Democrats Are the New Know-Nothings

With the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, Catholics should buckle their chinstraps for the torrential cascade of anti-Catholicism that will be belched up by her opponents. The vituperative attacks on Catholics will probably rival the Know-Nothing riots that rocked the nation in the 1840s and 1850s. But this time, there will be a role reversal: 19th-century Catholics were largely Democrats, whereas this time the attacks will be launched largely by Democrats.

Even before Justice Barrett was nominated, Politico kicked things off with a hit piece by liberal theologian Massimo Faggioli. Professor Faggioli had incorrectly written that all the “most important rules” of charismatic Christian groups were “unwritten” and “passed down orally.” To keep the paranoia going, Professor Faggioli also added that members of Opus Dei take a “vow of obedience.” Mr. Faggioli’s implicit point was that all these secret oaths make these Catholics disloyal citizens. Politico was forced to add this correction: “This story has been updated to reflect the fact that charismatic communities’ vows are not necessarily secret, and to clarify that Opus Dei members do not take formal vows.” Despite the errors, the Faggioli thesis will serve as the basis for the coming attacks. Justice Barrett, it will be said, is not simply a Catholic, but a kooky Catholic who belongs to a “secret” cult, and her loyalty to the cult will make her a suspect justice.

The United States has a long history of anti-Catholicism. Some of the Puritans who settled New England viewed the pope as the “Whore of Babylon.” During the 19th century, many states passed so-called Blaine amendments preventing any support, even secular support, for Catholic schools; it was not until June of this year that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned these laws. The Ku Klux Klan, of course, was rabidly anti-Catholic, and the 1928 Democratic presidential nominee, Al Smith, was probably defeated due to anti-Catholic prejudice. The Temperance Movement, launched in large measure by Protestant preachers, had an anti-Catholic tinge to it. Even as late as 1960, anti-Catholic prejudice was so common that presidential candidate John F. Kennedy had to declare that the “Church does not speak for me.”

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After Kennedy’s election, anti-Catholic prejudice ebbed. Many Catholics rose out of the squalid urban ghettos and, no longer first-generation immigrants, emerged into the middle class. Catholics were welcomed into country clubs, elite universities, and in C-suites.

Anti-Catholicism had gone dormant—not away. The Democratic Party, once the party of Irish Catholic cops and firemen, underwent a transformation starting in the 1960s. It became a highly secular and progressive party. By 2016, the Democratic Party had emerged as the party of progressive coastal elites and tech billionaires and the party of an increasingly unsavory Hollywood. Their legacy as the party of working and middle class Catholics had evaporated, and they adopted a social agenda at great variance with Catholic principles.

In recent years, these secular progressives have tipped their anti-Catholic hand numerous times. There was Senator Feinstein’s famous quip to Mrs. Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly in you,” as if Catholic doctrine is more problematic than the leftist secular dogmas that brought us the pogroms of the 20th century. Then there was the attack by Kamala Harris and Mazie Hirono on judicial nominee Brian Buescher because of his membership in the Knights of Columbus. And there is the continuing persecution of the Little Sisters of the Poor who have been dragged into court again by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. All these attacks were launched by progressive, liberal Democrats.

What seems clear is that, as the Democratic Party has become more progressive, it has become more anti-Catholic. (There are some exceptions. Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a supporter of Bernie Sanders, pushed back hard against the attacks on the Knights.) The link between progressivism and anti-Catholicism is more than 100 years old. Here is how one historian characterized the anti-Catholicism of the Progressive Era from 1910 to 1919: “anti-Catholic writers, cartoonists, editors and publishers attacked Catholics as disloyal, backward-thinking sinister conspirators whose subservience to clerical hierarchy threatened basic American liberties and democratic virtues.” Many contemporary progressives embrace this tradition and view Catholics’ defense of life as a sure indicator of their backwardness and their threat to “basic American liberties.”

The most laughable aspect of these attacks is the assumption that charismatic Catholics are some kind of threat to the public order. Ideologies of the left, such as communism, have probably killed 100 million people over the last century, yet many American politicians and activists who share Marxist philosophical principles are never questioned about them. And now leftist ideological movements, such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter, are rioting and burning American cities, yet it is Judge Barrett’s charismatic Catholicism that is the great danger. I may not have noticed, but I do not recall any rioting, looting, or police assassinations by charismatic Catholics.

Catholics should stay alert. Violence is now clearly an acceptable tactic of the progressive left. It is not alarmist to suggest that Catholic churches and clergy may be targeted during what will most likely be a despicable confirmation fight.

[Photo credit: Manuel Balce Cenata/AFP via Getty Images]


  • William S. Smith

    William S. Smith is Senior Research Fellow and Managing Director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. He is the author, most recently, of Democracy and Imperialism (University of Michigan Press, 2019).

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