Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Religious enthusiasms and tensions: with us from the beginning

Some of the most interesting material in David Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought concerns religious developments in the new U.S. republic. The period the volume covers -- 1815-1848 -- saw the outburst of millennial religious fervor known as the Second Great Awakening. This evangelical movement probably did more than conscious political agitation to make the new democracy ever more inclusive for more of its residents.

American religion flourished in a society with a thinly developed institutional structure, enlisting the energies of the people themselves. The most important social consequences of the Awakening in America derived from its trust in the capacities of ordinary people. In the early American republic, the most significant challenge to the traditional assumption that the worth of human beings depended on their race, class, and gender came from the scriptural teachings that all are equal in the sight of God and all are one in Christ.

Different revivals appealed to different constituencies, but taken together, the Second Great Awakening was remarkable for embracing (in the words of the Book of Common Prayer) "all sorts and conditions of men." Including women, the poor, and African Americans among the exhorters and exhorted, the revivals expanded the number of people experiencing an autonomous sense of self. They taught self-respect and demanded that individuals function as moral agents. In this way the Awakening empowered multitudes. ...

This was not an era of big government -- in fact, on the expanding frontiers, it was scarcely an era of government at all. The various evangelical sects cooperated to provide a thin tissue of social structure in shapeless circumstances.

The list of evangelical benevolent associations is long and bewilderingly varied. …Contemporaries called the interlocking, interdenominational directorates of these organizations "the Evangelical United Front" or "the Benevolent Empire." It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the United Front aspired to transcend America's sectarian diversity and create the functional equivalent of an established church. Its advocates declared that bringing souls to Christ and ushering in His Kingdom took precedence over the theological differences dividing the various Protestant sects. They therefore embraced interdenominational ("ecumenical") cooperation in the service of a general "reformation of manners" both personal and institutional. Of course, their conception of cooperation did not include "unevangelical" denominations, like Catholics and Unitarians.

The United Front had religious competitors and the history of its tensions with other sects had a lot to do with how "separation of church and state" developed in this country. Roman Catholicism gained adherents broadly during this period and also sometimes found its international hierarchical structure in tension with U.S. democracy. The growth of Catholic numbers depended very much on proselytizing in these years, something I had not understood before reading Howe's account. The Roman faith was not brought whole cloth by immigrants from Catholic countries.

Thanks to the energetic devotion of the religious orders and the ecclesiastical statesmanship of Hughes and other bishops, the church kept pace with Catholic (or more accurately, potentially Catholic) immigration. Most immigrants during this period came from the British Isles and the German-speaking lands, with only a minority of them Catholic by heritage. Even in the case of Ireland, before 1840 a majority of migrants were Protestant -- either Scots-Irish Presbyterians or Anglo-Irish Anglicans. Still, a quarter of a million prospective recruits for the Catholic Church arrived in the United States during the 1830s and three times that number in the 1840s. Largely because of its success in ministering to this migrant constituency, the American Catholic Church grew (according to the best estimate) by 1850 to a million members, about the same as the Presbyterians. By comparison, the Methodists then counted 2.7 million and the Baptists 1.6 million. …

The success of Roman Catholicism in spreading among immigrants to the United States reflected the way it met the needs of the immigrant themselves. It did so despite, rather than because of, the nineteenth century papacy's lack of sympathy for the American political experiment. History gets made from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Belonging to the church helped immigrants adjust to a new and unfamiliar environment while affirming the dignity of their own ancestral group and preserving an aspect of its heritage. …

The U.S. Catholic church experimented with structural innovations suited well to the new country, though revolutionary in the eyes of Rome and of some U.S. Catholics.

[John Carroll was] Bishop of Baltimore and the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States … A native-born American and cousin to Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence, he had been elected bishop by his clerical colleagues in 1789, the same year his friend George Washington was elected the first president. Rome (preoccupied with more momentous events closer to home) went along with the strange procedure. Bishop Carroll undertook to demonstrate to a skeptical public that his church could reconcile itself to republicanism.... Staunchly patriotic and Federalist, Bishop Carroll made it clear that American Catholics embraced freedom of religion, which he grounded in natural law. … In 1820, the pope appointed as Bishop of Charleston an Irishman named (ironically) John England. Bishop England earned the effort to Americanize the Catholic Church still further, creating a written constitution for his diocese that included participation by elected delegates, clerical and lay, in an annual convention. This experiment in representative government did not outlive the bishop who created it. But reciprocating such overtures, the houses of Congress invited Bishop England to address them in 1826 and in 1832 chose a Roman Catholic priest as their chaplain.

