Having our way with the past, for it has no honor!

Ross Douthat’s new column, Islam in Two Americas is getting a lot of play. Douthat has to constrain his prose to make it suitable for a print column…I can almost see the excisions of nuance and subtly necessitated by the word length cap. Consider what Douthat says about Mormons and Roman Catholics:

…The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics

The same was true in religion. The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy….


First, all of America, more or less, was hostile to Catholics and Mormons. Second, despite the brutalities and slanders which Mormons and Roman Catholics were subject to, to some extent they invited hostility via their oppositional stance toward mainstream American society and culture. There were periods when Joseph Smith seemed to be forming a new theocratic state-within-a-state. Smith himself had all the characteristics of what in our era would be termed a ‘cult leader’ (from dictatorial tendencies to sexual appetites). And as for Catholicism, hostility toward that religion was not simply a correlation between it and the new waves of German and especially Irish immigrants. As documented by Roman Catholic historian John T. McGreevy in Catholicism and American Freedom: A History the new Irish dominated Church of the mid-19th century attempted to fundamentally reshape the trajectory of church-state relations in the United States during that period.* In short, the Church wanted to serve as a de facto and de jure representative of Roman Catholic believers to the United States government. Combine this with the 19th century papacy’s principled hostility to liberalism and democracy, and there were reasons for the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority of a democratic republic to worry about the rise of a religious minority whose clerics were notionally opposed to the idea of liberal democracy.

Of course Douthat correctly notes that both Mormonism and Roman Catholicism were tamed. Mormonism now encourages American patriotism, and Mormons are seen to be uniquely loyal to the American government (there are theological and pragmatic reasons for this). In the late 20th century the American Catholic laity became operationally Protestant in their conception of what the Christian religion entailed for the individual, while on the ecclesiastical level Vatican II was in many ways a victory for the ‘Americanists’ of the early 20th century who worked hard to reconcile the Church explicitly to liberal democracy (in their time they failed).

* Though the United States had no official religion on the federal level, it famously did on the state level into the early 19th century. But by the Second Great Awakening the state churches were anachronistic or gone, and the American orientation toward personal piety, religious individualism and a marketplace of denominations, was already ripening. The Roman Catholic Church attempted to interpose into this new religious consensus a model which seems more similar to what was operative in Europe, with Concordants and Pillars.

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