American Liberty & Anti-Catholic Prejudice

The roots of Anti-Catholic prejudice run deep in Anglo-American history. From colonial times, Protestantism and English identity were firmly intertwined. After the Revolution, the twin forces of Evangelical Protestantism and the Civil Religion of the American republic continued  to see the Roman Catholic Church as alien and subversive. With the first great influx of Roman Catholic immigrants –mostly from Ireland and the German states – from the  1830s to the Civil War, Nativism became a vehicle for persecuting Catholics. Nativism erupted again with the next wave of the so-called “New Immigration” – from southern, central and eastern Europe -  in the 1880s and 1890s.

Josiah Strong (1849-1916), a Congregationalist, saw Roman Catholicism as an enemy of American liberty and a threat to the nation’s great destiny as God’s chosen instrument in history. This selection is taken from his influential book, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, published in 1885. These selections illustrate both Strong’s view that Catholicism was incompatible with American liberty and his belief that “the Anglo-Saxon race” and the American nation were chosen by God.

We have made a brief comparison of some of the fundamental principles of Romanism with those of the Republic. And,

1. We have seen the supreme sovereignty of the Pope opposed to the sovereignty of the people  

2. We have seen that the commands of the Pope, instead  of the constitution and laws of the land, demand the highest allegiance of  Roman Catholics in the United State.

3. We have seen that the alien Romanist who seeks citizenship swears true obedience to the Pope instead of "renouncing forever all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty," as required by our laws. 

4. We have seen that Romanism  teaches religious intolerance instead of religious liberty. 

5. We have seen that Rome demands the censorship of ideas and of the press, instead of the freedom of the press and of speech. 

6. We have seen that she approves the union of church and state instead of their entire separation. 

7 . We have seen that she is opposed to our public school system. 

Manifestly there is an irreconcilable difference between papal principles and the fundamental principles of our free institutions. Popular government is self‑government. A nation is capable of self‑government only so far as the individuals who compose it are capable of self‑government. To place one's conscience, therefore, in the keeping of another, and to disavow all personal responsibility in obeying the dictation of another, is as far as possible from self‑government, and, therefore, wholly inconsistent with republican institutions, and, if sufficiently common, dangerous to their stability. It is the theory of absolutism in the state, that man exists for the state. It is the theory of absolutism in the church that man exists for the church. But in republican and Protestant America it is believed that church and state exist for the people and are to be administered by them. Our fundamental ideas of society, therefore, are as radically opposed to Vaticanism  as to imperialism, and it is as inconsistent with our liberties for Americans to yield allegiance to the Pope as to the Czar. It is true the Third Plenary Council* in Baltimore denied that there is any antagonism between the laws, institutions and spirit of the Roman church and those of our country, and in so doing illustrated the French proverb that "To deny is to confess." No Protestant church makes any such denials. *[This important council had met in 1884, with fourteen archbishops and sixty American bishops in attendance] 

History fully justifies the teaching of philosophers that civil and political society tends to take the form of religious society. Absolutism in religion cannot fail in time to have an undermining influence on political equality. Already do we see its baneful influence in our large cities. It is for the most part the voters who accept absolutism in their faith who accept the dictation of their petty political popes, and suffer themselves to be led to the polls like so many sheep. 


It seems to me that God, with infinite wisdom and skill, is training the Anglo-Saxon race for an hour sure to come in the world's future. Heretofore there has always been in the history of the world a comparatively unoccupied land westward, into which the crowded countries of the East have poured their surplus populations. But the widening waves of migration, which millenniums ago rolled east and west from the valley of the Euphrates, meet to-day on our Pacific coast. There are no more new worlds. The unoccupied arable lands of the earth are limited, and will soon be taken. The time is coming when the pressure of population on the means of subsistence will be felt here as it is now felt in Europe and Asia. Then will the world enter upon a new stage of its history-the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled. Long before the thousand millions are here, the mighty centrifugal tendency, inherent in this stock and strengthened in the United States, will assert itself. Then this race of unequaled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it-the representative, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization-having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will spread itself over the earth. If I read not amiss, this powerful race will move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond. And can any one doubt that the result of this competition of races will be the "survival of the fittest?" "Any people," says Dr. Bushnell, "that is physiologically advanced in culture, though it be only in a degree beyond another which is mingled with it on strictly equal terms, is sure to live down and finally live out its inferior. Nothing can save the inferior race but a ready and pliant assimilation. Whether the feebler and more abject races are going to be regenerated and raised up, is already very much of a question. What if it should be God's plan to people the world with better and finer material?

