The Old Charge Resurfaces: Catholics are Un-American

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Political liberals (e.g., the kind of people who make up the membership of NARAL, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and so on) have no objection to Catholic candidates for high office – provided that the Catholics in question don’t belong to what may be called “the Catholic wing of the Catholic religion.”

In other words, political liberals have no objection to Catholic politicians if the Catholic politicians in question deviate from the Catholic faith in a politically liberal direction. Their membership in the Catholic Church can be overlooked as long as the Catholic politicians are supporters of such splendid liberal causes as abortion rights and same-sex marriage and gender-neutral bathrooms. Thus former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is okay, and so is Vice President Joe Biden.

In fact they are more than just okay. They are positively desirable from a liberal point of view. For by approving of Pelosi, Biden, and their ilk, liberals are able to deny the charge that they are anti-Catholic. They are tolerant. And pluralistic. And open-minded.

But let a genuine Catholic come along (Rick Santorum is a prime recent instance), and liberals show their true colors. The thing they despise about such politicians is that they actually believe in the doctrines, in particular the moral doctrines, of the Catholic Church. They believe that abortion is homicide; that homosexual behavior is unnatural; that same-sex marriage is absurd; and that sex outside of marriage is wrong.

Therefore they are not merely in error, but are despicable from the liberal/progressive point of view, for these Catholic beliefs contradict fundamental articles of the liberal faith. But what political liberals despise is not so much the individual politicians as the religion they represent. In the final accounting, they despise that obnoxious thing, Catholicism.

According to the liberal definition of Americanism, Catholics – that is, Catholics who actually believe in their religion – are not, and cannot be, good Americans. This used to be a charge made openly, but is now made in more indirect fashion. For to be a good American, in the current liberal dispensation, you have to be a believer in moral relativism and sexual freedom.

Reptiles redux: Thomas Nast cartoon, c. 1900
Reptiles redux: Thomas Nast cartoon, c. 1900 [click to expand]

The accusation that Catholics cannot be good Americans is of course a very old one. It stems from the still older accusation that began in England in 16th century in the age of Queen Elizabeth (“Good Queen Bess” as she was somewhat inaccurately known), namely the charge that a Catholic couldn’t be a good Englishman. For English Catholics were loyal to the pope at a time when Parliament and the monarch had abolished papal authority in England.

Worse still, many English Catholics believed Elizabeth’s claim to the throne was bogus, and that the true queen was Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. (Ultimately Elizabeth refuted Mary’s claim by cutting her head off. It is a truth universally acknowledged among lawyers that you can’t be the legitimate queen of England if your head has been separated from your shoulders.)

Late in the 17th century the famous liberal John Locke wrote a “Letter on Toleration” in which he argued in favor of religious freedom for all Christians – except Catholics. He made the Catholic exception because Catholics were loyal to a “foreign prince” (the pope), and hence could not be loyal Englishmen.

When the English settled in America they quite naturally brought their anti-Catholic prejudices with them. They continued, for instance, to celebrate the anti-Catholic holiday Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) until, during the War for Independence, General Washington banned the celebration for fear it would give offense to our ally, the Catholic king of France.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that non-Catholic Americans finally decided that it was possible, indeed even probable, that American Catholics would be good Americans. Only then could a Catholic be elected president. We Catholics thought that when John Kennedy entered the White House the old anti-Catholic prejudice had vanished forever. We were mistaken. Now it’s back – but with a vital difference. The old prejudice was a Protestant prejudice, the new is a secularist prejudice.

For a number of decades now, secularists have been out to redefine America and Americanism, and they have been rather successful in their project. Their aim has been to define the United States as an essentially godless society. Hence their very strong objection to bringing religious ideas or values into the public realm. If you’d like to be religious in the privacy of your own home or church, that’s okay. It’s perfectly fine for religion to be a private thing, rather like stamp collecting or masturbation. But please, not in public. In the public realm, only the beliefs and values of secular humanism count. Religious beliefs and values are taboo.

The old Protestant consensus is gone, and with it the old reflexive anti-Catholicism. But once again, after a lapse of less than a century, and now on shifting grounds, Catholicism is charged with being an un-American religion.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.