Anti-Catholic, Anti-American: From Benedict Arnold to Kamala Harris

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“Kamala Harris is an anti-Catholic bigot,” wrote former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in an August 15 article for Fox News. Not only is she an anti-Catholic bigot; Mr. Gingrich claims that the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee “is the most openly anti-Catholic bigot to be on a national ticket in modern times.” Senator Harris hates the Catholic Church because of its pro-life stance on abortion and its insistence that only traditional marriage is legitimate. She made her disdain abundantly clear when she attacked U.S. District Court nominee Brian Buescher for being a member of the Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus.

Anti-Catholic bigotry in America is nothing new. In fact, it goes all the way back to Jamestown. King James, after whom the Jamestown settlement was named, desperately wanted alliances with the native populations of both the Americas and Africa. He did not intend to displace or harm them, but instead wanted to Christianize and civilize them. The plan was to do so gently instead of using the brutal methods employed by the Spanish. James hoped that the natives would turn against the Spanish and join the universal Anglican Church, which would serve to halt the advancement of Catholicism, a religion James despised even more than he despised the Puritans. (To be fair to James, a group of Catholics had tried to blow him up while he was addressing Parliament.) To that end, on December 19, 1606, three English ships, carrying among them Captain John Smith, sailed for the New World. Things did not go as planned for James and his dreams of Anglicizing the natives. It seems the native chiefs, such as Chief Powhatan (father of Pocahontas), had no desire to become vassals to a foreign king on the far side of the ocean and resisted the English attempts to bring them into a vast Anglican empire.

Despite the failure to win the natives over to Anglicanism, anti-Catholicism grew even deeper in North America with the arrival of the anti-Catholic Puritans in New England. So anti-Catholic were the Puritans that they believed the pope to be the anti-Christ and the Catholic Church to be the “whore of Babylon.” It can even be asserted that Benjamin Franklin would not have been born if it weren’t for the anti-Catholic sentiment of his father, Josiah, who left England because he believed that King Charles II was turning the country “Popish.” Tragically, Josiah’s first wife, Ann, died in childbirth soon after. Josiah’s new American bride, Abiah, gave birth to a son whom they named Benjamin.

Anti-Catholicism spread throughout the colonies. Only three of the thirteen original colonies allowed Catholics to vote, and all but Pennsylvania banned Catholic schools. The colonists celebrated anti-Catholic holidays like the English Guy Fawkes Day, named for the Catholic conspirator who attempted to assassinate King James I. James had banished Catholics from England following that assassination attempt. Ironically, he also banished Puritans who refused to conform to Anglican teaching which eventually led to their settling New England.

It was not only the Puritans and other Protestants who disliked Catholics, but also the sons of the Enlightenment. Many of these men, like Benjamin Franklin, preferred the looser moral code of Deism to Christianity. (Franklin would later return to his Christian roots, blaming Deism for the ills of his morally flippant youth). These “enlightened” men believed that the Catholic Church, with its ancient traditions and tired ways of thinking, hindered progress.

In 1753, a twenty-one-year-old major in the Virginia militia named George Washington picked a fight with the French in what was then known as the Ohio Country, sparking the French and Indian War. The British defeated the French and as a consequence captured the French colonies in Quebec. Being a French colony, Quebec was mostly Catholic. In order to pacify Quebec resistance to British rule, Parliament passed the Quebec Act in 1774. Among other things, the act removed any reference to the Protestant faith from the oath of allegiance, guaranteed the right to practice Catholicism, and restored the Church’s power to impose tithes. Many American colonists saw the act as Parliament establishing the Catholic religion in the Quebec colony and feared their colony might be next.

This fear of Catholicizing the American colonies played no small part in the antagonisms between Britain and the Americans. Having a Catholic province bordering New York and New England terrified the Americans who feared that hordes of Catholic Canadians would pour into their colonies and turn them “Popish.” Alexander Hamilton captured the fears of many Americans when he wrote, “Roman Catholics by the reason of implicit devotion to their priests and the superstitious reverence they bear those who countenance or favor their religion will be the voluntary instruments of ambition and ready to second oppressive designs against other parts of the Empire.” Another concern was that if Parliament could “establish” (as they saw it) the Catholic religion in Quebec, then they could do so in any of the colonies. Richard Henry Lee, a member of the Continental Congress from Virginia, said that “of all the bad Acts of Parliament, the Quebec Act was the worst.” That is quite a statement considering that the “Intolerable Acts” were passed by Parliament the same year.

