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Interview: John McGreevy

John McGreevy

McGreevy is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 1, 2009.

Liberty at the founding meant something different than it meant in 1840. What did it mean in 1840, religious liberty specifically?

"Liberty" ... in the 1840s and 1850s is the hot term, if you think about the various ways in which it is being talked about. Liberty for slaves is one big issue. Liberty for women: Should women have rights within marriage? That's another big issue. Liberty of contract: If you make a contract, are you allowed to break that contract? That's another big issue.

“Many Americans … associated Protestantism not just with liberty but with progress, as part of the progress of the modern world…”

So religious freedom and religious liberty fit right into that discussion about what are the rights of autonomous individuals on the one hand or of religious communities on the other. And states -- by that I mean national governments -- are trying to sort that out in the 19th century and come to some sort of peace agreement on the relative rights and responsibilities of individuals and the relative rights and responsibilities of religious communities.

We have religious freedom written in the First Amendment, but were people really religiously free? What about Catholics?

In the early part of the United States, [Catholics] were a very small minority. And the Catholic migration, or you could even call it diaspora, of the 19th century really doesn't get going until the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s, and then we see this massive Catholic migration. Most of those Catholics are not coming because they are worried about religious liberty per se. The ones from Ireland are coming because of the famine. The ones from Germany are coming because of political troubles, and sometimes there's religious persecution issues involved there as well, because there's a lot of religious conflict in Germany in the 1830s and 1840s. But most of the reason they're coming is economic as well.

When they get to the United States, Catholics have two reactions. And by Catholics I mean bishops and Jesuit priests, and then ordinary lay Catholics, too. The first reaction is: "This place is great because we get to do what we want, and religious liberty is going to allow us to. If we want to build a school, we can build a school. If we want to open a church, we can open a church. If we want to try and bring a group of nuns over from Germany to work here, we can do that."

The second reaction -- and it's a growing reaction in the 1830s, '40s and '50s -- is that these people don't mean what they say when they say, "We believe in religious liberty." What they really mean is, "We believe in religious liberty for certain kinds of religions." And by that, they don't mean Catholicism. So they believe in religious liberty as long as the church doesn't have any ties to a foreign state, like the Papal States [in Italy] in the 19th century. "We believe in religious liberty as long as people don't take vows of obedience," because that seemed somehow un-American. "We believe in religious liberty as long as you don't try and set up your own school system." ...

America fought the Revolution to fight tyranny, yet the Catholic Church saw tyranny?

Right. Many Protestant ... Americans in the early 19th century, if they looked to Europe and they thought of what are the tyrannical institutions in Europe, they would think of monarchies sometimes, ... and then they would think of Catholicism.

One thing I've thought has been underestimated in the historical literature is actually how powerful the memory of the Reformation is for both Catholics and Protestants in the 19th century. It happened 300 years before, 400 years before, but that is very powerful. And the association of Protestantism with liberty and freedom is really locked pretty tightly in a lot of Americans' minds. So they look to Europe, and they see Catholicism supporting some monarchical governments; they see Catholicism, in the name of the pope, expressing doubts about freedom of the press and hesitation about allowing any Protestant preachers in, for example, the Papal States. And they say: "There it is. It's tyrannical Rome."

Then they're even more shocked when they realize by the middle of the 19th century that Catholicism is growing. One of the ironies of this period is that at the end of the French Revolution, most people thought institutional Catholicism is more or less dead, because it was in total chaos. Most of the churches in France had been destroyed. The pope had been almost kidnapped. There was relatively little left of the institutional structure of the Catholic Church. By the mid-19th century, it's going through the greatest growth period in its modern history, and that surprised and scared people whose own narrative of history was that Catholicism was with the old days, the backward days, and Protestantism was part of progress and the future. ...

The people in America are looking forward, and they see certain things as looking backward. Is that a good reading of religion?

