When white people were “ethnic”

In the period between 2005 and 2010 I spent a fair amount of time reading about American history. And one aspect which interested me was the nature of the assimilation of white Americans of non-Protestant background, in particular Roman Catholics and Jews. This was triggered by reading The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, where the author argues that the modern American conception of church-state separation is difficult to understand in practice unless religion is defined as something similar to low church American Protestantism

Though the American founding was famously eclectic and tolerant, as befitted a republic designed by men with elite Enlightenment sensibilities, it was culturally without a doubt Protestant in heritage, if not belief. The American Revolutionary Zeitgeist was steeped in British-influenced anti-Catholicism. In keeping with the same sort of Protestant populism which inspired the Gordon riots a broad swath of American colonial opinion was critical of the Quebec Act for giving French speaking Catholics a modicum of religious liberty and equality before the law.

Despite this historical context the relationship between the Roman Catholic population and the American republic in the early years was relatively amicable. Most of the priests were French Canadians, and Catholic population was highly assimilated and integrated. The great change occurred with the arrival of large numbers of Roman Catholic Irish, as well as a Irish American clerical ascendency which drew upon a revival in the Church in Ireland.

John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom is probably the best history of the religion in the United States that I read during that period. Not because it’s comprehensive, it’s not. Rather, because it focuses on the tension between the Church and the American republic and society, and how it resolved itself, and how that resolution unravelled.

Periodically people in the media make allusions to the ability of the American republic and culture to assimilate Catholics and Jews, and how that might apply to Muslims today. The discussion really frustrates me because there is almost never an acknowledgement that Roman Catholics experienced various degrees of low-grade persecution during periods of the 19th century. The Ursuline Convent riots are just the most sensational incident, and the Know Nothing movement turned into a political party.

The expansion of public schooling in parts of this was country tied to anti-Catholicism. But the Catholics did not take this passively. The emergence of a whole counter-culture, and parochial schools, suggested that they were ready to fight back to maintain their identity. The powerful Irish clerics who served as de facto leaders of the Roman Catholic faithful seem to have wanted to establish a modus vivendi with the American government which recognized the Church’s corporate role in society. By and large American elites and culture rejected this attempt to import a European style model to the New World.

By the late 19th century a movement began in the American Roman Catholic Church which became labeled the Americanist heresy. Despite its official condemnation I would argue that “Americanism” eventually became the de facto ideology of most American Roman Catholics. As Catholics conceded and assimilated toward American liberal and democratic norms in their everyday life, the hostility from the general public declined, and by the middle of the 20th century Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew articulated a vision of religious harmony among white Americans.

It should be rather obvious from the above that I believe this religious harmony was achieved in large part through concessions that American Catholics made to the folkways of the United States. You see the same dynamic in Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism. Second, in Catholicism and American Freedom McGreevy lays out the great unravelling of the Catholic hierarchy’s understanding with American society which occurred in the 1960s, as social liberalism went far beyond what even the most progressive Roman Catholic intellectuals were ready to countenance. And in this cultural revolution Catholics were shocked to find that their Jewish allies made common cause with mainline Protestants and post-Protestants.

The reason I am writing this is that the American landscape today is different in deep ways from that of the 19th and early 20th century. The lessons of Catholic and Jewish assimilation to a Protestant understanding of religion were achieved through bitter conflict, and the rejection of a corporatist accommodation between the American government and religious minorities, as was achieved in several European countries. The modern ideas of religious pluralism are fundamentally different from the explicit understanding of Protestant supremacy which ruled the day a century ago, and only slowly faded with assimilation of non-Protestants.

16 thoughts on “When white people were “ethnic”

  1. I’m glad that you posted this long-form correction to my comment. Still, as your post notes, the assimilation period was a long process – arguably over a century in length – and thus probably not the best analogue for people who call for the active assimilation of contemporary immigrants.

