As historians of American Catholicism, and as Catholics, we are concerned to see the revival of a strain of nativism in the current controversy over the establishment of an Islamic center some blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.
For much of the nineteenth century, Catholics in America were the unassimilated, sometimes violent “religious other.” Often they did not speak English or attend public schools. Some of their religious women—nuns—wore distinctive clothing. Their religious practices and beliefs—from rosaries to tran- substantiation—seemed to many Americans superstitious nonsense. Most worrisome, Catholics seemed in- sufficiently grateful for their ability to build churches and worship in a democracy, rights sometimes denied to Protestants and Jews in Catholic countries, notably Italy.
In the 1840s and 1850s these anxieties about Catholicism in American society turned violent, resulting in mob attacks on priests and churches as well as the formation of a major political party, the American Party, dedicated to combating Catholic influence. This led to novel claims that the US Constitution imposed an absolute separation of church and state—claims that stem not from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington but from nineteenth-century politicians, ministers, and editors worried that adherents of a hierarchical Catholicism might destroy the hard-won achievements of American democracy. In 1875, a decade after accepting General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, President Ulysses S. Grant publicly warned that Catholicism might prove as divisive in American society as the Confederacy.
Like many American Muslims today, many American Catholics squirmed when their foreign-born religious leaders offered belligerent or tone-deaf pronouncements on the modern world. New York’s own Bishop John Hughes thundered in 1850 that the Church’s mission was to convert “the Officers of the Navy and the Marines, commander of the Army, the legislatures, the Senate, the Cabinet, the President and all.” The Syllabus of Errors, promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1864, denied that the Church had any duty to reconcile itself with “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”
But a Catholic president was elected in 1960, and today Catholics hold more seats in Congress than any other religious group. The vice-president and speaker of the house are Catholics, as are six of the nine Supreme Court justices. It took Catholics more than a full century to attain their current level of acceptance and influence, and they made their share of mistakes along the way, occasionally by trying too hard to prove their patriotic bona fides. (Exhibit A: Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name is now, paradoxically, associated with “un-American activities.”) But they earned their place, over the course of many decades, by serving (and dying for) their country and building their own churches, schools, and health care systems alongside public counterparts, which they also frequented and supported with their taxes.
Meanwhile, American Catholics helped transform parts of their own church that seemed at odds with the American freedoms …