The United States is, in theory, a secular nation. Despite the occasional verbal hat tips to a supernatural watchmaker by some of the more deistic leaning founders, all of America’s founding documents are secular: they embrace no official state religion of any kind and maintain a strict separation between church and state. This political structure has, in turn, made the U.S. one of the most religiously pluralistic societies in the world. After all, having freedom of religion ensures that all religions can be practiced openly.
In practical terms, however, for much of its history the U.S. has been a majority Christian Protestant nation. The first European settlers (with the exception of some pesky Spanish Catholics in Florida and out west) to America were Protestants, and a Protestant religious tradition has shaped much of American history. And, of course, the violent, sectarian brouhaha that is Christian history ensured that a predominantly Protestant United States would also have its fair share of Anti-Catholic sentiment.
Modern anti-Catholicism in the U.S. has nowhere near the strength and popularity that it enjoyed in its 19th and early 20th century heyday, as Catholics have long since been accepted as full-fledged members of American society. Nonetheless, there remains a certain ambiguity about Catholicism in America; particularly among the country’s WASPY political and economic elites, who have embraced and accepted some aspects of Catholicism while remaining leery of some of its more left-wing traditions.
A case in point: conservative radio pustule Rush Limbaugh — a guy known for spewing more toxic gas into the atmosphere than your average Anaerobic lagoon — recently accused Pope Francis of espousing “pure Marxism.” And what did the Pope do to incur El Rushbo’s wrath? Well, in an 84-page apostalic exhortation that defined the platform of his papacy, the current vicar of St. Peter had the gold-gilded gonads to critique the excesses of globalized, unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism as a “new tyranny” that has created vast inequality and human suffering throughout the world. “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded,” the Pope noted, critiquing a market culture that “deadens” humanity via the promise of shallow material acquisition and leads to a “globalization of indifference” towards the poor.
As he is want to do, Limbaugh blew a major gasket in the wake of the Pope’s remarks. Rushbo not only accused Pope Francis of being an unrelenting Marxist, but then went on a standard tirade about capitalism’s amoral “invisible hand.” Rush did make a salient point, however, by pointing out the Catholic Church’s immense wealth, and how that wealth has, for centuries, been accrued through market means.
But Rush also made a telling observation, suggesting that Catholicism, for all of its “mainstream” success in the U.S., still remains a potential threat to American society by virtue of its collectivist tradition. “There has been a long-standing tension between the Catholic Church and communism. It’s been around for quite a while. That’s what makes this, to me, really remarkable,” Limbaugh said. Rushbo was echoing an age-old fear of Catholic collectivism that has emanated at various times from both the Right and the Left in U.S. history; a fear that the Catholic Church, as a hierarchical organization, was at best indifferent to, and at worst hostile to, America’s individualist, small “r” republican virtues.
The fear of the Catholic Church’s allegedly totalitarian collectivist designs has been a powerful strain in American culture, which has long been dominated by a Protestant, individualist ideal that can be traced all the way back to Martin Luther’s idea of “sola scriptura.” Luther espoused the idea of a “priesthood of all believers” who need not consult a professional clergy for spiritual advice. The Protestant notion of a personal, individual relationship with God proved eminently compatible with republican ideals of individual liberty free from a meddling, theocratic state — of which the Catholic Church has historically embodied in the eyes of its critics.
Age-old Protestant fears of a multi-tentacled papist hierarchy wriggling its way into American life manifested most prominently in the rise of the Know Nothing movement in the 19th century. The Know Nothings, whom I discussed in an earlier post, were a political party that coalesced around the Protestant American cultural backlash against a new wave of Irish and German Catholic immigrants who came to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. The Know Nothings, or Nativists, originated as secretive, fraternal societies before organizing into a political party in 1854.
The Know Nothings believed that Catholic traditions were antithetical to American liberal democracy. They decried Catholic immigrants as nefarious moles sent by Rome to infiltrate American society and reshape it in the papist image. A theocratic organization with a central figurehead in Rome that was controlled by a vast clerical hierarchy could never acclimate to a republican society in which free individuals exercised their individual right to self-government — or so the Nativists thought. As historian Elizabeth Fenton observes, “in the emergent United States…the concept of individual freedom…hinged on an anti-Catholic discourse that presented Protestantism as the guarantor of religious liberty…in a plural nation.”* The importance Americans placed on “private individualism” rendered the seeming collectivist hierarchy of the Catholic Church an inherent threat to American culture. Indeed, unlike the president, the Pope’s only term limit was death.
