Protestants’ prejudice for Catholics in America had deep roots

When the United States was founded, the population was overwhelmingly made up of Protestant Christians. When late 19th and early 20th century immigration brought Catholics from Italy, Ireland, and eastern Europe, there was fear then as there is today of too much immigration. There was a particular fear of these new immigrants because they represented a religion against which the forefathers of the then existing Protestant population had revolted and fought. This fear was expressed in terms of a suspicion that the Catholic immigrants would do whatever the Pope told them to do. Especially, it was feared that they would vote in elections as the Pope instructed them to vote. The Pope represented autocracy and aristocracy as opposed to America’s everyman is a king mentality. There was also a perception that the Catholics with their specifically Catholic schools and Catholic universities would propagate a monolithic bloc with separate values from those of the general population. The Catholics were seen to be, somewhat like the Jews, in terms of sticking together and boosting other Catholics into universities, key government positions, and such. The apparent worship by the Catholics of the Virgin Mary, the ease with which Catholics could obtain absolution for sin by going to confession and saying three “hale Maries” or the equivalent and then go back and repeat the same sins all over again, and the decoration of the churches and cathedrals with statuary, paintings, and other decoration all smacked of idolatry and heresy. In addition, because in those days the Mass and prayers were done in Latin, and Catholics did not actually read the Bible very extensively, most everyday Catholics actually had little real knowledge of the Bible and its history, and they certainly had no knowledge of the Reformation and of the Protestant tradition. Moreover, then, and even today in some places, Catholics would not recognize marriages that had not been done in the Catholic Church and they insisted that the children of any marriage between a protestant and a catholic had to be raised as Catholics. So, out of all this background, many Protestants developed a strong prejudice against Catholics. Protestants called Catholics “Harps”, a reference to the extensive use of harps in the Catholic churches. In politics, the Catholics tended to be Democrats. And cities like Boston with large immigration from Ireland, or like Detroit with large immigration from Poland, tended to be strongholds of the Democratic party. In many cases, they were linked in some way to criminal activity. The cities with large Italian populations (New York for example) had big Mafia activity. Jack Kennedy’s father Joe, was a man of Irish descent who made his fortune bootlegging liquor during our era or Prohibition in the 1920s. Republicans in particular, saw the Catholics and Catholicism as something that was easy on crime because sin could so easily be forgiven by a priest at confession.


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