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You Are Here: Home > Essay Topics > Religion Essays and Research Papers > Religion and Society Research Paper Topics  > Essay on American Anti-Catholicism

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Essay on American Anti-Catholicism

Contemporary Catholic commentators such as James Martin have remarked that some of the most virulent forms of a new anti-Catholicism appear to live a flourishing life in the culture-at-large, well outside the purview of denominational structures and theological debates. Such anti-Catholicism lives a resolutely "secular" existence, although now and then it appears in odd religious form in places such as Bob Jones University. As Martin has so deftly argued, many of the most eloquent critics of contemporary Catholicism's role in American political, social, and ethical culture seem to steer clear of theological/religious language entirely. Their concerns seem almost-entirely cultural, without any interest in questions of transcendence or religious discourse, theological or otherwise.

From a longer view of American cultural studies, however, it is extremely likely that this new anti-Catholicism is less recent than its name might suggest; indeed, the new "cultural" anti-Catholicism is at least half a century old, first emerging as an identifiable intellectual stance in the consciousness of ordinary Americans in the unlikely decade following World War II, after the "last good war" had been waged and won, and America's "greatest generation" were taking part in what Gibson Winter glumly termed the "suburban captivity of the churches." It was ostensibly a decade that saw the end of all ideology (including religious prejudice), if for no other reason than because "genuine religion"--the religion of what David Riesman termed the "inner directed"--was lamentably being replaced with the shallow need to belong by the "other directed" to churches and synagogues, no less than country clubs. The most famous voice in the emergence of this cultural form of anti-Catholicism was undoubtedly Paul Blanshard, although he was aided and abetted by a panoply of civil libertarian groups such as "Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State," and "Americans for Democratic Action."

Paul Blanshard's militantly hostile understanding of Catholicism's threat to American democratic institutions certainly drew on the earlier, religious, traditions of anti-Catholicism, but his anxieties were essentially political and cultural, and directly related to the tense geopolitics of the Cold War. Blanshard's concerns focused on the Catholic totalitarian presence within the world's leading democracy in the years after World War II. For Blanshard, Catholicism represented less a theological creed than an authoritarian cultural system, directed by foreign (and foreign-appointed) figures unaccountable to the folks who paid the bills. Blanshard saw the "children of light" and the "children of darkness" less as eschatological categories than as quite identifiable geopolitical groups: those who lived in popular democracies, and those who lived in authoritarian systems. Blanshard's anxieties, most famously argued in his "classic," American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949), but also pressed in works with such as Communism, Democracy, and Catholic Power (1951), The Irish and Catholic Power (1953) and in his The Future of Catholic Power (1961), a work overt in its fears of what the Kennedy presidency might bring, thus represented a resolutely 20th-century, Cold War political strain of the anti-Catholic impulse.

For Blanshard, like John Dewey, "democracy" itself--or at least American democracy in its battle to the death with the totalitarian Soviet Union--was religious, or even more properly a religion, with its own creed, rituals, and scriptures. That creed included the belief that all legitimate power, in Church, state, and community, was bestowed by human beings on their representatives, and that it was politically undemocratic as well as ethically repugnant to claim to have a "corner" on truth. But in a real (and, from a theological standpoint, arresting) sense, Blanshard went even beyond Dewey in constructing American democracy not only as a "common faith," but as an overt "theology," with individualism, democracy, and representative government as a the new trinity. For Blanshard, then--in view of what he considered the perspicacious American creed--"the Catholic problem was still with us." Indeed, in view of the Soviet threat, the "Catholic problem" never constituted more of a threat. . .

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