Popery and Populism

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I was recently working in the periodical room at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, and came across an article titled “A Plea for Liberty of Conscience” in the July 1868 edition of The Catholic World – in its day one of New York’s leading periodicals. As you’d suppose, the article is about anti-Catholic prejudice in Civil War-era America, although the unnamed author mostly focuses on the barriers and difficulties faced by converts and would-be converts.

He writes that “there are probably fifty thousand converts within the fold of the Catholic Church . . . and a great many more who would gladly become Catholics if there were no sacrifices to be made in order to do so . . .” But a person who entered the Church:

found himself treated as an individual who had abjured Christianity, engaged in a conspiracy against his country and the human race, or as if he had been detected in perjury or forging notes [i.e., counterfeiting].
Then again, the situation was not much better for cradle Catholics:
Their religion is attacked and ridiculed, without regard to the proprieties of polite intercourse, as if a Catholic were out of the category of persons whose convictions and sentiments are entitled to respect.

Jump ahead about a century: I wonder how many readers remember The First Family, a record album by a comedian named Vaughn Meader, in which he did a more-than-passable imitation of President John F. Kennedy’s voice (about which JFK quipped: “He sounds like Bobby [Kennedy]”).

At one point, the “president” is asked if he, a Catholic, thinks a Jew could be elected to the highest office in the land. Meader intones:

“I, ah, see no reason why, at some point in the future, a member of the, ah, Jewish faith could not become President of the United States. [PAUSE] Of course, as a Catholic, I could never vote for him . . .”

I mention this because the author of the 1868 Catholic World article, after giving a varied, sometimes startling account of anti-Catholic prejudice in America, after a stirring invocation of Catholic patriotism, and after an eloquent plea for religious freedom and broadmindedness, says that, of course, there are limits to tolerance: 

That which strikes at the order and peace of the natural relations binding us together in society cannot be tolerated on the pretext of liberty of conscience or opinion. Therefore, Mormonism has no rights under our [American] laws, and ought not to be tolerated, and Mohammedanism could not be tolerated.
Liberty for me, but not for thee.

It’s interesting that his argument rests on the assumption (no doubt well-founded) that anti-Catholics have misunderstood Catholicism; have seen it, in effect, as a seditious foreign cult. On the contrary, he insists that a “consistent Catholic will be a good citizen and respect the laws,” whereas Mormons and Muslims cannot. Ironic today, in a year when many Catholics will vote to elect a Mormon to the presidency.

Which reminds me of another 1960s joke. When I was a Protestant kid in Ohio and JFK was just inaugurated, some of my classmates (I among them) would take half dollars – the ones with Ben Franklin’s image on the obverse – and with our moms’ red nail polish paint a zucchetto on Ben’s skull. The Kennedy Quarter, we called it (assuming inflation was around the corner).

And then there was this one:

“Did you hear that Ike broke his leg?”

“No! How?”

“He tripped over the pope’s bags as he was leaving the White House!”


I may seem to have come from a nest of nativists, but things have changed noticeably in the Buckeye state over the last half-century, which you see vividly this year as political attacks on Catholics are seen as attacks on all Christians.

What’s really interesting about our nineteenth-century editorialist is his belief (again, well-founded) that a new spirit of Catholic unity in America was a part of what was agitating the Protestant majority (the “English race,” he calls them): that Catholics were not just viewed as a malodorous, ragtag mob with odd accents and dirty faces but as a growing force, socially and politically. And that a leader – a John Cardinal McCloskey or, most previously, an Archbishop John J. Hughes – could manipulate this papist horde towards ends inimical to Establishment interests.

But as the saying goes: That was then.

George Marlin has written a series for us, Catholics and the 2012 Election: A State-by-State Guide (see the ad above and to the right on this page), in which he considers the impact of the “Catholic vote” historically and in the upcoming presidential election. Nobody knows more about all this than the author of The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact, yet even Mr. Marlin can’t say to what extent “Catholic” votes cast in November will reflect authentic Church teaching.

My fear: the new anti-Catholic force in America is . . . Catholics. As another Sixties-era humorist put it: We have met the enemy and he is us.


Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.