Fears of Catholicism and its power gripped liberal Protestantism in the mid-nineteenth century. This anti-Catholicism in the United States was partially an outgrowth of a generalized suspiciousness of church authority. Protestants “questioned the authority of churches, clergymen, and creeds . . . [and] developed an antiecclesiastical perspective . . . [which] . . . perceived the Catholic Church as a threat to individual mental freedom.” Despite Protestant differences over liberal theology, the fear of Catholic influence enabled Protestants to unite against a perceived threat from the Roman church.
After freeing themselves from established churches in the late-eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth century, many American Protestants in disestablished churches looked at even their own ecclesial bodies with suspicion. “Ever more Protestants,” writes Hamburger, “felt their individual liberty [required] a freedom not only from government but also from their own purely voluntary religious societies.” Quoting Samuel Lothrop, Hamburger contends that these Protestants did not make a distinction between internal and external religious liberty. External refers to religious freedom in relationship with government. Internal refers to
the freedom within the religious body. Internal religious liberty allows the individual to “form and express” religious opinions and still retain privileges and fellowship within that church body. Suspiciousness of establishment shifted to suspiciousness of ecclesial authority among many theologically liberal Protestants in the mid-nineteenth century.
The suspicions of ecclesial authority were heightened when evangelical Protestants formed alliances and sought to influence political and governmental decisions. For example, when Rev. Ezra Stiles Ely sought to have Sunday mails eliminated, he was strongly renounced by theologically liberal Protestants. They warned of “religious despotism” that seeks to influence political institutions and the “catastrophe” when civil authority bends under that increasing influence.
Within this context of inter-Protestant conflict, their common suspiciousness of the Roman Catholic Church allowed Protestants to come together. Evangelical Protestants, “Being themselves the object of liberal and anticlerical suspicions, . . . welcomed the opportunity to deflect such sentiments toward Rome, and their conduct suggests how Protestants divided over theological liberalism could join together in adopting a theologically liberal attitude against the Catholic Church.”
It is in this way that the separation of church and state became a theologically liberal movement that included Protestants who were not themselves theologically liberal.
As liberal fears of Catholicism combined with both nativism and traditional views of the Roman church as somehow anti-Christian, Protestants “eventually would elevate separation of church and state as an American ideal.”
Thinking themselves intellectually independent and Catholic believers as lockstep followers of papal authority, Protestants thought Rome was “more likely to obtain political power and revive . . . medieval intolerance.”
The influx of Irish and German Catholic immigrants in the middle of the century increased fears of foreigners. The fears of foreigners intermingled with anti-Catholic language. Despite Irish traditions of a separation of sorts between the temporal and ecclesial the bigotry continued. At times the statements of the Roman Catholic Church fanned the flames of fearful Protestants despite the steady Americanization of Catholics. Hamburger quotes a Catholic publication,
for example, in which Protestant and nativist fears seem to be confirmed: “If the Catholics ever gain . . . an immense numerical superiority, religious freedom in this country is at an end. So say our enemies. So we believe.”
In these ways the movement toward separation as an American principle took on a very anti-Catholic tone.
As the nativist, anti-Catholic battle in the schools accelerated, the principle of separation of church and state was a line drawn to protect the schools and the country from a Roman church which was perceived, wrongly, as bent on making the United States subject to papal authority. “With these dire visions of the Catholic Church and its threat to the political and mental freedom of individuals, many Protestants found satisfaction in conceiving of their religious liberty, especially their freedom from establishments, as a separation of church and state.”
In this way, the liberally theological anxieties about ecclesial authority combined with traditional anti-Catholic fears, and ultimately led to separation as an American principle that protected Protestantism and the American government from a “foreign heirarchical power.”
A Christian Response
As an American, the freedom of individuals to worship or not worship as they see fit is critical and foundational to our culture. I am deeply concerned that we are not learning from our own history as we allow demagogues of all stripes to stir up public anxiety about the economy, about terrorism, and about a rapidly changing world.
As a Christian, I am even more concerned. Many of the folks who are the most vocal in their anti-Muslim, anti-Mosque views are professed Christians. I do not see how this hatred–and lets call it what it is–of the “other” is consistent with Jesus’ message or life. Sadly, this hatred-rooted-in-fear espoused by some who profess to be followers of Jesus, casts a dark shadow over the light of Christ and leads others away from Christianity. I remind the more literal interpreters of the canon to recall that “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.'” (Luke 17: 1-2 NRSV).
For those of us concerned about social justice we must not keep our mouths shut when we see our Muslim sisters and brothers being oppressed. As a Christian, I simply do not have a choice. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in response to the placating clergyman of Birmingham in 1963, “But more basically, I am in
Birmingham because injustice is here. Just
as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
1 Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 194.
2 Ibid., 195.
3 Ibid., 195.
4 Ibid., 200.
5 Ibid., 201.
6 Ibid., 202.
7 Ibid., 202.
8 Ibid., 210.
9 Ibid., 251.
10 Ibid., 249.