Amy Coney Barrett and Anti-Catholicism in America

The looming nomination of Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court justice has renewed an ugly but persistent tradition in American politics: anti-Catholicism. Since 1517 there have been enduring and fundamental theological divides between Protestants and Catholics about tradition and Scripture, grace and works, the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, and more. Disagreement over theology certainly is not the same thing as outright anti-Catholicism, though theological differences are often components of anti-Catholicism.

Anti-Catholicism was a central force in British colonial history in America, not least because the colonies were routinely involved in wars between Britain and Catholic powers including France and Spain. These wars, including the Seven Years’ War (or French and Indian War), were interpreted by British colonists as conflicts against the power of “Antichrist” (not “the Antichrist,” as would become common later). Some pastors even worried that Britain itself had become infected with the spirit of “popery and arbitrary government” in the leadup to the American Revolution.

Anti-Catholicism became somewhat more muted as Americans struck an alliance with their old Catholic enemy France in 1778, but anti-Catholicism remained a ready resource in American culture, especially once Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany became a demographic force in antebellum America. The 1850s was a high moment of anti-Catholic sentiment, as the Know-Nothing, or American Party, briefly enjoyed national political power through their commitment to the supremacy of native-born Protestant Americans. As Tyler Anbinder explains in his definitive book Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s,

Know Nothings believed that Protestantism defined American society. Protestantism encouraged the individualism that flourished in America, said Know Nothings, because it allowed each Christian to interpret the Bible personally and to pray as he or she saw fit. Know Nothings also pointed with pride to the democratic aspects of Protestant Christianity. . . . Know Nothings insisted that American reverence for democracy and freedom evolved from these Protestant religious practices: “The freedom we enjoy, the liberty of conscience, the freedom of religious faith and worship, the sanctity of civil, religious, social, and personal rights, are but the normal results of the enlightened liberalism of the Protestant faith.”

Second, Know Nothings maintained that Catholicism was not compatible with the basic values Americans cherished most. While Protestantism was democratic, Know Nothings saw Catholicism as autocratic, because the pope directed all its adherents through his bishops and priests. As one Know Nothing newspaper described the hierarchy, “the Pope utters his wish to his Bishops, the Bishops bear it to their Priests, the Priest[s] direct the members of the church, and they all obey, because the Pope has a right to rule them, they are his subjects. . . .” The Catholic emphasis on miracles, the apparent worship of saints and the Virgin instead of God, absolution, and transubstantiation further persuaded Protestants that Catholicism was based on mysticism and ignorance, while Protestantism represented reason and progress. Because American institutions were rooted in Protestant values, Know Nothings concluded that “a Romanist is by necessity a foe to the very principles we embody in our laws, a foe to all we hold most dear.”

America went through a similar paroxysm of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1910s and ’20s. The second Ku Klux Klan (especially in Northern states) was as much an anti-Catholic as an anti-African American organization. Through 1960 and the election of John Kennedy, Catholic politicians routinely had to face questions about whether their top political allegiance was to the United States or the Vatican. Such questions were as likely to be raised by mainliners and liberal Christians as by fundamentalists and evangelicals.

Conservative Protestant hostility toward Catholics became more muted in the 1970s and ’80s, as Protestants aligned with conservative Catholics such as Phyllis Schlafly, arguably the person most responsible for the downfall of the Equal Rights Amendment. Many evangelicals who appreciated their alliance with Catholics on issues such as the pro-life cause have wanted to maintain clear lines of theological difference, as they should. But outright anti-Catholicism among conservative American Protestants has become more rare over the past six decades.

Overt hostility today against Catholics is often limited to media and progressive outlets—but normally only against Catholics who defend their church’s teachings against abortion and same-sex marriage. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, is a Catholic mother of five children, but gets no anti-Catholic flak from the media due to her progressive views on cultural issues.)

So prospective SCOTUS nominee Amy Coney Barrett gets subjected to breathless accounts tinged with anti-Catholic paranoia, such as the one from Reuters that, in all seriousness, presented the dilemma over Barrett as whether her fellowship group People of Praise was “totalitarian” or just “ultraconservative.” Newsweek had to issue a humiliating correction to an article, the headline of which “originally stated that People of Praise inspired ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.'” It turns out this was not true in any sense. They did not take the article down at the time of the correction, however.

When those sneaky Catholics—especially pro-life Catholic women with many kids—are having fellowship meetings, you can bet that the red robes with the funky white visors are coming out next. They must be! Isn’t that what Catholics do?