    I was raised in a Catholic family, and in some ways I would argue that my mother (who is an atheist in all but self-designation, but continues to attend church for reasons I fail to understand) is not completely assimilated. Certainly as a child I heard certain things which were not within the U.S. moral norm (e.g., if you got a divorce, you were a bad person) along with various comments on the weird practices of Protestants (such as holding hands during prayer, or talking in church). One of my coworkers (the same age as my mother, born in 1950) said due to his father he presumed “goddamn Presbyterian” was one word up until he was 8 or so. None of this is really that surprising though, considering the religion of John F. Kennedy was still seen as a potential liability in 1960.

    Interestingly, while both sides of my family were Catholic, the observed practice of Catholicism was very different. My mother’s family was ancestrally entirely Catholic except for one Swedish great-grandfather and included a lot of the practices which are normal for Catholics but more heterodox when it comes to U.S. religious norms (prayers to patron saints, dozens of rosaries per day, etc). In contrast, only one of my father’s four grandparents were Catholic, but his maternal grandfather and father both converted because they basically didn’t care one way or another. Their religious practice seemed much more “low church Protestant” even if they attended Catholic schools.

  2. i think differences btwn protestant and catholic germans might illustrate importance of religion. but there is the issue that missouri synod lutherans are very distinctively german because they left german specifically to avoid merge with reformed churches in prussia. in contrast, evangelical lutheran germans probably assimilate into a mainline protestant identity really quickly.

    one notable aspect about american catholicism is that german catholics were very anti-assimilationist re: language, to the consternation of the irish hierarchy, who wanted to have everyone speaking english.

    the collapse of european american catholicism in the current generation is i think evidence that the ‘mainstreaming’ is finally near its end stages.

  3. but continues to attend church for reasons I fail to understand

    It’s not that hard to understand. I am exactly the same age as your mother and I have, off and on over the years, considered returning to my “home” in an evangelical Baptist church and faking it. It’s that you treasure and want everything that comes with the church except the God part.

  4. It’s not that hard to understand. I am exactly the same age as your mother and I have, off and on over the years, considered returning to my “home” in an evangelical Baptist church and faking it. It’s that you treasure and want everything that comes with the church except the God part.

    It’s hard for me to understand, and I was raised in the church – forced to attend mass weekly up through age 17 or so. Even when I was younger and nominally a believer, church just seemed like a massive bore to me and a waste of an hour of Sunday. Since we were Catholic, a family of introverts, and lived in New England we didn’t socialize in church either – we just shuffled in, listened to the mass, took communion, and shuffled back home.

    The neighborhood I live in now is heavily Italian, and there is a local Catholic church which is well-utilized and appears to have a very healthy social community. In a vague sort of way I envy that sense of belonging, but I’m pretty certain at this point in my life I’d just feel slightly alienated and out of place wherever I went.

  5. “And in this cultural revolution Catholics were shocked to find that their Jewish allies made common cause with mainline Protestants and post-Protestants.”

    This only partly true. It is true for those Jews who do not put much stock in religion, and whose ties to Judaism may be more cultural than religious. It is not true for the Orthodox and more religious Jews who have a greater affinity for conservative Protestants.

    Some Jews, maybe even a majority, are more like their mainline protestant neighbors. They are mostly secular and only loosely attached to religion. A substantial minority, OTOH, are not like that.

    Secular liberal Americans are adept at finding wedge issues to drive foreigners away. They used abortion to drive Catholics out of the liberal tent. They have developed a soft spot for Muslims and begun to be anti-Israeli. They may use those attitudes to drive away Jews.

  6. It is not true for the Orthodox and more religious Jews who have a greater affinity for conservative Protestants.

    totally irrelevant for the period i’m talking about.

    1) demographically orthodox (modern) judaism more marginal after ww2

    2) conservative protestant philosemitism has really grown in the past few generations. not as obvious back then

  7. the Know Nothing movement turned into a political party.

    I was going to respond to Mr. Zimmerman by citing this on the other thread, but you pre-empted me! By the way, one notable leader of this nativist movement was actually a Jew, born to immigrants – Lewis Charles Levin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Charles_Levin

    He was well-known especially for his vehement public anti-Catholicism, but apparently was quite friendly with his Catholic neighbors.

    Because I homeschool my children with a Catholic curriculum (approved by reputedly the most conservative and theologically orthodox diocese in the U.S.), we do a lot of Catholic American history, the ideological gist of which is frequently about how the Protestants dispossessed, disenfranchised, and oppressed the Catholics, but the latter persevered, won over the Protestants, and became loyal Americans anyway. This, of course, is analogous to the Japanese-American mythology (suffering at Manzanar to the patriotism and heroism of the 442nd RCT).

    For example, one of my little ones read this past semester about Archbishop John Carroll: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Carroll_(bishop)

    Missing in the Wikipedia blurb is a whole lot of stories about how Virginia protestant cavaliers oppressed the Maryland Catholics in his time, but he rose above it with holiness and won the Protestants over.

    Some of my middle ones and I also read about “Dagger John,” AKA Archbishop John Hughes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hughes_(archbishop_of_New_York)

    Even the Wikipedia’s brief entry touches on the gamut of subjects we covered in the recent threads: Irish immigrants, the King James Bible, public funding of schools, public schools vs. parochial schools, riots, counter-riots, Catholics eventually assimilating into the “WASP-ness,” if you will, on the terms of the majority (to paraphrase you), etc.

  8. I’ve noticed over the course of my life a steady convergence between the rump population of observant white Catholics and conservative Protestants. The consistent Catholic “culture of life” seems to have fallen to the wayside among the lay population, as has Catholic social teaching, and the primacy of abortion and to a lesser extent same-sex marriage as the only relevant political issues has risen. American conservative Protestantism has in turn been influenced in more recent years by Catholicism, with a seeming greater skepticism of birth control.

    I believe you’ve mentioned in the past the same dynamic happened regarding the “mainstreaming” of Mormonism to Protestant norms. I can’t find the citation now, but IIRC polls of young Mormon adults found that they heavily supported evolution in the 1970s. Now, they are heavily creationist.

  9. Political scientists and pundits always cite the election of JFK as a milestone in the wider populace’s acceptance of Catholics. I have the idea that Obama will not receive the same milestone status with regard to white/black relations in America.

  10. interesting analogy, as jfk and obama exhibit similarities. jfk was basically only culturally/historically catholic. similarly, obama *became* a black american culturally, though is background is pretty atypical.

  11. I recently watched the 1961 film West Side Story. The film is about a conflict between two rival street gangs, one of Puerto Rican immigrants and one of working class whites (a Romeo and Juliet story). I found it interesting that included in the “white” gang is an Irish, an Italian, and a Polish kid (who the Puerto Rican leader refers to multiple times derisively as a “Polack”). It was interesting to hear these “whites” tell the Puerto Ricans to “go back where they came from”, something I imagine their grandparents or possibly even their parents might have had thrown at them growing up.

  12. “I recently watched the 1961 film West Side Story. . . . I found it interesting that included in the “white” gang is an Irish, an Italian, and a Polish kid (who the Puerto Rican leader refers to multiple times derisively as a “Polack”).”

    I don’t know that I ever noticed before that everyone on both sides of the conflict in West Side Story (like the original Romeo and Juliet) was Roman Catholic (in a musical which, of course, was written by a Jewish man).

  13. in a musical which, of course, was written by a Jewish man

    Two Jewish men, to be precise. But, to be fair, in NYC in the 50’s, working class pretty much meant Catholic.

  14. re: language, to the consternation of the irish hierarchy, who wanted to have everyone speaking english.

    Not really surprising given that the revitalised hierarchy in Ireland in the 19th century were one of the agents of angliscation, this reflected the fact that post 1795 (re-establishment of British approved Clerical training at Maynooth in Ireland) they were drawn nearly exclusively from the growing English speaking Catholic Merchant/Middle-Classes, who regard the speaking of Irish language as (a) vulgar (b) sign of poverty.

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