Tag Archives: Catholic Church

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.

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Tricks, Treats, and Shopping: America’s Halloween History

Americans have turned Halloween into a consumerist golieth.

Americans have turned Halloween into a consumerist Goliath, because that’s what they do.

Halloween. It’s a holiday anticipated and embraced with equal fervor by kids craving an unmitigated sugar rush, by adults looking for an excuse to dress up like creepily-eroticized pop-culture characters, and by dentists craving sugar-induced high insurance deductibles.

Halloween is a big deal in America today. For a hyper-materialistic society that long ago replaced agricultural rhythms with consumer totems as markers of the seasonal cycles, the first appearance of Halloween paraphernalia in shopping centers signals the transition from summer to fall. Moreover, American society is rife with contradictions created by major disconnects between ideals and reality on issues ranging from marriage, to sex education, to economic mobility. Halloween’s emphasis on duality and the inversion of traditional social customs, therefore, appeals to Americans caught up in these webs of contradictions because it effectively sanctions misbehavior and the inversion of “traditional” norms. In this respect, Halloween — at least temporarily — validates Milton’s famous line that “its better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”

Beyond the sanctioning of revelry, however, Halloween’s popularity in America also stems from its sheer marketability: it provides super-charged fuel for the capitalist engine. Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported that a whopping 66% of Americans — nearly 158 million people — celebrate Halloween, and they’ll spend an impressive $6.9 billion in the process. Americans, more than any other previous world civilization, have demonstrated a remarkable talent for turning even the most culturally rich celebrations into a series of mundane monetary exchanges. So they have done with Halloween; turning an ancient pagan ritual into an excuse to buy mountains of costumes, candy, and decorations. By providing a limited time-period for both the controlled inversion of social norms and the relentless stoking of the capitalist marketplace’s fires, Halloween has assumed a hallowed (see what I did there?!) role in American culture.

Of course, you can’t blame Americans entirely for commercializing Halloween. The holiday’s history made it ripe for this type of cultural appropriation by providing an excuse to let humankind’s many demons run wild once a year. Halloween’s roots can be traced back to the British Isles and the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, the New Year’s Day on the Celtic calendar.

Like modern-day Halloween, Samhain corresponded with the harvest, and thus served as a major yearly transition between the seasons that acknowledged the coming of winter. Samhain’s association with the death of crops and encroaching darkness made it rife with the symbolism of life and death. As folklorist Jack Santino observes, Samhain “associated the fruits of the harvest with ideas of the afterlife and the otherworld.”* Samhain was a time of transition, when the veil between earth and the spirit world was thinnest. On Samhain Eve, the Celts lit bonfires and laid out harvest gifts for the travelling souls of the dead passing through the corporeal plane on their way to the next realm. The association of Samhain with the dead lives on in Halloween’s celebration of ghosts and ghouls.

Ancient legends associated with Samhain also provided the template for trick-or-treating that came to so define Americans’ consumerist approach to Halloween. One such story described a hero named Nero who, while begging from door-to-door on Samhain, discovered a cave leading into the fairy realm. This story established the idea that Samhain was a time that permitted access to the otherworld. In another tale, a supernatural race called “Fomorians” demanded tribute from Celtic mortals, who obliged by offering harvest fruits to these Gods at Samhain.

As Santino notes, paying tribute to the gods echoed the folk custom of leaving out gifts for wandering spirits, a practice that was, in turn, recreated via the custom of mumming (stemming from the Danish word mumme: to parade in masks). In the practice of mumming, patrons gave food and drink to wanderers disguised to imitate spirits. Santino notes that “the ideas of the dead wandering the earth begging food and the giving of food and drink in tribute and as payment to wandering spirits” created the template for contemporary trick-or-treating.*

A traditional Irish Samhain turnip jack-o'-lantern. Creepy, ain't it?
A traditional Irish Samhain turnip jack-o’-lantern. Creepy, ain’t it?

Early in the fifth century, Christian missionaries came to the British Isles and tried to transform the pagan ritual of Samhain into a Christian holiday. Missionaries branded Samhain’s supernatural entities as elements of the Devil. Fairies became fallen angels; the wandering dead became more malicious; the Celtic underworld became the Christian Hell, and followers of pagan beliefs were branded as witches. Yet, even after the Catholic Church established November 1st as All Saints Day (also known as All Hallows, or sanctification) and November 2 as All Souls Day, the old pagan traditions lived on. People continued to pay tribute to the wandering dead on All Hallows Eve by setting out food and drink. All Hallows Eve was also referred to as All Hallow Even or Hallowe’en, and is still celebrated with many of the old customs intact.*

The All Hallows Eve tradition of masquerading as spirits, when combined with old Celtic traditions of hollowing out fall vegetables and illuminating them with candles to ward off the dead, provided the right combination that allowed Americans to transform Halloween into a pageant of mischievous masked revelry and orgiastic consumerism.

In the nineteenth century, the development of a more urbanized market economy facilitated a growing urban/rural divide that still exists today. As more Americans moved off of the farm, harvest fruits increasingly came to serve as consumed representations of a lost rural past to be displayed in urban and suburban built environments. Santino cites perennial American fall trips to the countryside to buy pumpkins to carve into jack-o’-lanterns as symbolic of Americans’ transforming natural objects into modified ones. “Once transformed,” Santino writes, harvest fruits like pumpkins “are not strictly tied to the organic base and can be rendered in other media.”* In modern America, the rendering of Halloween harvest fruits into other media occurs in the form of the cavalcade of Halloween decorations, candy, and mass-produced costumes. Halloween is highly suited to American capitalism because it provides an irresistable mixture of seasonal nostalgia and pagan masquerade traditions.

These masquerade traditions, which date back to the ancient Celts, fuel an endless push to produce increasingly elaborate Halloween costumes for an American public that simply can’t wait to buy them. It’s no coincidence that Halloween’s explosion into a commercial holiday largely corresponded with the American post-World War II economic boom: Americans had more money to spend on holiday frivolities. Costumes, of course, are big among kids looking to maximize both their glucose intake and their dental bills as trick-or-treaters. But costumes are also popular among American adults looking to use Halloween’s traditional blurring of the realms of light and dark — of the living and the dead — to dress up in all manner of ridiculous outfits and carry on in carnival-style revelry each October. Halloween has become so popular among adults that Forbes magazine accused grown-ups of “hijacking” the holiday from kids.

At Halloween, costumed adults can embrace a range of normally taboo subjects such as death, sexual freedom, and every type of imaginable hedonism. Thus, Halloween, however fleetingly, creates an environment welcoming to would-be American libertines, and these normally constrained adults are willing to spend big money to achieve such temporary moments of costumed euphoria that symbolically invert traditional social norms.

Halloween’s many dualistic traditions, the contrast between living and dead; mortal and immortal; summer and fall; wicked and angelic, and rural and urban, have, in many ways, turned it into the quintessential American holiday. It mixes the ingredients of nostalgia, repressed urges, and hedonism into a potent witches’ brew that fuels American consumerism every October. Perhaps its unfortunate that Americans have turned the ancient tradition of Samhain into yet another excuse to go shopping, but such is the way of the modern world. So whatever your age, go carve a pumpkin, dress up like a ghoul, and say “hello” to the dead while you’re at it: after all, Halloween is the only time of year when the dead are the life of the party.

 * See Jack Santino, “Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances,” Western Folklore 42 (Jan., 1983): 5-8, 15-16.