"Certain it is, whatever expectations we may indulge, that there is a tremendous overbearing surge of power in the Christian nations, which, if the others are not speedily raised to some vastly higher capacity, will inevitably submerge and bury them forever. These great populations of Christendom-what are they doing, but throwing out their colonies on every side, and populating themselves, if I may so speak, into the possession of all countries and climes?" To this result no war of extermination is needful; the contest is not one of arms, but of vitality and of civilization. "At the present day," says Mr. Darwin, "civilized nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations, excepting where the climate opposes a deadly barrier; and they succeed mainly, though not exclusively, through their arts, which are the products of the intellect." Thus the Finns were supplanted by the Aryan races in Europe and Asia, the Tartars by the Russians, and thus the aborigines of North America, Australia and New Zealand are now disappearing before the all-conquering Anglo-Saxons. It seems as if these inferior tribes were only precursors of a superior race, . . .

Every civilization has its destructive and preservative elements. The Anglo-Saxon race would speedily decay but for the salt of Christianity. Bring savages into contact with our civilization, and its destructive forces become operative at once, while years are necessary to render effective the saving influences of Christian instruction. Moreover, the pioneer wave of our civilization carries with it more scum than salt. Where there is one missionary, there are hundreds of miners or traders or adventurers ready to debauch the native.

Whether the extinction of inferior races before the advancing Anglo-Saxon seems to the reader sad or otherwise, it certainly appears probable. I know of nothing except climatic conditions to prevent this race from populating Africa as it has peopled North America. And those portions of Africa which are unfavorable to Anglo-Saxon life are less extensive than was once supposed. The Dutch Boers, after two centuries of life there, are as hardy as any race on earth. The Anglo-Saxon has established himself in climates totally diverse-Canada, South Africa, and India-and, through several generations, has preserved his essential race characteristics. He is not, of course, superior to climatic influences; but even in warm climates, he is likely to retain his aggressive vigor long enough to supplant races already enfeebled. Thus, in what Dr. Bushnell calls "the out-populating power of the Christian stock," may be found God's final and complete solution of the dark problem of heathenism among many inferior peoples. . . .

Thus, while on this continent God is training the Anglo-Saxon race for its mission, a complemental work has been in progress in the great world beyond. God has two hands. Not only is he preparing in our civilization the die with which to stamp the nations, but, by what Southey called the "timing of Providence," he is preparing mankind to receive our impress.

James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, defends the compatibility of Catholicism and American democracy. [1916] 

No constitution is more in harmony with Catholic principles than is the American. And no religion can be in such accord with that constitution as the Catholic. While the State is not absorbed in the Church, nor the Church in the State, and thus there is external separation, they both derive their life from the same interior principle of truth, and in their different spheres carry out the same ideas, and thus there is between them a real internal union. The Declaration of Independence acknowledges that the rights it proclaims come from God as the source of all government and all authority. This is a fundamental religious principle in which the Church and State meet. 

From it follows the correlative principle that as God alone is the source of human rights, so God alone can efficaciously maintain them. This is equivalent to Washington's warning that the basis of our liberties must be morality and religion. Shall, then, the various Christian churches have influence enough with the millions of our people to keep them in morality and religion? No question can equal this in importance to our country. For success in this noble competition the Catholic Church trusts in the commission given her by her Divine Founder to teach and bless "all nations, all days, even until the end of the world." For guarantee of the spirit in which she shall strive to accomplish it, she points confidently to history's testimony of her unswerving assertion of popular rights, and to her cordial devotedness to the free institutions of America constantly manifested, in word and in work, by her Bishops, her clergy and her people. 

James Gibbons,  A Retrospect of Fifty Years (Baltimore: John Murphy, 1916), 1, pp. 263‑64.]