Recently, Catholics in America have had to confront the gauntlet of anti-Catholicism. Once considered a patriotic American value, it had been long assumed that anti-Catholicism had become passe. Unfortunately, in the past few months, it has raised its ugly head on the right.
“Anti-Catholicism? I thought that went away when we elected Kennedy,” many of you might ask. Unfortunately, in some segments of American society, it seems to have not gone away.
While campaigning in South Carolina a week before that state’s primary, George Bush, Jr. kicked off his week of McCain-smearing at Bob Jones University, an anti-Semitic, sexist and anti-Catholic institution. The university believes that the Catholic Church is a cult and that its adherents are a misguided flock. In addition, Bob Jones Sr. was famous for equating the pope with the Antichrist. At this event, Bush hobnobbed with many evangelical Republican religious figures. Many are known to be rabid anti-Catholics, suspecting them for their loyalty to Rome and their foreign, cosmopolitan values. Bush campaign sympathizers, including the ever-so-intolerant Pat Robertson, made anti-Catholic remarks at Bush events in South Carolina.
In an even more direct assault on American Catholics, Republican leaders killed the appointment of a new House chaplain simply because he was a Catholic priest. The House of Representatives has a chaplain who serves as a spiritual guide and advisor for all members of the House; every chaplain has been Protestant. A Committee made up of the Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt had agreed that a Catholic priest, Tim O’Brien, was the best choice in the candidate pool. After consulting with their fellow, overwhelmingly Protestant, Republican colleagues, Hastert and Armey rejected O’Brien’s appointment over objections from Gephardt, opting for a Presbyterian minister.
These examples bring back the scary past of American anti-Catholicism, when the KKK would burn Catholic churches and beat up Catholic students, or when Kennedy’s American credentials were called into question because he might have a conflict of interest with Papal ”loyalties to Rome.” For many on the far right, being Catholic is synonymous with un-American. For me, the religious right’s intolerance is un-American.
This sort of bigoted behavior is the product of the immense power of the conservative religious right that exercises considerable influence in the Republican Party. Dominated by evangelical Protestants, Christian conservatives aim to implement their religious agenda in American politics. Their misogynistic and homophobic vision for America is offensive and downright frightening. In supporting prayer in schools or the posting of the Ten Commandments in public spaces, Christian conservatives fail to realize that what they are advocating violates American democratic values. They do not care about freedom of religion, nor are they concerned with the traditional idea of America as a melting pot that embraces all cultures. Christian conservatives seem to want only one culture in America: one that is white, male-dominated and evangelical Protestant.
One could even question the truly “Christian” credentials of Christian conservatives. I do not claim to be a religious scholar, but I do know what constitute basic “Christian” social values. I would expect a Christian religious movement to be an advocate for the poor and fight poverty. I would hope that a Christian religious movement would campaign for an end to unwarranted discrimination or for an end to government-sponsored murder, such as the death penalty. Unfortunately, America’s evangelical political movement is quite different. Rather than promote basic Christian values like generosity, hope and love, the religious right calls for an end to government aid for the poor, the rolling back of affirmative action programs and espouses hate-inspired rhetoric. The evangelical right wing thinks that cutting off all help for the homeless and using the death penalty more frequently are in keeping with Christian theology. As someone who believes in the Christian God, I find this repugnant. When one looks at their political values, Christian conservatives are anything but Christian.
Nevertheless, this “Christian” movement has become so powerful that it seems that one must be a practicing evangelical Christian to become president. (I guess that means a Catholic, a Jew or an atheist would have a very difficult time becoming president nowadays). Both political candidates have been frank with their evangelical Protestantism. Flaunting their Christian fundamentalist credentials, Gore and (especially) Bush cite God and his “grace” time and time again. This is unnecessary and frankly offensive. Sadly, though, the tremendous weight of the Christian conservative movement forces candidates to voice their Protestantism.
I’m not a “real” Catholic; I just come from a Catholic family. But, I do know what is religious intolerance and making one’s political campaign prisoner to an extreme, religious element is intolerant, and attempting to make one’s religious values the law is illegal. This behavior violates the enlightened, modern concept of a separation of church and state that was so championed by our founding fathers, especially the agnostic Thomas Jefferson.
The religious right’s rhetoric is an affront to the many millions in this country who do not share their regressive values. As an American, I am embarrassed to see my leaders grovel to the desires of the xenophobic and outdated Christian conservative movement. The Religious Right’s influence poses a threat to American democratic values.