I think many Americans -- and this is not just Americans, actually; Europeans as well -- associated Protestantism not just with liberty but with progress, as part of the progress of the modern world toward democracy, capitalist economies, the individual as a voter, as a marriage partner, having a strong sense of autonomy. And the fact that Catholicism was growing, that it was growing in the United States -- which in particular was founded with a strong Protestant ethos, a sense of this being the last great hope, in some ways, for Protestantism, the Puritans and the Pilgrims having escaped from what they saw as either corrupted Protestant or Catholic regimes in Europe -- to have Catholicism growing in the United States seemed particularly threatening. And precisely, many people argued, because the United States was so open, was so welcoming, it was in danger, because that left us vulnerable to conniving, conspiratorial Catholics who had no illusions, in their view, about democracy or liberty and would be willing to use anything to try and change the structure of the society.

Would the regular Protestant man on the street feel a threat from Catholicism?

Some did, some didn't. I wouldn't want to exaggerate that. After anti-slavery and the controversy over slavery, the controversy over Catholicism in the 1840s, 1850s was the hottest issue in the country. It was a very hot issue: dozens and dozens of pamphlets, hundreds of sermons, all kinds of newspaper editorials. So if you were to think about a modern-day contrast, it was a headline in the newspaper for about two or three decades, a very powerful headline in the newspaper. So does the average person feel that way? Not necessarily. I think if you look at people's correspondence [in] the 19th century, they're not talking about it that much. For some people, though, it's a voting issue; it's an absolute crisis.

How had America changed religiously since its founding? The implications?

At the founding -- if you take the very large step of bracketing African American Christians, because most of them are slaves -- it's mostly white Protestant Christians, overwhelmingly. And that's a diverse group. There are all kinds of Christian denominations at the founding. But they do have that in common.

You could argue that the big Catholic migrations of the 1840s and 1850s are the United States' first experience with a very serious diversity, beyond the racial diversity evident in slavery and the free black populations and with Native Americans. ...

And Catholics are leaning toward one particular political party, the Democrats. They have pronounced views on hot issues of the day, like whether or not bars should be closed on Sunday, whether or not there should be public funds directed to religious schools and other controversial issues. That creates a different dynamic, and it brings religion into politics in a new way.

Was the public school controversy a test of America's religious freedom?

I think it was a test of how the United States was going to define what religious liberty means, and we hadn't had that sort of test before. In all of the North Atlantic countries, one of the big achievements of the 19th century is some kind of public education system. All these new nations -- Germany, United States, Britain -- all decide, we need to have some kind of public education system.

Now, in the early 19th century, the education systems that did exist often came out of churches and [were] religious in origin. So the assumption was you should have religion as part of public education. But what do you do when the religious population, as in the United States, is so diverse, when there are so many different kinds of Protestants?

And the answer that Horace Mann and other educational reformers came up with was, OK, we take common texts, like the Bible and the Ten Commandments as they're in the King James Bible, common hymns that aren't divisive among Protestant Christians, and we can have both religion in the schools and a nonsectarian education. That compromise might have worked for a lot longer than it did if there hadn't been this massive Catholic migration that really put to the test what kind of religion can be tolerated within publicly funded institutions.

How powerful was the feeling among Catholics that America was not [what it said it was]? Is that what this school controversy was all about?

[Archbishop John] Hughes and other bishops and Jesuits who were founding schools genuinely felt that the public schools were not nonsectarian, they were not neutral; they were engines of converting Catholics into Protestants. And if they were to be true to their faith and true to their vows as priests, they had to somehow stop this. Catholics were generally poor, and they didn't have many resources. And they were eager -- their parents were eager, just like anybody else's parents -- to get their children education. And if these bishops and religious leaders didn't somehow provide either a Catholic alternative or change what was going on in the public schools, their fear was, they're going to lose a whole generation of young Catholics.

So they thought the fact that so many teachers in the public schools were ministers or former ministers, the fact that they were singing Protestant hymns, the fact that the textbooks in the public schools were virulently, quite virulently anti-Catholic, all of that made Hughes and the other Catholic leaders push on two fronts. One front is to say: "These public schools are not neutral, whatever you claim. They are really Protestant." Another front is to say: "You know what? If you'll just give us some state money, we'll run our own schools, and we'll teach reading and writing and arithmetic, and you can even come in and test our kids, and they're going to be doing OK. But then we can really inculcate them in our religious values." ...