… The extent to which the church should adapt to the American situation became a controversial issue among Catholics. In many areas the laity had taken the initiative in forming, a parish and requesting, a priest. In the meantime, laymen led public services (not the mass, of course). Sometimes they expected to be able to choose their priest. Furthermore, the laws of many states, reflecting Protestant assumptions, mandated that parish church property be held in the name of lay trustees, not by the clergy. Bishop England tolerated this system up to a point, but the other bishops did not …

The great issue of the day, the issue around which religious and moral authorities sorted themselves, was whether slavery should continue to be allowed and spread across the land. Protestant denominations split geographically -- north and south -- over this moral issue. Roman Catholicism was not a progressive force on this divisive issue.

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States adopted a position not far removed from that of southern evangelical Protestants -- if anything, more conservative. In 1839 the otherwise arch-conservative Pope Gregory XVI forbade Catholics to participate in the Atlantic slave trade (by then largely in the hands of the Spanish and Portuguese) but did not condemn slavery itself. Scripture and natural law (going back to Aristotle) sanctioned the institution so long as masters permitted slaves to marry and receive religious instruction. Even when masters did not live up to their obligations,the church taught it preferable to suffer the wrong than to risk social turmoil, perhaps even race war, by immediate emancipation. Abolitionist rhetoric invoked principles derived from Protestantism and the Enlightenment, and emphasized the urgency of the slavery problem; it conveyed little appeal to antebellum American Catholics. Their religion honored the spiritual discipline of patient suffering and submission more than Protestantism did, and valued individual autonomy less. Sometimes individuals had to sacrifice for the sake of public order or community welfare, even to the point of accepting enslavement. In Europe, the Roman Catholic Church generally set its face against liberalism, modernism, and republicanism. It had not embraced the Enlightenment as Anglophone Protestantism had.

…Socioeconomic factors underscored the alienation of Catholics from antislavery. Most American Catholics were also immigrants and poor. They despised what they saw as the hypocrisy of those abolitionists who deplored the plight of distant slaves while ignoring that of the hungry newcomers on their doorstep. Sadly but understandably, poor Catholic immigrants, especially the Irish, treasured the whiteness of their skin as their one badge of privilege over the free Negroes who competed with them for jobs as laborers. Abolitionists, especially black abolitionists, deeply resented the attitude of Irish Americans and their church, contrasting it with the sympathy American antislavery received in Ireland itself from nationalists like Daniel O'Connell. As a result, abolitionists sometimes allied with the cause of nativism. But not even Catholics argued that slavery was a "positive good" and the best way to organize a society. Those who wished to make that case generally found it necessary to invoke secular rather than religious ideologies to justify their position. ...

The strength of religious allegiance in the United States remains a wonder to much of the developed world to this day. Howe's complex and nuanced survey of religious currents before the Civil War elucidates much about where that element of our exceptionalism came from. And the tensions over the intersections of churches and state that he describes seem very contemporary indeed.

Other posts about What Hath God Wrought: Speed, communications and hope, Elections: Rousing the sluggish, Doubling down on whiteness, and Mitt and the historic Mormon paradox.


Classof65 said...

There must have been a time when newly-immigrated Irish in America bonded with slaves because I have seen old political cartoons making fun of the Irish and equating them with the poor, stupid Negroes. I am a fallen-away Irish Catholic and my extended family was quite ashamed of having anything to do with blacks when I was growing up.

Anonymous said...

The cartoons show an equivalency, an equality of based on the supposed inferiority of both groups;they don't show any alliance between the two groups. There is evidence of Irish overseers on plantations "bonding" and creating mixed race children but nothing like any large-scale feelings of sympathy even for a short time for most Irish.
The only Irish during the Civil Rights era who were openly pro-busing were the ones who's moved to the suburbs.

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