere near the strength and popularity that it enjoyed in its 19th and early 20th century heyday, as Catholics have long since been accepted as full-fledged members of American society. Nonetheless, there remains a certain ambiguity about Catholicism in America; particularly among the country’s WASPY political and economic elites, who have embraced and accepted some aspects of Catholicism while remaining leery of some of its more left-wing traditions.

A case in point: conservative radio pustule Rush Limbaugh — a guy known for spewing more toxic gas into the atmosphere than your average Anaerobic lagoon — recently accused Pope Francis of espousing “pure Marxism.” And what did the Pope do to incur El Rushbo’s wrath? Well, in an 84-page apostalic exhortation that defined the platform of his papacy, the current vicar of St. Peter had the gold-gilded gonads to critique the excesses of globalized, unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism as a “new tyranny” that has created vast inequality and human suffering throughout the world. “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded,” the Pope noted, critiquing a market culture that “deadens” humanity via the promise of shallow material acquisition and leads to a “globalization of indifference” towards the poor.

As he is want to do, Limbaugh blew a major gasket in the wake of the Pope’s remarks. Rushbo not only accused Pope Francis of being an unrelenting Marxist, but then went on a standard tirade about capitalism’s amoral “invisible hand.” Rush did make a salient point, however, by pointing out the Catholic Church’s immense wealth, and how that wealth has, for centuries, been accrued through market means.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

But Rush also made a telling observation, suggesting that Catholicism, for all of its “mainstream” success in the U.S., still remains a potential threat to American society by virtue of its collectivist tradition. “There has been a long-standing tension between the Catholic Church and communism.  It’s been around for quite a while. That’s what makes this, to me, really remarkable,” Limbaugh said. Rushbo was echoing an age-old fear of Catholic collectivism that has emanated at various times from both the Right and the Left in U.S. history; a fear that the Catholic Church, as a hierarchical organization, was at best indifferent to, and at worst hostile to, America’s individualist, small “r” republican virtues.

The fear of the Catholic Church’s allegedly totalitarian collectivist designs has been a powerful strain in American culture, which has long been dominated by a Protestant, individualist ideal that can be traced all the way back to Martin Luther’s idea of “sola scriptura.” Luther espoused the idea of a “priesthood of all believers” who need not consult a professional clergy for spiritual advice. The Protestant notion of a personal, individual relationship with God proved eminently compatible with republican ideals of individual liberty free from a meddling, theocratic state — of which the Catholic Church has historically embodied in the eyes of its critics.

Age-old Protestant fears of a multi-tentacled papist hierarchy wriggling its way into American life manifested most prominently in the rise of the Know Nothing movement in the 19th century. The Know Nothings, whom I discussed in an earlier post, were a political party that coalesced around the Protestant American cultural backlash against a new wave of Irish and German Catholic immigrants who came to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. The Know Nothings, or Nativists, originated as secretive, fraternal societies before organizing into a political party in 1854.

The Know Nothings believed that Catholic traditions were antithetical to American liberal democracy. They decried Catholic immigrants as nefarious moles sent by Rome to infiltrate American society and reshape it in the papist image. A theocratic organization with a central figurehead in Rome that was controlled by a vast clerical hierarchy could never acclimate to a republican society in which free individuals exercised their individual right to self-government — or so the Nativists thought. As historian Elizabeth Fenton observes, “in the emergent United States…the concept of individual freedom…hinged on an anti-Catholic discourse that presented Protestantism as the guarantor of religious liberty…in a plural nation.”* The importance Americans placed on “private individualism” rendered the seeming collectivist hierarchy of the Catholic Church an inherent threat to American culture. Indeed, unlike the president, the Pope’s only term limit was death.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled "foreign influence" referred to those wily Papists.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled “foreign influence” referred to those wily Papists.

