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Much of the outcry over the recent “travel ban” has centered on the fact that, in letter and in practice, it seemed to involve a religious test. There is a segment of people in America right now who are deeply concerned that American Muslims are, as a group, attempting to enforce sharia, and essentially take over the law and culture of the United States – a concern that is not rooted in any actual evidence. This impulse has a long history in America, however, and considering who and what used to be a “threat” might lend some perspective to the debate.

The middle decades of the 19th century saw a surge of anti-Catholic rhetoric, violence, and political activism in response to growing Catholic immigration, including a political party dedicated to keeping Catholic influence – and Catholics themselves – out of American government. This anti-Catholic impulse had always been a part of Angl0-American culture, however, and Catholicism had often been used as a foil for American society. Protestant Americans argued that their faith valued free thinking and an independent conscience, as evidenced by their belief that all could read and understand the Bible. They argued that Catholics, whose faith forced them to depend on priests for the sacraments and for scriptural interpretation, were not allowed the intellectual independence necessary for participation in American society.

As the capacity for independent, rational thought was central to who could vote at this moment (and women and non-white people were seen to lack it), this accusation was important. The theoretical capacity for independent thought did not, of course, mean that it was actually exercised or valued in political discourse. Still, this division mattered, and Catholicism was seen as a danger to American society. Instead of being loyal, participatory Americans, critics argued that Catholics in America intended to spread “Romanism,” subverting and replacing Protestant American culture. The derogatory terms used for Catholicism – “Romanism” and “Papism” – encapsulate these fears; it’s not a faith, it’s a foreign influence spread by people blindly loyal to the Pope.


This 1852 advertisement is one of our rotating blog headers.

I invite you to read the following selection, from Rev. Rufus W. Clark’s 1854 work Romanism in Americaand think about how we might easily replace the fears of a “Romish system” with fears being expressed in 2017. Steve Bannon argues that “Western civilization” is in conflict with Islamic “barbarity” – it’s “us” versus “them.” We would do well to remember that Bannon himself, as a Catholic, would have been considered part of “them” for most of American history.

The subject of Romanism in America is one vitally connected with our national welfare, and the perpetuity of our civil and religious institutions. Whether we look at the inherent principles of the Romish system, or the designs of its advocates in regard to its extension in our country, or to its actual growth and prospective power among us, we find abundant reason for a thorough and candid discussion of the question. Nor are we conscious, in approaching it, of being influenced by any narrow or sectarian views, or any feelings of hostility towards those who are the members and advocates of the Papal church.

There are some in the community who suppose that every religious discussion must grow out of the spirit of bigotry and intolerance, and must partake, in some measure at least, of contention and personal animosity….But we do not belong to the class who would be silenced and lulled into a feeling of security by such opinions. We believe that it is the duty as well as the right of every American to examine the claims of the Roman Catholic faith, to study its history, to watch with a careful eye its progress in our land, to inquire into its influence upon our Protestant churches, our free institutions, and the national and social blessings which Heaven has granted to us.

In seeking, however, the destruction of Romanism, we would do all in our power to save the Romanist, not, indeed, as a Romanist, but as a man, as a sinner like ourselves, for whom Christ died…We declare war, not against men, but against principles that are subversive of our liberties and religion….And we would break [Romanism] down that its victims themselves may be delivered from its grasp, and saved from its pernicious influences ; for a greater calamity could not befall the Roman Catholics than to have Romanism triumph in this nation. Such a conquest would be the destruction of the very privileges and advantages that they have come to our shores to enjoy.

If you are interested in reading more on the place of Catholics in American political life, and American political life in Catholicism, I invite you to explore some of the great posts over at the Religion in American History blog, from Pete Cajka, Jeffrey Wheatley, David Mislin, and Matthew Cressler. For more images like the one above, the Library of Congress is a great place to look. Check out this one and make sure to zoom in!


Erin Bartram studies 19th century U.S. history, with a focus on religion and gender. You can follow her on Twitter and read more of her writing at her website.