Thank You, FFRF!


Please, please, please…don’t let us down, I daydreamed after Monday’s decision of the Supreme Court defending freedom of religion from government intrusion.

         I prayed, I hoped, that the notoriously anti-Catholic firebrands of the nebulous and anonymous “Freedom From Religion Foundation” (FFRF) in Madison, Wisconsin, would once again, as they predictably had in the past, print a full-page, drippingly bigoted blast in the hospitable pages of the New York Times.

         So I smiled in relief as a friend called to ask me—ironically, on the day before Independence Day, celebrating what is most noble and freedom-loving in our beloved country—if I had seen the anticipated ad in the New York Times. I had not, since I stopped reading that paper years ago, on the advice of so many New Yorkers who warned me that the Church rarely gets a fair shake in those pages. But, that day, I went to find the issue, and, there it was, on page A13, a whole-page sneer at “dogma,” and an “all male Roman Catholic majority.”

         Scholars, journalists, and thoughtful commentators have elsewhere convincingly defended the unsurprising and long-predicted Supreme Court defense of “our first and most cherished freedom,” religious liberty, from the hyperbolic over-reaction of the ideologues who claim that there is a “war on women.” (For instance, see the Wall Street Journal editorial from the same day as the FFRF rant.) To revisit the wisdom, fairness, and justice of that decision is not my point here. Sources close to the White House had told us months ago that they knew this mandate would never pass constitutional muster with a Supreme Court under oath (given on the Bible, which I guess deserves another blast from the FFRF) to protect the Bill of Rights.

         Here I simply want to welcome the grey, full-page ad, and thank the anonymous militiamen at FFRF for giving me yet another handout for my students when I give my next talk on “Anti-Catholic Bigotry in the United States.”

         When I used to teach a course on American Catholic history to university students, or, when I give a conference on the topic now, there will always be an early question, “We know there used to be hatred of the Catholic Church in America, but didn’t all that end in 1960 when John F. Kennedy was elected?”

         No! In fact, historians now posit that Kennedy’s election was yet further proof of the abiding, deep suspicion of the Church found in American history—remember Arthur Schlesinger’s observation that, “Bias against the Catholic Church is the most enduring prejudice in American history”—not only because Kennedy’s victory would have been much bigger had his Catholic faith not been maligned during the campaign, but because the candidate himself felt compelled to pass the very “religious test” prohibited by the Constitution, assuring voters that his faith would never have any influence at all on his executive decisions—a statement hardly considered necessary from Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Quaker candidates.

         When my students or listeners ask for examples of anti-Catholic bigotry still existing in this land rightly lauded for its religious concord, I go to my trunk filled with exhibits.

         Whether it be the Puritans in New England (their very name came from their obsession to “purify” the Church of England from its “Romish,” Catholic corruption); or the British landlords in the thirteen colonies who outlawed Catholicism (and Judaism); or the “patriots” who claimed Catholics were traitors to the cause of independence (even though Catholic soldiers were a much higher portion of George Washington’s army than their tiny 1 percent of the population would warrant); or nativists in the 1840s who threatened to burn every Catholic Church in New York City (and, in fact, did in Philadelphia); or the Know-Nothings of 1850 who claimed Catholic immigrants should go home, or, if they stayed, never be allowed to become a citizen; or the members of the American Protective Association in the 1880s-1890s, who equated prejudice against Catholics with patriotism; or the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s-30s, whose lynching hatred included Catholics, Jews, and blacks, and who worried that Al Smith would establish a “theocracy” in America; or the Protestants and other Americans United in the 1950s who warned that a Catholic population growing in numbers, education, and financial status would soon topple white, Protestant, established, “true” America; or the well-financed groups of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s who wrote, took out ads, and advocated that any Catholic elected official or magistrate should excuse himself or herself from any vote, judgment, or decision, having to do with education, marriage, family, or, especially, defense of the baby in the womb, since that pitiable Catholic official obviously was a member of a “mind-numbing cult,”—it’s  so clear that bigotry against Catholics is, as Professor Philip Jenkins of Baylor University stated, “America’s dirty little secret.”

         And our new “Know-Nothings” at FFRF are part of this four century pedigree of prejudice.

         Now, don’t get me wrong: a robust examination of Monday’s Supreme Court decision, even one that disagrees with the ruling, is expected, welcome, and helpful in a Republic that prizes such give-and-take, indeed, protects it.

         But, as the professors of logic, rhetoric, and speech taught us in college, arguments attacking a person—instead of an idea, viewpoint, or opinion—are the weakest and most vicious of arguments…although, sadly, rather effective in firing up a mob.

         And that’s the tactic at work here. An ad soberly criticizing the decision would have been part of the discourse that makes us such a durable democracy…and there have been such ads. But the FFRF, perhaps knowing that their legal arguments fall flat, instead attacks the people on the court, and implies that their Catholic faith makes it impossible for them to protect the cherished Constitution they have sworn on a Bible to uphold.

         Would they take out such an ad (and would any respectable newspaper publish it?) claiming a Jewish congressman could not freely vote on aid to Israel?; or that a Mormon judge could not rule on marriage?; or that a Baptist legislator could not clearly vote on issues of liquor or gambling?; or that a Quaker president was unable to be Commander-in-Chief?; or that an African-American justice had no objectivity on a civil rights issue?

         Of course not! But, in keeping with a long, shadowy, legacy of antipathy, justices who happen to be Catholics—never mind their past frequent votes hardly consonant with the public teaching of their faith—are branded and bullied by a group who only succeed in providing the latest example of a prejudice that has haunted us for centuries.