An earlier generation of Catholics, I think, was willing to negotiate: "Maybe we can make these public schools better, and we could have certain hours set aside for Catholic teachings and Protestant teaching." This is true in Europe and the United States. By the 1840s, with Hughes, and the 1850s, a more combative Catholic attitude had developed: "Either we get religion out of the public schools entirely, or we get our own schools going." And they were already leaning toward "Let's get our own schools going," which was a really momentous decision.

By the end of the 19th century, and certainly into the 20th century, the Catholic school system in the United States is the world's largest private educational system, and it came out of this tense experiment really in religious diversity in the mid-19th century.

So you would describe Hughes as combative?

Yes, very combative. I don't think there's any controversy in saying that. These Catholic leaders in the 1840s and 1850s, they had a good argument to make, but they were sort of picking a fight. They wanted to make a stand on the question of making the public schools less sectarian, in their view, and opening the door that was their hope -- they were unsuccessful -- to getting public funding for religious schools. In the end, they decided to do the religious schools anyway, without public funding. And that was a very bold decision. It really affected a big chunk certainly of Catholic history, but just of American history, too.

Did all Catholics in America at this point agree with this?

No, there was argument among Catholics. Is it too expensive to set up our own parochial school system? Think of the investment that's going to take. Who's going to teach? And of course the answer to that was, religious women were going to be the teachers, and they weren't going to be paid salaries. So that was an argument within Catholicism. ... By the end of the 19th century, most of the religious leadership is strongly on the side of no, let's run our own religious schools system. ...

What were Hughes and others taking a stand against?

I think they perceive themselves as taking a stand against a too conciliatory attitude among some of their predecessors on working with Protestants and what they saw as an increasingly aggressive and hostile Protestantism, just as many Protestants saw an increasingly aggressive and, if not hostile, ambitious Catholicism.

How did America see itself in 1820?

In 1820 the vast majority of Americans still see this as a Protestant country, even if it doesn't say that in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. At the level of the ordinary person, that's what they imagine the country to be. And that's why the big migrations later come as such a shock. They think of themselves as a religious country, God-fearing -- big debate about whether or not you should be able to deliver the mail on Sunday and whether or not you should be able to close bars on Sunday -- but they don't see themselves as anything but a Protestant nation.

It doesn't seem like Catholicism fits into that view at all.

It was an absolutely rational view in 1820, when there were so few Catholics in the country. I think we're talking really below 2 percent of the population. And Jews are a very small percentage of the population as well. One of the issues that occurs in the late 19th century is the migration of Jews, too, and another dimension of religious pluralism.

So in the 1830s, what changed ... in how Catholicism fit in? I'm thinking of the [1834 Ursuline] Convent burning [in Charlestown, Mass.]

… You could view that as a couple things -- one, as a sort of enduring anti-Catholicism that's particularly strong in the most religious segments of American culture, and there's an increasingly anti-Catholic dimension to evangelical Protestantism at that time.

But I view that as a more isolated event than I view the wave of anti-Catholic orators and speeches and conflicts, including the burning of churches and the formation of anti-Catholic political party of the 1840s and 1850s. By that time, on both continents, Europe and the United States, you have what can only be described as a massive popular movement of anti-Catholicism. The burning of the convent might have been a kind of warning bell, but the real movement takes off a little bit later than that.

So in the 1840s, is it brave for Hughes to stand up against --

Yes, I think it is brave and, depending on your view, foolhardy or courageous or belligerent. But brave is fair. He had no fear. As far as we can tell, he was very tough-minded. And again, I think he saw part of his job as rallying Catholics to a stronger sense of their own identity: Do not let yourself be seduced by, turned away from the faith of your ancestors and the faith that you've inherited. And do not let the public schools be the agent of that seduction.

How did Protestants view Hughes?