Of course, contrary to popular depictions, the Catholic Church has never been an entirely monolithic institution. Both politically and theologically, it’s been historically wracked by internal factions that have embraced the hard right and the hard left of the political and economic spectrums. The multitude of official documents advocating the importance of social justice attest to the Church’s leftist strain, while the support given to right-wing dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere by the church’s more conservative elements reminds us that Catholics are as divided over politics as the rest of society. It’s the Catholic Church’s more leftist elements, however, underpinned by its inherently collectivist structure, that have more often than not been a source of worry for American Protestants.
The case of Father Charles Coughlin is among the best examples of how anti-Catholic fears have manifested via the fear of socialist infiltration — a tradition Rush Limbaugh is keeping alive by accusing Pope Francis of Marxism. Charles Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who rose to prominence during the Great Depression by championing social justice in a thoroughly demagogic fashion. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1891, Coughlin became the pastor of the small Royal Oak parish in suburban Detroit in 1926. Inflamed by persistent anti-Catholicism in America (the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross on his church lawn) and the economic turmoil of the Depression, Coughlin took to preaching his sermons via a nationally syndicated Sunday radio show. In his radio sermons Coughlin demanded silver-based inflation, railed against the gold standard and international bankers, and called for the nationalization of the American banking system.*
Coughlin was a charismatic Catholic left-wing agitator-turned-right-wing fascist who was not above using demagoguery to achieve his vision of social justice. An early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Coughlin soon turned on the president when FDR failed to nationalize the banks and pursued anti-inflationary monetary policies. Feeling burned by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, in November 1934, Coughlin formed a new party, the National Union for Social Justice, which campaigned for the rights of labor and the nationalization of key industries. Coughlin’s proclivity towards embracing nutty conspiracy theories, however, proved his undoing. He seemingly railed against everything; denouncing ‘communists,’ ‘plutocrats,’ and FDR’s alleged collusion with international bankers. Coughlin also peppered his broadcasts with vile anti-semitic rhetoric, accusing an international Jewish cabal of controlling the world banking system.*
During the late 1930s, amidst the outbreak of World War II, Coughlin took an ideological turn to embrace the right-wing fascist dogma then en vogue in Europe. He embraced Mussolini-style authoritarianism as the only way to cure the world of the ills that capitalism and democracy had wrought. By 1940, his radio program was off the air, but he continued to publish his magazine, Social Justice. After Pearl Harbor, however, Coughlin outright blamed the Jews for starting the war, leading the FBI to raid his church and U.S. authorities to forbid the postal service from disseminating his magazine. When the archbishop of Detroit ordered Coughlin to cease and desist all non-pastoral activities in 1942, the agitator-priest relented and retired from public life.*
Whether he was spouting left-wing or right-wing demagoguery, Coughlin always framed his ideas through the prism of a collectivist hierarchy; whether in the form of a central government-instigated redistribution of wealth or via an authoritarian system that squelched individual rights in the name of a greater, fascist whole. In this respect, Coughlin was an extreme example of the type of papist proclivity towards hierarchy that had long worried American non-Catholics. The ignominious Canadian-born priest never spoke for most of St. Peter’s flock, of course, but his demagoguery fed into already established concerns about the threat Catholicism supposedly posed to American republicanism. Heck, Rush Limbaugh might as well have invoked Coughlin when he accused Pope Francis of Marxism.
While American Catholics have come a long way since the days of being publicly reviled by Know Nothings and having an insane Detroit priest act as their national spokesman, the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure is still a source of unease when that structure is invoked to critique the worst excesses of free-market capitalism. Whether those critique’s come in the form of Coughlin-style demagogic rants or Pope Francis’ elegant exhortation, the reaction has historically been one of hesitation — if not outright disgust — by non-Catholics who invoke, however unconsciously, a history of Anti-Catholic prejudice rooted in fears of the Church’s theocratic hierarchy. In America, old habits die hard.
* See Elizabeth Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.
* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 227-37.
* See Charles E. Coughlin Biography, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia.