Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Well Done Presentation of an Important Movement

The book by Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture, is an interesting, valuable and well done work discussing the existence of and impact of the anti-Catholicism in the United States. It is the result of a doctoral thesis and as such reads somewhat like one but is is readily accessible and to the point. The author argues that the anti-Catholicism was a major factor in shaping our democracy during this period.

She begins with a summary of the work and that section is well worth the read. Then she discusses the Canadian issue regarding French speaking Quebec and the rules that allowed them to practice Catholicism. On the one hand the "Founders" of the US had considered attracting all of Canada as well as the Colonies but the very presence of a potentially ever expanding Catholic only area was of significant concern. On p 31 the author introduces Thomas Paine and his considerations related thereto. Paine argued that the Inquisition, that Church State chimera, was a problem just because it was a fusing together of the Church and State. Thus because there was a dread among Protestants of the Inquisition, especially as exercised by Spain, then the issue was not the exercise of religion in a private sense, but the politicization of religion in any sense. His conclusion were two fold. First people should be able to practice whatever religion they wanted in private. Second, there must be no nexus between politics and religion, between the state and the church. The author's presentation is exceptionally lucid here and it exemplifies how many of the Enlightenment types were capable of excelling above their inborn prejudices.

The author then moves on to the Constitution and discussion of Madison. On p 43 is the discussion of republics, their size and their viability. Montesquieu is discussed as being the prime source. It can be argued by many, including Ullmann, that these ideas well preceded Montesquieu with 14th century writers such as Marsilius  of Padua. Again on p. 55 Paine is quoted as stating that the American priest is as good a citizen as any.

The author continues discussing the well known 19th century anti-Catholics such as Mark Twain, who seemed to be anti everything, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne's book, The Marble Faun, is a typical example of the aggressive anti-Catholicism of the New England "elite" which infested Boston and its environs.

Overall it is a well written and well argued piece and worth reading to better understand the 19th century and its connection to what the Founders managed to put in the Constitution and why. However it would have been of interest to see this stretched a bit to the 20th century. From the rejection of Al Smith to the election of Kennedy. Also it would have been interesting to examine the same strong anti Catholicism of academics such as Dewey and Hofstadter. There was a whole class of "Intellectuals" whose main focus was the expression and exercise of mass anti-Catholicism. The two aforementioned, both at Columbia, demonstrate the very institutional attitude of that University well through the 1960s. For example, while I got into MIT, I was denied admission to Columbia because I was educated at a Catholic secondary school. That was told me in a three page single spaced letter from the Dean. A far cry from what anyone would do today! Thus this work takes us far, but not all the way!