I think they saw him as a very threatening figure. After the school fight, there was a little bit of a period of an interregnum, where I believe he actually addressed Congress. ... That suggests that temperatures had cooled a little bit, so that he was invited to do that and he was allowed to do that.

But by the 1850s he's making very strong statements, and at one point Hughes gives a fairly famous talk about the goal of Catholicism is to convert the United States and to make this a majority Catholic country. That's a shocking statement -- and Hughes knew that -- to make in the United States in the 1850s. So he liked taking a provocative stand. And he saw building Catholic schools and building Catholic institutions as a way of building a Catholic culture in this country and pride in Catholicism as a religion that's not of the past but of the future.

When Hughes challenges the schools in 1842, he seems to embody all that people had feared about Catholics.

Right. Here is this unelected bishop, appointed by the pope in Rome, telling thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of our fellow citizens how they should vote in what became a political contest, or certainly how they should think about a hot political issue. That was the fear of many Protestants: We're going to have bishops interfering in our politics.

Now, of course religious liberty might say to us that everyone has the right to think what they want and everybody has the right to tell people how they think they should vote. But Protestants looked at Catholicism and saw -- they thought, at least -- that Catholics are more or less like sheep; they're going to do exactly what they're told, and if we have people like Hughes telling Catholics what to do, we're in trouble in a republican society that depends upon the autonomy of each individual and that individual's ability to vote on his or her own.

And Hughes saw himself as a leader of this flock?

No question. He wanted to be a leader. I think he never had a day of doubt that he should be in charge. And he thought of himself as the leading Catholic in the United States, the most visible.

He says, "If I didn't go past the edge, ... I went at least to the edge of it." That's the only admission he ever makes about that being a little bit political.

The bishops of that time were very self-conscious. The [Catholic] bishops often used to congratulate themselves: We didn't divide during the Civil War. Now we, looking back, might think, wow, is that such a thing to be proud of? You didn't stand up strongly united for the abolition of slavery, for example, in 1861. But they were very conscious of not being political; that is, not being affiliated with political parties.

That said, Hughes of course knew what he was doing had political consequences. But he thought that was part of the task of a modern Catholic bishop; that in a society that was in some ways profoundly hostile, he needed to build up Catholic institutions to sustain Catholic faith, and the biggest one of those Catholic institutions came to be Catholic schools. There were also Catholic hospitals founded during this period, Catholic welfare agencies -- the modern Catholic Charities comes out of this period. All of it is to protect Catholics from a modern world which seems at best hostile, more likely even threatening. ...

What did Hughes want?

I think what Hughes really wanted, and what most Catholics had hoped for, was public funding for Catholic schools, because they even often would say, "We'll allow public funding for Anglican schools, but let us direct tax dollars to Catholic schools, maybe from Catholic taxpayers," which is what happens in some European countries. But that never happens in the United States.

So at least second best, they're interested in trying to get Protestantism out of the public schools so that the many Catholic children in the public schools aren't, in their view, corrupted by it, and then trying to build this private Catholic school system.

Hughes wanted Catholic schools to get tax money and thought it was fine if Protestant schools got tax money as well. Why didn't that work out?

... I think the interesting question is, why didn't the United States give any public funding, in the end, to religious schools? And my own view is that American nationalism was relatively weak. We didn't have a lot of inherited institutions to inculcate Americans into the sense of what it means to be an American.

And pretty quickly over the 19th century, Americans came to think of public schools as the vehicle, the best way to train future American citizens. This was the way we would take a wildly diverse population -- Catholic, Protestant, from many European countries, Native Americans, free blacks before 1865, freed slaves after 1863 and 1865 -- this is how you make them into American citizens who are genuine citizens, who know what it means to vote, what it means to be a responsible member of a democracy.

If you allow public funding for Catholic schools, many Americans thought you are subverting the idea of a common means of democracy. You're subverting the way that we're going to train future citizens, because children will be in these Catholic schools all day long. Catholic schools can't be a proper training ground for citizens, because they teach ''submit to authority"; they teach religious dogmas which are silly; they don't have a proper understanding of the importance of democracy and autonomy. That's the crucial reason, I think.

