"Our great enemy is Roman Catholicism," wrote David Gregg, pastor of Boston's Park Street Church, in 1888. "This is a system thoroughly organized, and if we are to take it at its own word, it is root and branch, in toto, anti-American."
"The jihad is coming quietly to America by the intentional building of Muslim populations in small to medium American cities," blogger Pamela Geller wrote in 2007. "Islam is a political ideology and it is incompatible with democracy," she wrote in 2008.
Has Islam replaced Catholicism in American religious politics?
According to Jonathan Den Hartog, assistant professor of history at Northwestern College in Minnesota, the way many Christians react as American Muslims increase in numbers and prominence has a lot in common with the way many Protestants responded to early America's growing Catholic population.
"There was a long tradition of seeing Catholics as controlled by Rome, or controlled by their local parish priests, or manipulated by Jesuit agents," Den Hartog told CT. "Also, Americans remembered the persecution that Catholics had inflicted, whether under 'Bloody Mary' in England or in the French Wars of Religion or in the exile of the Huguenots."
A scholar of American religious history, Den Hartog is expanding his dissertation, Patriotism and Piety, into a book exploring religion in the Federalist Party.
What sort of rhetoric did one hear about Catholics in those days?
The biggest concern that lot of people have in that period is whether [Catholics] can actually be proper citizens of the United States in a democratic republic. They often [say] they're in bondage to a foreign power, by which they mean the Pope. So because these individuals are religiously bound to another entity they can't be free citizens of the United States.
How did that translate into political and social action?
In the 1830s, there was a riot outside of a convent in Boston. Boston is a very interesting case study, because it was originally founded by Puritans and it really maintained a very Protestant character for a long time. As Irish-Catholic immigrants started coming in, there was a great concern over what this meant for the city, what it meant for the state of Massachusetts, and what it meant for the nation. There were also riots in Philadelphia and New York City against Catholic immigrants.
Politically, I've talked about two different moments when there was strong resistance to Catholic immigrants. One occurred at the American founding. In certain states you see moves to exclude or limit the political rights of Catholics. One good example of this would be John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But in 1776, in the state of New York, he pushed for a bill that would have required every citizen to renounce any connection to any foreign power. And the idea would be to exclude Catholic voter participation. It's worth noting that did not succeed.
Later you see the American Party. In most histories they're referred to as the Know Nothing Party. The Know Nothings were decidedly Protestant, decidedly of native stock, somewhat secretive. Hence their name—if asked if they were a member of this party they would say they knew nothing about it. But they are decidedly anti-immigrant. They want to limit immigration and they're very suspicious of Catholic involvement in the nation. The Know Nothing Party was able to elect a number of state legislators and a few national legislators. But then in the 1850s they collapsed as a party. Some of the Know Nothings fed into the Republican Party, but the Republicans as a whole were actually fairly open to immigration. They didn't make any ethnic claims.