Arthur Schlesinger, the liberal historian and admirer of John F. Kennedy, wrote that “The deepest bias in the history of the American people” is against Catholics. Last week’s fake news about students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky is a reminder that the bias still exists, and that it has become even more virulent in the age of social media and irresponsible reporting. Catholics are the one minority in America that it is possible to hate publicly and with impunity. Bigoted and unconstitutional attacks on Catholic judges during their confirmation hearings reveal that the bias is just as strong in the “tolerant” elites as in the virtual mob that attacked the Covington students.
Suppression of the Catholic Church began in the first English-speaking settlements in America. Catholics were at first banned from the colonies, then placed under severe restrictions on worship and land ownership, not permitted to vote and excluded from public office. Discrimination and lies about Catholics grew rapidly in the nineteenth century, as waves of Catholic immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Italy arrived in the United States. Nativists campaigned to keep Catholics out of the country and when that failed, to make it impossible for them to hold public office. Mobs burned churches and pursued individual Catholics, and the Ku Klux Klan made Catholics and Jews its major targets after the First World War.
Intellectuals like Mark Twain showed no restraint in expressing their disdain for Catholics, and even as Catholic immigrants began to bind themselves to the Democratic Party they were largely excluded from national offices on the spacious grounds that Catholics are all controlled by the Vatican.
Kennedy broke the glass ceiling on Catholic politicians, but he did so by assuring voters that his Catholic beliefs would not affect his actions as President: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.” Catholics are now routinely expected to abandon their religious and moral beliefs as a condition of participating in public life. Some do so reluctantly, some enthusiastically, some persecute fellow-Catholics who uphold the Church’s teaching, and a few take up the challenge of being Catholic statesmen.
I write all this down because far too few Americans have any idea of the history of bigotry and discrimination against Catholics. Catholics did not demand reparations for discrimination against their ancestors. We do not teach about “Protestant Privilege.” Catholics certainly did not get affirmative action. The wave of Catholic immigrants simply buckled down to become indistinguishable from other Americans, despite Pope Leo XIII’s warnings about where this would lead. When Catholics march, it is not for ourselves but for others – the March for Life being a case in point.
The recent examples of bias against Catholics include both the historically familiar features of falsehoods that incite mob reactions and campaigns to exclude Catholics from public office.
White boys from a Catholic school in a red state wearing MAGA hats were the perfect target for the bigots of the modern age. They fit the profile.
The young men were standing where they had been instructed by school officials to wait for their bus after participating in the March for Life. It happened to be near a Native American gathering at the Lincoln Memorial, and they were verbally assaulted by a group of radical black supremacists known as the Black Israelites. Without provocation, the black racists called the young men ‘racists,’ ‘bigots,’ ‘white crackers,’ ‘faggots,’ and ‘incest kids.’ The young Catholic men stood their ground, as was their right and necessary to avoid missing their bus, and eventually started some school spirit chants to drown out the obscenities. Seizing an opportunity for attention, a “professional Indian” agitator grabbed a drum and started beating it in the face of one of the young men.
As the student in the viral picture described it, “To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me. We had worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers. I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse [sic] the situation. I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.”
As he feared, a video of a young white man smiling at a furious Native American beating a drum went viral. Whoever posted the photo didn’t even need to make up an accusation against the young men – the media and the sharks of the internet immediately took up the attack and manufactured their own lurid stories about how the Catholic youths were disrupting a sacred event and showing disrespect for protected minorities. Their story became headlines on all the television networks and in those bastions of tolerance, the Washington Post and New York times. Even the Bishop of Covington and their own school administrators turned on them, condemning them without even asking their own student what happened.
As Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, one of their few forthright defenders, put it, “It was amazing how quick those who preach tolerance and non-judgment of others were to judge and label some high school students based on partial information…There are none more intolerant than liberals who don’t like your options, values, faith beliefs, political stance, …”
Fortunately, one of the young men decided to speak out and found an audience, and other videos showing the entire sequence of events were posted. A number of respected columnists who rushed to judgment made full apologies, but the major media outlets have only made small gestures to correct the falsehoods they invented and circulated. The typical response was “the behavior of the students might be interpreted differently in light of the context.” Profiling of white Catholic young men in MAGA hats is invulnerable to facts.
Equally troubling is the way that Amy Coney Barrett and others have been attacked for their faith in confirmation hearings as federal judges. One was the famous event when California Senator Diane Feinstein told Judge Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern…” Senator Feinstein made her point clear when she added that “You would be a no vote on Roe [v Wade].” Clearly Senator Feinstein would have no problem with a prospective judge in whom the dogma of “reproductive rights” lived loudly. It was the specific content of Judge Wade’s Catholic faith that made her and by implication all other faithful Catholics unacceptable to the Senator.
In a more recent example of prejudice in reviewing candidates for Federal judgeships, Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) attacked Brian C. Buescher on the basis of his membership in the Knights of Columbus. Sen. Hirono asked if Buescher would quit the Knights of Columbus because the organization “has taken a number of extreme positions. For example, it was reportedly one of the top contributors to California’s Proposition 8 campaign to ban same-sex marriage.”
The Knights of Columbus, like Judge Barrett and the Covington students, stood up to these attacks, stating “We were extremely disappointed to see that one’s commitment to Catholic principles through membership in the Knights of Columbus…would be viewed as a disqualifier from public service in this day and age.”
Even the ultra-liberal Justice Sotomayor was accused of being influenced by her Catholic upbringing when she granted an injunction protecting the Little Sisters of the Poor from the contraceptive mandate..
All this is flatly inconsistent with the constitutional guarantee that there be no religious test for public office. These attacks not only resurrect memories of the time when Catholics were literally excluded from voting and holding office. They also closely resemble first stages of what turned into murderous persecution of Catholics in Spain and Mexico in the early twentieth-century when leftist and atheist governments took power.
But the battlefield is now abortion. Attacks based on the bigoted belief that American Catholics will serve the global ambitions of the Vatican have been replaced by attacks on the respect for human life from the moment of conception that is obligatory for all faithful Catholics. That was the cause of each one of the recent attacks on Catholics, from Judge Barrett to the Covington students. Again, the message is that it is okay to be Catholic in America, but only if you abandon the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, the Catholic Church in America seems in danger of falling into the Stockholm Syndrome. A large part of the hierarchy and many Catholics have become so cowed by the intolerance of the “tolerant” power structure that they are now imitating our oppressors. Their school administrators and their bishop threw the Covington students to the lions – and neither has yet recanted. Very few bishops or priests are willing to tell Catholic politicians who openly campaign to make abortion more prevalent that they are in a state of mortal sin and may not receive communion. Heretical Catholic politicians and a fearful Catholic hierarchy are cooperating in the continued persecution of faithful Catholics.
From this dark picture, a few rays of light do shine. One public figure, the governor of Kentucky, stood up for the Covington students and pointed a finger in the right direction when he said “The level of bigotry that was evident throughout this came from one side entirely.”
We should all give thanks and pray for the young men from Covington Catholic High School who stood their ground, loved their enemy and kept their faith. May this strengthen them for much greater accomplishments in their adult lives.
David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy. He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America, David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.