At the moment that Americans were making this decision about whether or not they could give public funding to religious schools, the biggest, and to their mind most threatening, religious minority was Catholicism. If that religious minority had been some different group, you could imagine the situation turning out somewhat differently. If they had been Congregationalists, this massive immigration of Congregationalists in the 1840s and 1850s, there might have been a sense [of] OK, we can make this work in some different way. But because it was Catholicism, because there was such a long heritage of suspicion about [Catholicism] in the United States, and because of this sense that we had to have public schools that educate as many people as possible to have a successful democracy, you weren't going to get public funding for the Catholic schools.

And Protestantism was a big part of the public schools.

Right. And over time, Protestantism endured in a lot of public schools longer than we think. There were still Protestant hymn and prayers in some schools into the 1950s and 1960s. Nonetheless, it's weakening over that whole long period. And I think most Protestants were willing to take religion out of the public schools and keep it in the home and the church, if that was what they needed to do to prevent public funding of Catholic schools.

Lesser of two evils?

Right, that's very much the lesser of two evils. And again, it shows the power of that nationalist sentiment in the 19th century: We have to do this for America, for a successful American society. ...

Because what America was wasn't really set.

And it's changing very rapidly -- the tumultuous events of the 1850s and the Civil War. If public schools are threatened, what's really going to hold this country together? Catholics are increasing rapidly. What if there is this huge Catholic school system, funded by our tax dollars? Are we subverting the very idea of the nation? And those threats weren't as vivid in Europe, where I think national identity didn't depend as much on education as it did in the United States.

Did it have other things to depend on?

The military, longer traditions of family and blood, and a sense that the nation endured beyond any particular political arrangement. People are English, or they're French, even though the French Constitution or the English parliamentary system might be of relatively recent origin.

So Americans are insecure.

Americans were, and who can blame them? The nation wasn't that old, right? ... It's, by the 1860s, going through the bloodiest civil war in the history of the globe. And that's one reason there are fierce attacks on any public funding for Catholic education immediately after the Civil War. This is a threat to the hard-won achievements of American nationalism. We can't have just won a civil war and then give public funding to Catholic schools.

How do you square that with the freedom to worship as you please?

Well, the argument would be, people are free to worship as they please; we just don't need to publicly support them. That would be [the] argument people make now about why you shouldn't fund religious schools. ...

The argument that Jewish day schools and Catholic schools and other kinds of religious schools would make now would be, "We have a very good record of teaching people basic skills, and sometimes we do that better than the public schools, so shouldn't we be given public support for the public good that we are providing?" And the argument back is, "But you don't have to send your kids to those schools." And the argument back is: "But if we don't send our kids to those schools, they won't get any kind of religious education, because you have to be in schools nine months a year, 180 days in a year, and the state requires that. So the state is requiring that my children be educated, indoctrinated into a certain way of life. Why can't I have my children educated in a certain way? And if they're educated properly -- that is, if they can learn to read and write and use arithmetic and develop basic skills -- why can't the government support that?" It's very similar to the arguments that were made in the mid-19th century.

In the mid-19th century, Hughes didn't want the Bible out of school, did he?

I don't think he did. I'm actually not sure of the answer to that question, because sometimes Catholics tried to have it both ways. They would say the Bible is really the King James Bible, and it's a Protestant Bible. And then if the Bible were ultimately pulled out of the public schools, they'd say: "Look, your schools are godless. That's why we need Catholic schools." ...

That was at the core of the Catholic belief, that you can't separate education from religious education. And the idea that you could have a public school that educated students day in, day out, with no mention of religion, seemed to these mid-19th century Catholics almost incomprehensible, because they thought religion needed to be interwoven into education in a much more profound, systematic way. It was only that conviction that pushed them forward into founding the school system, that religion wasn't 10 minutes a day or 20 minutes a day, that you really needed to be educated in a religious ethos to be brought up in a religious tradition. ...

How did [Catholics] feel the discrimination?

