“Us vs. Them” Populism

Populism is back in fashion. A number of our leaders who despise the middle class and the values they hold are now urging folks to grab their pitchforks, take to the streets, and drive the money-changers and other undesirables out of town.

This is a different populism than was urged upon us in the recent past. One prominent convert to the new populism is liberal political columnist Tom Franks. In his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Franks vehemently opposed “us vs. them” populism when the “us” were social conservatives. Now he is cheering populists who created “bonus rage” by blowing the whistle on “them” – bankers, insurance executives, and anyone else deemed to be standing in the way of progressives.

In Baltimore recently, the Saul Alinsky-inspired group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) – which could potentially receive billions from the Obama stimulus program to finance its activities – staged a mob takeover of a single-family home that was about to be repossessed.

There have been other reports of populist commotion. AIG executives and staff were threatened with strangulation by piano wire. Web sites have posted “Burn a Banker” advertisements.

Should Catholics be concerned about populist uprisings? Absolutely. Since the Age of Jackson, “us versus them” movements have aimed at resisting or destroying the nation’s number one “them” – Roman Catholics. We have been the targets of numerous populist movements, including the anti-Masons, the Know-Nothings, the People’s Party, and the Ku Klux Klan.

During the 1830s and 1840s, underground anti-Catholic movements led by back alley, low-life bigots, flared into full-fledged nativist populist crusades that came close to leaving major northern cities in shambles.

In August 1835, a Boston mob screaming “down with the cross” torched an Ursuline convent and school dormitory and violated their graveyard. Anti-Catholic populist rage spread all over New England.

Pennsylvania nativists took to the streets in May 1844, attacked Philadelphia Bishop Patrick Kenrick, burnt St. Augustine’s Church, an adjoining monastery, and a 5,000-book library.

The Know-Nothings marshalled lawless gangs who threatened Catholic voters on Election Day 1856. Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis, and numerous other cities reported violent clashes at the polls that often ended with dead bodies on the streets.

The 1890s rural People’s Party populist movement, dedicated to the cause of the Anglo-Saxon “common man,” viewed eastern urban America dominated by Catholics as enemy country. Their hero, William Jennings Bryan – three-time Democratic Party nominee for president – complained on the campaign trail that he was “tired of hearing about laws made for the benefit of men who work in shops,” Bryan took a shot at Catholic immigration when he declared he was opposed to the “dumping of the criminal classes upon our shore.” A Catholic priest in New York denounced Bryan from his pulpit as a “demagogue whose patriotism was all in his jawbone.”

In the post-World War I era, a revamped, populist Ku Klux Klan took their racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic platform nationally and recruited four million members. While their terrorist methods – lynchings, bombings, and arson – eventually discredited the Klan and led by 1929 to its rapid decline, in 1924, it was at the height of its power and forced itself upon that year’s National Democratic Convention. To stick it in the eye of New York’s governor, Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to have his name placed in nomination for the office of president of the United States, a vote rejecting condemnation of the Klan was passed by convention delegates.

Lots of Catholics believe all this came to an end with the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960. For all his popular appeal, however, Kennedy had all but to renounce his faith in front of a room full of Protestant ministers in Houston to succeed.

It doesn’t take a literary critic to detect the ways in which anti-Catholicism has covertly continued in American culture. The pro-abortion crowd, for example, has tried to paint pro-lifers as a Catholic clique, when in fact it is composed of Protestants, evangelicals, Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Jews, and even non-believers who just see abortion as wrong.

In a similar vein, Catholic priests are vilified as “pedophiles” and our bishops denounced as enablers, with some justice. But much higher percentages of public school teachers and child abusers in other professions go all but unremarked and even get special protections.

Today groups like ACORN, could easily be persuaded by their funders to target their venom on Catholic core beliefs. Their membership could be mobilized to harass and intimidate Catholics who are pro-life and opposed to same-sex marriage. If you think this is farfetched, talk to anyone who’s been active in opposing gay marriage. Lots of them have had to get unlisted numbers and endure threats.

California Christians who supported the victorious Proposition 8, which rejected the state court recognition of same-sex marriage, have been threatened and harassed by gay-marriage proponents. These zealots only like democracy when they win, which is not often when the case is put to a popular vote.

In the twenty-first century, practicing Catholics in the public square must realize that the level of bias against Catholicism remains very high. Catholics are still viewed by the secular humanists as, for all intents and purposes, public villains, and for them anti-Catholicism is still an acceptable prejudice. Hence, Catholics should be ever vigilant of secular populist causes fueled by what historian Richard Hofstadter called “absolutist enthusiasm.”

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.