The founders of the United States, like the early population, were almost entirely of Protestant background. Catholicism met much resistance in the United States until sheer numbers forced its integration into American society. A deep anti-Catholic sentiment, inherited from Great Britain, existed in colonial America. Some colonies had laws restricting or banning Catholicism. The settling of the colony of Maryland by English Catholics was perhaps the only exception. At the time of the Revolution, Catholics made up just over one percent of the American population. While the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, it did not compel Protestant Americans to accept Catholic newcomers. Protestants resented Catholicism on theological grounds, often making fun of and belittling Catholic religious rites and customs. The common Christian link between Protestantism and Catholicism meant little.
As American Catholicism spread during the 19th century, anti-Catholic violence saw churches burned, Catholics massacred, property destroyed, and the growth of anti-foreigner and anti-Catholic organizations like the “Know Nothings.” Beyond violence, Catholics routinely became victims of discrimination in employment and housing.
By the turn of the 20th century, growing numbers, especially in the big cities, gave Catholics political power, and yet the struggle continued. The unsuccessful presidential campaign of Al Smith in 1928, in which Smith’s Catholicism became a divisive political issue, underscored the century of struggle. The Catholicism of candidate John F. Kennedy nearly cost him the 1960 election, but Kennedy did win by an extremely small margin against Richard Nixon. During both elections, opponents of the candidates suggested that a Catholic, if elected president, would “take orders” from the Pope. The success of Kennedy’s presidency and the tragedy of his assassination made Kennedy a mainstream and iconic American figure whose religion became truly incidental. Kennedy’s election showed, perhaps, the last vestiges of endemic anti-Catholicism.
In the 21st century, anti-Catholicism is mainly the purview of a small group of bigots, who also hate everybody else. Young Catholics today are simply not aware of the hardships their ancestors had to face. Religion-based prejudice is hardly gone, however. Islamic Americans today face equivalent misunderstanding and intolerance.
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