The story of Catholics in America is largely a very positive one that continues to become stronger as the ideas of the social teaching and the involvement in Catholics in the public square reflect the profound ideas embedded in the 2,000 year history of the Church’s thinking about social issues, but it has not always been so.
This article is a good refresher course on the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States.
“Should Catholics be concerned about populist uprisings? Absolutely. Since the Age of Jackson, “us versus them” movements have aimed at resisting or destroying the nation’s number one “them” – Roman Catholics. We have been the targets of numerous populist movements, including the anti-Masons, the Know-Nothings, the People’s Party, and the Ku Klux Klan.
“During the 1830s and 1840s, underground anti-Catholic movements led by back alley, low-life bigots, flared into full-fledged nativist populist crusades that came close to leaving major northern cities in shambles.
“In August 1835, a Boston mob screaming “down with the cross” torched an Ursuline convent and school dormitory and violated their graveyard. Anti-Catholic populist rage spread all over New England.
“Pennsylvania nativists took to the streets in May 1844, attacked Philadelphia Bishop Patrick Kenrick, burnt St. Augustine’s Church, an adjoining monastery, and a 5,000-book library.
“The Know-Nothings marshalled lawless gangs who threatened Catholic voters on Election Day 1856. Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis, and numerous other cities reported violent clashes at the polls that often ended with dead bodies on the streets.
“The 1890s rural People’s Party populist movement, dedicated to the cause of the Anglo-Saxon “common man,” viewed eastern urban America dominated by Catholics as enemy country. Their hero, William Jennings Bryan – three-time Democratic Party nominee for president – complained on the campaign trail that he was “tired of hearing about laws made for the benefit of men who work in shops,” Bryan took a shot at Catholic immigration when he declared he was opposed to the “dumping of the criminal classes upon our shore.” A Catholic priest in New York denounced Bryan from his pulpit as a “demagogue whose patriotism was all in his jawbone.”
“In the post-World War I era, a revamped, populist Ku Klux Klan took their racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic platform nationally and recruited four million members. While their terrorist methods – lynchings, bombings, and arson – eventually discredited the Klan and led by 1929 to its rapid decline, in 1924, it was at the height of its power and forced itself upon that year’s National Democratic Convention. To stick it in the eye of New York’s governor, Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to have his name placed in nomination for the office of president of the United States, a vote rejecting condemnation of the Klan was passed by convention delegates.
“Lots of Catholics believe all this came to an end with the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960. For all his popular appeal, however, Kennedy had all but to renounce his faith in front of a room full of Protestant ministers in Houston to succeed.”