... In the 1840s and 1850s there was a big anti-Catholic political party, lots of discussion about what should the role of Catholics in politics and Catholics in society be, whether or not Catholics could make good citizens. There were some limitations -- attempted limitations -- on Catholics in terms of voting.

But by and large, there was nothing discriminatory about their day-to-day life, I think, with some exceptions, and the real story of the Catholic diaspora in the 19th century is that they found the United States a very positive and prosperous place to be. This was the place that had probably the most rapid growth in the institutional Catholic Church over the 19th century. So that discrimination existed, and that anti-Catholic prejudice, but it really fueled Catholic growth, too, in the way that discrimination and hardship often does fuel religious enthusiasm. ...

The bishop in Philadelphia takes up the banner, and there are rumors that he'll want the Bible out of school. Churches are burning. Was that a surprise?

By the 1840s, you're seeing anti-Catholicism emerge as a pretty big popular movement, and that is a surprise. We think of the great social reform movements of the 1840s and 1850s. One is clearly anti-slavery. One is women's rights. But one is also temperance. And one social reform movement was anti-Catholicism, the idea that we need to have a check on Catholic influence in society; we need to worry about Catholic influence on politics. And that helps mobilize popular prejudice. Now, the reformers weren't necessarily calling for Catholic churches to be burned. That happened as kind of a mob spirit. But it was part of a larger political culture in the 1840s and 1850s, and Philadelphia is probably the most graphic example of that. But other churches are burned. There are other incidents of harassment all through the next two decades.

Hughes' reaction to the Philadelphia burning was to warn the mayor of New York that he'd turn New York into a second Moscow. ... Is that extreme?

It's very extreme. ''If there is a popular mob going about burning Catholic churches, we'll try and burn the whole city down.'' Now, I think that's rhetorical excess. I don't think that would have happened, but that was the kind of gesture he liked to make. And popular lore says that's what helped prevent similar burnings in New York City.

What do you feel about John Hughes?

He was, I think, a very characteristic 19th-century bishop in that he took a pretty combative role against Protestantism and what he felt were attacks on Catholicism. He was skilled at building a kind of enthusiasm for and loyalty to Catholicism among Irish and Germans who might not have been especially attached to Catholicism in their home country but who became more attached to it in the United States. And he was the first in a long series of bishops, not just in New York but around the country, who dedicated themselves to building Catholic institutions. That was their big task. They were going to build Catholic pride rhetorically, but on the ground they were very eager to build Catholic institutions, because they thought Catholics needed to sustain their faith over generations through these institutions.

Does the school controversy signal a problem in creating civil religion in a pluralistic society?

... I thought you were going to say, ''Does this signal a problem for creating successful public institutions in a religiously and ideologically diverse society?'' And I would say it does. We all want public institutions to be successful, but sometimes public institutions can't be for everyone. And the question is, how do you sustain the people who aren't participating in public institutions? How do you sustain a certain loyalty to that national society while respecting their own particular religious, ethnic, political traditions? And that's a tough puzzle. ...

Catholics in the mid-19th century really believed, rightly or wrongly, in institutions as a way of carrying on religious traditions. And that lasted with Catholicism, that ethos, really until the 1960s and 1970s. It's an extraordinary period of institution building. Now we're in a different moment, but it's in the mid-19th century when that really begins.

You said this was the first test of the First Amendment. What does that mean?

It was relatively easy to say we're going to have religious freedom in a country that wasn't that religiously diverse. It was very diverse among Protestants but didn't have the hard challenge of diversity that was going to come with Catholicism. And all of a sudden you've got this large Catholic population, and now you really have to figure out what the First Amendment is going to mean. And in the end it was decided the First Amendment, at least in the mid-19th century, is going to mean that we're not going to give any public monies to religious institutions. That outcome could have been different. But that outcome was made in the heat of an ideological and political battle in the 1840s, '50s, '60s and '70s.

Now we're at another moment. We're always reinventing the First Amendment and trying to think through, what does the First Amendment mean for religious institutions that have certain views on same-sex marriage? Or what does the First Amendment mean for Christian groups at state colleges? So we're always reinventing what the First Amendment means in a new context. But this was, I think, the most profound early challenge.

