Demonization of Catholics in America
Talking about religion is a difficult task given how personal people make such ideas and how often these discussions are marred with mischaracterizations. The religious history of America is one of the most complex in the world, especially given the short account of time the American culture had existed. America seems to be a country that holds dear the ideas of religious freedom and certain ideas that come with concept. In spite of this, America, despite being a predominately Christian nation, has had a tempestuous relationship with Catholics and the Catholic Church. Of the Christian majority of the United States, a majority of these are Protestants. As such even the basic notion that Catholics are Christian’s runs into trouble and is either ignored or dismissed. In conjunction with this comes the many troubling portrayals of Catholics in different forms of media.
Historically the root of anti-Catholic sentiment in America can be traced back to the days of Reformation and the traditional divisions of Catholics and Protestants. Thus many early Protestants saw themselves as continuing the tradition of Jesus Christ, while the Catholic Church was descended into worldly corruption. Many of the early colonists of America were freeing the religious persecution under the Church of England. Naturally, they would be afraid of a strict top-down hierarchical church such as the Anglican Church. So to the casual observer their fear of the Catholic Church is well rooted and this is true for much of the early anti-Catholic was rooted in distrust of the Anglican Church. Thus many of the early colonies along the Eastern seaboard of the United States would enact laws that persecuted Roman Catholics. These laws ranged from civil restrictions to banning Catholics to banning Catholic worship altogether.
Moving into the 19th century, Catholic presence in the country continued to increase but popular opinion remained decidedly against Catholicism. Strange accounts of ritual abuse of nuns by priest, infanticide, and a global conspiracy were common among “ex-priests” and “ex-nuns”. This century much of the anti-Catholic sentiment was dominated by fears of immigration and nativism. Americans had formed an idea of what it was to be an American, this often meant being Protestant. Immigrants from Europe and other parts of the world were treated as an “other”, and stereotyped as being Catholic. Nativist ideas then emerged from this anti-immigration stance which only further increased anti-Catholic sentiment in America. In addition, early ideas that Catholic parochial were used to indoctrinate children and further Catholic influence in America began to spread.
Early 20th century depictions of Catholics continued much of the ideas that coalesced in the previous century. The emergence of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan coincided with a drastic rise in anti-Catholic sentiment. In the 1920s, the idea that the Catholic sought to directly interfere with American politics spread rapidly. Catholicism and the Catholic Church were used to decry any activity that was not seen as America, as well as turn such into an undesirable trait or action. Catholics achieved a victory through the Supreme Court, when the Court ruled that a law banning parochial schools was unconstitutional. The first Catholic to win the nomination of a major political party in the United occurred in 1928, when Al Smith became the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. The chief issue of Smith’s campaign became his religion and most of his time was spent defending his faith from various attacks. Ideas of Smith being a puppet of the Pope and of the United States becoming a domain of the Catholic Church were common. Across the nation many ministers of varying Protestant faiths rallied their congregants against Smith due to his Catholic faith. While anti-Catholic sentiment continued in the United States, it took a backseat to more concerning social and political issues for the following decades (i.e. the World Wars and Civil Rights). It wasn’t until the 1980s, when the traditional hatred between Catholics and Protestants in the United States virtually disappeared. With the emergence of the religious right and modern political conservatism, most American Christians united over traditionally conservative social and cultural traditions.
Moving on from historical portrayals of Catholicism in America, I found it important to discuss one of the biggest demonization’s of the Catholic Church in pop culture. Of which the biggest example to pull from is the works of Jack Chick. Jack Chick is an American evangelical fundamentalist comic book artist. Founder of the company Chick Publications, of which the world famous “Chick tracts” are published from. Chick is notorious for publishing mischaracterizations and falsities concerning not only the Catholic faith but for any faith outside of American fundamentalism. Among the conspiracies and theories that Chick promotes are: the Catholic Church as the founders of Islam Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, founding Communism, Nazism, Freemasonry and the Ku Klux Klan, instigating both World Wars, the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust, as well as assassinating both Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. Many of the ideas published by Chick are resubmissions of earlier ideas and beliefs from Charles Chiniquy and Alberto Rivera. Chick tracts are surprising popular in the United States and are often treated as a popular piece of American culture.
Other less inflammatory portrayals of Catholics and of the Catholic faith in America do exist but common depictions are often decidedly not positive portrayals. Common depictions of Catholicism in America often focus on the visual elements of the depiction. Things such as Catholic architecture, moments, imagery and other traditional iconography are used to represent or signify Christianity, although these portrayals are not strictly of Catholics. In addition, modern depictions still focus on the idea of the Catholic Church as being an “other”. Catholicism is treated as foreign and remains an object of fascination or exploration in different depictions. Portrayals of clergy are often mixed as well with portrayals ranging from negative into more positive. While current depictions of Catholicism are often neutral in their portrayal, the United States has had a tempestuous relationship with American Catholics that has included loss of civil rights and demonization by the public and in culture.
- What to you is the overriding depiction of Catholics in or by American culture?
- What are the ways to rectify historically negative depictions of Catholics in America?
- Have these depictions of Catholics ever influenced your beliefs or do they continue to influence your perceptions?
For More Information
- God in America (documentary) A series of one hour documentaries detailing the religious history of America.
- The Catholic Church: A Short History (book) A book detailing the history of the Catholic from a world history perspective.
- The Essential Catholic Handbook: A Summary of Beliefs, Practices, and Prayers (book) A guidebook for both Catholics and non-Catholics that shows what it means to be a Catholic.
- What Catholics Really Believe: Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Faith (book) A informative book that gives information on the tenets of the Catholic faith.
- Catholicism For Dummies (book) An easy to read book that gives a comprehensive overlook of the Catholic faith.
- Why Do Catholics Do That?: A Guide to the Teachings and Practices of the Catholic Church (book)
Griffith, R. Marie. (2007) American Religions: A Documentary History. Oxford University Press.
Save the Girls!. (1904). Political Cartoon. TheAmericanCatholic.com. Retrieved from http://the-american-catholic.com/2014/01/08/jamie-stiehm-anti-catholic-bigot/#more-50760.
The Propagation Society. (1855). Political Cartoon. LibraryofCongress.com. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003656589/.
The Subtle Conspirator. (1926). Political Cartoon. WisdomVoices.com Retrieved from http://wisdomvoices.com/100-years-ago-we-thought-very-differently-about-the-pope/anticatholic-cartoon_1926-2/. Another text that details the points of Catholic worship and tradition.
The Tree Must Come Down. (1925). Political Cartoon. TraditionalCatholicPriest.com Retrieved from http://www.traditionalcatholicpriest.com/2015/06/26/gods-laws-trampled-on-by-mans-laws/.
Crooked Voting By Immigrants. (1840). Political Cartoon. Retrieved from http://www.catholic.org/news/national/story.php?id=34729.
The Shadow in Our Schools. (1912). Political Cartoon. Patheos.com Retrieved from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2016/02/a-small-argument-against-sexual-idolatry.html.
My Name? . . . In the Vatican?. (1980). Religious Tract. Catholic.com. Retrieved from http://www.catholic.com/documents/the-nightmare-world-of-jack-t-chick.
The Death Cookie. (1988). Religious Tract. ChickPublications.com Retrieved from http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0074/0074_01.asp.