In the period between 2005 and 2010 I spent a fair amount of time reading about American history. And one aspect which interested me was the nature of the assimilation of white Americans of non-Protestant background, in particular Roman Catholics and Jews. This was triggered by reading The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, where the author argues that the modern American conception of church-state separation is difficult to understand in practice unless religion is defined as something similar to low church American Protestantism
Though the American founding was famously eclectic and tolerant, as befitted a republic designed by men with elite Enlightenment sensibilities, it was culturally without a doubt Protestant in heritage, if not belief. The American Revolutionary Zeitgeist was steeped in British-influenced anti-Catholicism. In keeping with the same sort of Protestant populism which inspired the Gordon riots a broad swath of American colonial opinion was critical of the Quebec Act for giving French speaking Catholics a modicum of religious liberty and equality before the law.
Despite this historical context the relationship between the Roman Catholic population and the American republic in the early years was relatively amicable. Most of the priests were French Canadians, and Catholic population was highly assimilated and integrated. The great change occurred with the arrival of large numbers of Roman Catholic Irish, as well as a Irish American clerical ascendency which drew upon a revival in the Church in Ireland.
John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom is probably the best history of the religion in the United States that I read during that period. Not because it’s comprehensive, it’s not. Rather, because it focuses on the tension between the Church and the American republic and society, and how it resolved itself, and how that resolution unravelled.
Periodically people in the media make allusions to the ability of the American republic and culture to assimilate Catholics and Jews, and how that might apply to Muslims today. The discussion really frustrates me because there is almost never an acknowledgement that Roman Catholics experienced various degrees of low-grade persecution during periods of the 19th century. The Ursuline Convent riots are just the most sensational incident, and the Know Nothing movement turned into a political party.
The expansion of public schooling in parts of this was country tied to anti-Catholicism. But the Catholics did not take this passively. The emergence of a whole counter-culture, and parochial schools, suggested that they were ready to fight back to maintain their identity. The powerful Irish clerics who served as de facto leaders of the Roman Catholic faithful seem to have wanted to establish a modus vivendi with the American government which recognized the Church’s corporate role in society. By and large American elites and culture rejected this attempt to import a European style model to the New World.
By the late 19th century a movement began in the American Roman Catholic Church which became labeled the Americanist heresy. Despite its official condemnation I would argue that “Americanism” eventually became the de facto ideology of most American Roman Catholics. As Catholics conceded and assimilated toward American liberal and democratic norms in their everyday life, the hostility from the general public declined, and by the middle of the 20th century Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew articulated a vision of religious harmony among white Americans.
It should be rather obvious from the above that I believe this religious harmony was achieved in large part through concessions that American Catholics made to the folkways of the United States. You see the same dynamic in Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism. Second, in Catholicism and American Freedom McGreevy lays out the great unravelling of the Catholic hierarchy’s understanding with American society which occurred in the 1960s, as social liberalism went far beyond what even the most progressive Roman Catholic intellectuals were ready to countenance. And in this cultural revolution Catholics were shocked to find that their Jewish allies made common cause with mainline Protestants and post-Protestants.
The reason I am writing this is that the American landscape today is different in deep ways from that of the 19th and early 20th century. The lessons of Catholic and Jewish assimilation to a Protestant understanding of religion were achieved through bitter conflict, and the rejection of a corporatist accommodation between the American government and religious minorities, as was achieved in several European countries. The modern ideas of religious pluralism are fundamentally different from the explicit understanding of Protestant supremacy which ruled the day a century ago, and only slowly faded with assimilation of non-Protestants.