The Second Great Awakening: This was an overwhelmingly Protestant nation in 1830, '40. Why did they feel this threat?

... The Second Great Awakening had independent roots. It was a kind of an evangelical movement within Protestantism fundamentally, but it made the nation much more Protestant, more self-consciously Protestant. And Catholics had the bad luck, in a way, to migrate in mass numbers into this country at exactly the moment this nation had become much more self-consciously Protestant.

So Catholics [didn't] encounter, at the moment of their mass migration, the relatively more tolerant, less fervent Protestantism of the 1790s. They encountered often the much more evangelical, much more fervent, much more suspicious-of-Catholicism religious culture of the 1830s, '40s and '50s. ... You really have the ingredients there for a bit of a fire. …

How much of this is religion, and how much is class, race?

I think the class dimension is very powerful because most of these Irish immigrants ... are very poor, are relatively uneducated. They're living together in slum conditions, tenements, packed into what we would call ghettos that are very unattractive. So part of the narrative [that] Protestantism is progress and liberty is reinforced by looking at these Catholic immigrants who seem the exact opposite of progress and liberty and the modern world.

A Protestant woman who went door to door in the tenements must have been --

Very sobering, and we shouldn't romanticize that either. It was genuine, grim poverty and troubled family structures and all the things we associate with very impoverished populations. So it's understandable that Protestants were horrified -- or Americans generally were horrified -- by the conditions of these immigrant populations, because again, the United States had not seen this kind of poverty and this kind of mass immigration in any recent memory. But because there was this long history of anti-Catholicism, because of the deeply Protestant political culture of the country, the instinctive association of Catholicism with poverty and degradation and opposition to progress only fueled the anti-Catholic ethos of the 1840s and 1850s.

It makes you understand why Hughes fought so strongly for these children.

Yes. I mean, he was trying to say: ''You are our children. The church is your home. The church is your mother, and we will stand up for your rights and what the just deserts that this society should provide for you.''

Someone described Hughes as being surprised by Americans' Protestantism and insisting that America live up to the First Amendment.

I think that's fair, although Hughes himself, he was more of a tactician on the First Amendment, because Catholics ... had to struggle with the fact that there wasn't real religious liberty in Italy. And so Protestant preachers in Italy were always coming back and reporting, ''We're not allowed to do anything in Italy.'' And that was an awkward fact for Hughes, who's saying, ''You're not living up to your religious liberty.'' And people respond, ''But what about back in Italy?''

But yes, I think he is standing on the First Amendment and saying: ''Maybe you're not going to live up to this, but if you believe this First Amendment about religious freedom, let's see how this really works in your institutions and see if religious freedom might mean something else for us. That is, maybe you could give public funding to Catholic schools.'' ...

It's hard to define a new country, isn't it?

It's very hard. Religious liberty is tough. Think about what's going on with Islam in France right now. And I actually tend to think that's very similar to 19th-century Catholicism in the United States. In the 19th-century Catholic context, you had people of a foreign religion, controlled by outsiders, coming to a republican country. Their women -- meaning nuns -- wore strange clothing. Well, it's fairly similar to the arguments that are made about Islam in France. You have a massive wave of immigrants. Their women wear strange clothing. They're controlled by outsiders. How does each society deal with an international religious tradition that is all of a sudden there in fairly large numbers? …

People also think the First Amendment was signed and it was easy from there on out. That's not what it was.

No. I think it is rebuilt in every generation. And I think the first very big test for religious freedom was this mass migration of Catholics in the 19th century. What was that going to mean for schools, for social welfare agencies, for the public institutions that had been almost haphazardly built up over the course of the 19th century that now had to serve a very religiously diverse population? Even prisons. Are you going to allow Catholic chaplains to go visit Catholic prisoners in prisons? This was a big debate. So you have all these public institutions. Well, how are they going to reconcile themselves to this religiously diverse population?

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Published October 11, 2010

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