Once hostilities began, however, the Congress took a much softer approach to their Catholic neighbors to the north. In a letter hoping to convince Canadians to join the war on the side of the colonists, the Congress wrote, “We perceive the fate of the Protestant and Catholic Colonies to be strongly linked together, and, therefore invite you to join with us in resolving to be Free.” Anti-Catholic sentiment cooled even more once Catholic France became an ally of the Americans. But this alliance with a Catholic power was used to scare some colonists away from the American cause, for fear that the Catholic influence would be too great. Playing on these fears, Benedict Arnold, a former patriot turned traitor, wrote to the officers and soldiers of the Continental Army that he had seen “your mean and profligate Congress at mass for the soul of a Roman Catholic in Purgatory, and participating in the rites of a church, against whose antichristian corruptions your pious ancestors would have witnessed with their blood.”

Anti-Catholicism did not go away following the war. Far from it. In the following century it grew with the influx of Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrants, most of whom were Catholic. Throughout the 1800s, anti-Catholic men and women spread terrible rumors of convents being hotbeds of sexual slavery and infanticide, and whispered about a Catholic plot to overthrow the government and install the pope. Violence and arson against Catholics and their churches were not uncommon. For example, in Philadelphia in 1844, anti-Catholic riots began after the city’s Catholic bishop requested that Catholic children in the public schools be allowed to read from a Catholic Bible instead of the Protestant Bible. A rumor quickly spread that Catholics were trying to remove the Bible from the school altogether, which resulted in a riot, the burning of several Catholic churches, and the deaths of around fourteen people.

In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had a resurgence after the world’s first feature length film, “Birth of a Nation,” glorified the violent organization as the savior of America. No longer a Southern guerilla and terrorist group, the Klan of the 1920s spanned the entire country and was against anything seen as un-American, including blacks, immigrants, Jews, and Catholics. The Klan had considerable political power and sought to remove all Catholic influence from politics and education. They threatened missionary Sisters, protested the hiring of Catholics as teachers, burnt Catholic churches, and incited anti-Catholic riots. And, of course, they used their influence to elect politicians sympathetic to their cause. U.S. Senator Hugo Black, a vehement anti-Catholic Democrat and former Klansman, was nominated to the Supreme Court by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Klan was even successful in getting Oregon to pass an anti-Catholic school bill and came close to getting Washington to do the same.

Fortunately, with the national unity that erupted during the Second World War, anti-Catholic sentiment began to dissipate in the United States. By the 1980s, American Catholics and Protestants had largely put their differences aside to work together for common values. Today anti-Catholicism still exists in some of the more fundamentalist churches, but has been mostly swept away in the main Protestant churches.

Catholics, like other minorities in America, benefited from what Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis referred to as “the American Creed.” America was not born perfect in 1776, because, like the rest of the world, the United States was founded and governed by sinful men. But the Declaration of Independence gave us the ideal to live up to and secured the path to achieving it. As Mr. Ellis explained, “The entire history of liberal reform in America can be written as a process of discovery, within Jefferson’s words [in the Declaration], of a spiritually sanctioned mandate,” for liberty and equality for all people. The beauty of the American system is that we are always trying to do better and to be better. At least, that was the case throughout most of our history.

Unfortunately, there is a new and regressive specter rising up over the country, in the form of Marxism. These radical leftists despise “the American Creed” and seek to destroy the American system under which so many have achieved freedom and prosperity. Their goal is to return us to a state of inequality and intolerance for views and religions that differ from those they deem acceptable. American Catholics are once again viewed as something evil, something to be despised and ridiculed. Like the Puritan colonists who 400 years ago believed the Catholic Church to be the whore of Babylon, the priests of the radical left view Catholics as wicked and wrongheaded, and our beliefs to be repugnant to their religion of lies, disorder, and death. If the Marxists seize control of the country they will not tolerate dissent from their self-proclaimed moral superiority, and Christ’s Church will once again be targeted for destruction. We are already seeing the fruits of the left’s anti-Catholic hatred with the burning of churches and the defacing of statues of saints. We must learn from history so that we are not doomed to repeat it. It took approximately 350 years to abolish anti-Catholic sentiment on Main Street America, but with the rise of intolerant radicals like Kamala Harris and her cohorts on the anti-Catholic left, the Marxists are poised to bring it back with a vengeance.

[Photo credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images] 

R. C. VanLandingham

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R.C. VanLandingham is a novelist. His most recent work is Peter Puckett and the Amulet of Eternity. Find out more rcvanlandingham.com.

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