Catholics and Article VI

In early October, a Baptist minister publicly denounced the Mormon religion of Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney as a “cult” and “not Christian.” The attack, in effect, questioned Romney’s fitness for office because he is one of the 4 million members of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

This was not the first assault on the Mormon religion. Since Romney started running for president five years ago, there have been exposés from the left and the right denouncing Mormonism as an alien group of zealots who have strange rituals and secretly approve of polygamy.

Catholics should be very wary about this anti-Mormon climate. While we clearly disagree with many of Mormonism’s basic doctrines and reject alleged revelations vouchsafed to founder Joseph Smith, that does not mean we should applaud attacks on the Mormon faith. For the better part of our nation’s history, Catholics were denounced as unfit for public service because we were perceived as cultists and slaves of a foreign potentate, the Pope of Rome.

   Same old . . .

Here’s just a sampling of attacks on the Church and measures intended to exclude Catholics from the public arena:

 ŸJohn Jay, who served as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, proposed an amendment at New York’s 1777 Constitutional Convention to exclude from office those who believed in “the wicked and damnable doctrine that the Pope has power to absolve men from sin.” (Thanks to the efforts of Governeur Morris, the measure was defeated.)

Ÿ  Until 1844, the New Jersey Constitution forbade Catholics from holding state office.
Ÿ  North Carolina’s original constitution stated that “No person who shall deny. . .the truths of the Protestant religion. . .shall be capable of holding any office or Place of Trust or Profit in the Civil Department of this state.” These restrictions were not lifted until 1835.
Ÿ  Until the 1830s, officials in Massachusetts and New Hampshire had to take an oath “to abjure all obedience to a foreign ecclesiastical power.”
Ÿ  During the 1824 presidential campaign, John Quincy Adams gave a speech in Baltimore – the seat of the nation’s first Catholic Diocese – in which he described the Catholic Church as a “portentous system of despotism and superstition.”
Ÿ  At its 1843 National General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church approved this resolution: “Resolved. . .that the Roman Catholic Church has essentially apostatized from the religion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; and therefore cannot be recognized as a Christian Church. . . . That it be recommended to all our communion to endeavor by the diffusion of light by the pulpit, the press and all other Christian means, to resist the extension of Romanism.”
Ÿ  The Know-Nothing Party, which in the elections of 1854 gained control of eleven state legislatures and elected seven governors, eight U.S. senators, and 104 congressmen, stated in its platform that Catholics must be prohibited from holding public office and called for stronger immigration laws to keep Catholics out of the United States.

 Although tens of thousands of Catholics fought and died for the Union during the Civil War, in the post-war period Republican Presidents Grant, Garfield, and Hayes, as well as the editorial pages of Harper’s Weekly, The Nation, the Chicago Tribune, and the New York Times feared the growth of Catholicism. Historian John T. McGreevey observed, “They worried that an authoritarian church continued to stand against liberal reform, that an international church threatened national unity, and that Catholicism might slow scientific and intellectual progress.”
Ÿ – The American Protective Association, which in 1892 had 2.5 million members and elected scores of candidates in the Midwest, demanded that Catholics be dismissed from all railroad and manufacturing jobs. They circulated phony documents that claimed Catholics intended to exterminate Protestants. In the presidential election of 1896, the APA condemned Republican William McKinley for appointing too many Catholics to Ohio’s state government and spread rumors that his campaign manager, Mark Hanna, was secretly a Catholic.
 During the presidential campaign of 1928, Protestants of every class and region vigorously opposed the candidacy of Roman Catholic Alfred E. Smith. Five million viciously anti-Catholic pamphlets, flyers, and newspapers were distributed across America every week. Smith and his supporters were accused of forming an “alien Catholic conspiracy to overthrow the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon majority under which the country has achieved its independence and its greatness.”
Ÿ – As recently as 1960, POAU – Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State – alleged that Catholics were using their growing influence at the ballot box to overthrow the government and create a religious state to be ruled by the pope. The Fair Campaign Practices Committee reported that, after the November 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, 392 different anti-Catholic pamphlets were published. Estimates of their circulation were as high as 25 million.

. . . same old

Do you get my point? Catholics have been on the receiving end of vicious bigotry; we must be very vigilant and ready to oppose those who question or denigrate a presidential candidate merely because of his religious affiliation. There’s plenty to question each candidate about in terms of policies and past performance. But every time Catholics hear a scurrilous accusation about some public figure’s faith, they should recall Article VI of the U.S. Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

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.