Of course, contrary to popular depictions, the Catholic Church has never been an entirely monolithic institution. Both politically and theologically, it’s been historically wracked by internal factions that have embraced the hard right and the hard left of the political and economic spectrums. The multitude of official documents advocating the importance of social justice attest to the Church’s leftist strain, while the support given to right-wing dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere by the church’s more conservative elements reminds us that Catholics are as divided over politics as the rest of society. It’s the Catholic Church’s more leftist elements, however, underpinned by its inherently collectivist structure, that have more often than not been a source of worry for American Protestants.

The case of Father Charles Coughlin is among the best examples of how anti-Catholic fears have manifested via the fear of socialist infiltration — a tradition Rush Limbaugh is keeping alive by accusing Pope Francis of Marxism. Charles Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who rose to prominence during the Great Depression by championing social justice in a thoroughly demagogic fashion. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1891, Coughlin became the pastor of the small Royal Oak parish in suburban Detroit in 1926. Inflamed by persistent anti-Catholicism in America (the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross on his church lawn) and the economic turmoil of the Depression, Coughlin took to preaching his sermons via a nationally syndicated Sunday radio show. In his radio sermons Coughlin demanded silver-based inflation, railed against the gold standard and international bankers, and called for the nationalization of the American banking system.*

Coughlin was a charismatic Catholic left-wing agitator-turned-right-wing fascist who was not above using demagoguery to achieve his vision of social justice.  An early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Coughlin soon turned on the president when FDR failed to nationalize the banks and pursued anti-inflationary monetary policies. Feeling burned by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, in November 1934, Coughlin formed a new party, the National Union for Social Justice, which campaigned for the rights of labor and the nationalization of key industries. Coughlin’s proclivity towards embracing nutty conspiracy theories, however, proved his undoing. He seemingly railed against everything; denouncing ‘communists,’ ‘plutocrats,’ and FDR’s alleged collusion with international bankers. Coughlin also peppered his broadcasts with vile anti-semitic rhetoric, accusing an international Jewish cabal of controlling the world banking system.*

During the late 1930s, amidst the outbreak of World War II, Coughlin took an ideological turn to embrace the right-wing fascist dogma then en vogue in Europe. He embraced Mussolini-style authoritarianism as the only way to cure the world of the ills that capitalism and democracy had wrought. By 1940, his radio program was off the air, but he continued to publish his magazine, Social Justice. After Pearl Harbor, however, Coughlin outright blamed the Jews for starting the war, leading the FBI to raid his church and U.S. authorities to forbid the postal service from disseminating his magazine. When the archbishop of Detroit ordered Coughlin to cease and desist all non-pastoral activities in 1942, the agitator-priest relented and retired from public life.*

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Whether he was spouting left-wing or right-wing demagoguery, Coughlin always framed his ideas through the prism of a collectivist hierarchy; whether in the form of a central government-instigated redistribution of wealth or via an authoritarian system that squelched individual rights in the name of a greater, fascist whole. In this respect, Coughlin was an extreme example of the type of papist proclivity towards hierarchy that had long worried American non-Catholics. The ignominious Canadian-born priest never spoke for most of St. Peter’s flock, of course, but his demagoguery fed into already established concerns about the threat Catholicism supposedly posed to American republicanism. Heck, Rush Limbaugh might as well have invoked Coughlin when he accused Pope Francis of Marxism.

While American Catholics have come a long way since the days of being publicly reviled by Know Nothings and having an insane Detroit priest act as their national spokesman, the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure is still a source of unease when that structure is invoked to critique the worst excesses of free-market capitalism. Whether those critique’s come in the form of Coughlin-style demagogic rants or Pope Francis’ elegant exhortation, the reaction has historically been one of hesitation — if not outright disgust — by non-Catholics who invoke, however unconsciously, a history of Anti-Catholic prejudice rooted in fears of the Church’s theocratic hierarchy. In America, old habits die hard.

* See Elizabeth Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 227-37.

* See Charles E. Coughlin Biography, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia.