This is a distinction often lost when discussion of America’s constitutional position on religious liberty takes place. The assumption by many is that the separation of Church and State was necessary to protect the state from the malign influence of religion. In reality it was to protect religious practice from interference by the state.
America was founded by religious minorities fleeing persecution in Europe. The dream of the early colonists was that people would be allowed practice their religion freely. Post-reformation, kings and queens sought out and tortured those who would not conform to the state religion. The solution then was to take religion away from the state entirely in order to protect it.
There was just one exception to these apparently libertarian ideals of the settlers – Catholicism. In almost all of the early colonies Catholicism was banned. Only Maryland for a time – the clue is in the name – was a safe haven for Catholics, but it too changed its statue book, creating penal type laws. Fortunately, the Quaker Sir William Penn founded Pennsylvania where any religion – including Catholicism could be practiced.
The outright bans were lifted in time, especially when the United States of America was formally founded, but the prejudice lived on. Paranoia about Catholicism returned in the 1800s during the massive influx of immigrants from Europe, which included so many Irish and Italians. There was a genuine belief that Catholics recognised the sovereignty of the Pope above the nation and could not be trusted. They were banned from many public offices unless they took special oaths. That faded for a while but the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s resulted in another peak.
Most people will associate the KKK with its campaign against the black population, but they were equally ill-disposed towards Catholics and Jews. They believed that Catholicism was ‘incompatible’ with democracy and they were particularly suspicious of Catholic schools that indoctrinated children to obey a different law than state law. There were many Catholics in the Deep South – remember the heroine of Gone with the Wind was an Irish Catholic. In one famous incident the KKK burned a cross outside a Catholic school built in a Protestant area. However, more significant was that a leader of the KKK, Hugo Black (how ironic the name) became a Supreme Court Justice and his anti-Catholic beliefs influenced key decisions the court made.
Little wonder then in 1928 that Al Smith’s candidacy for US President saw his Catholicism become a major election issue. Smith lost the election, but one interesting side-effect was that millions of Catholic voters – especially women – came out to support him. Despite the defeat, those voters stayed with the Democratic Party for generations. Furthermore, the solidarity Americans felt during World War II helped dampen both anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. But given this history, the popularity of St Patrick’s Day in the US is an astonishing cultural turn-around.
Nevertheless, there was still considerable prejudice at elite levels of government and thus was it necessary for JFK to make clear that his first loyalty was to the constitution and that he would be guided in his decisions by his conscience not the Pope.
In this the Irish people are no different. Last year, an MRBI poll showed that three quarters of us make decisions based on our conscience, not on the rules of the Church. Of course, there’s certainly an argument to be made – especially considering the state of the country – that our consciences are in need of development. But perhaps some work needs to be done on finding out why the rules are so widely disregarded.