Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that America is, at once, the most democratic country in the world and the one where Roman Catholicism would make the most progress. This is peculiar, because nearly everyone recognizes America as a “Protestant nation,” going all the way back to the Puritans of Plymouth Plantation. One need only look at our economics, laws, government, and even everyday customs and sensibilities to see the imprint of Protestant Christianity on American society.
Yet Tocqueville’s observations have been surprisingly prophetic. Back in 1776, Catholic numbers were negligible. But today, Catholics form the nation’s religious majority at nearly 25% of the population, and it seems that we see them everywhere in the news, media, and pop culture.
Moreover, through the years their contributions to the nation have been undeniably essential to America’s identity. It was Catholics, for example, who helped formulate the American ideal of religious freedom (in Maryland).
It was Catholics (Spanish colonists in Florida and the far West, and French colonists in Louisiana) who prepared the way for America’s dream of Manifest Destiny.
Catholics drove America’s industrialization through their immigration (Irish, Germans, Austrians, Poles, Italians, French Canadians) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it’s humble Catholic immigrants today who take a lot of the jobs no one else wants (Latin Americans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Indians).
Catholics filled the armies, started businesses, and got into government. Today, Catholics on every level are leading the way in protecting America’s traditional and most cherished rights — above all, the rights to life and religious liberty. In short, Catholics have become as much of Americans as their Protestant brethren.
July 4th is coming up, and as we celebrate the founding of our country and how far we as a nation have come, I thought it would be neat to do a little series on the history of Catholics in America — a tribute to their struggles, their dreams, their contributions, and their triumphs. Three posts to come as we anticipate the celebrations on the Fourth of July.
Part I. Colonizing a New World, Cultivating the Old Faith: from colonial times to post-Revolution – what you didn’t know about the role of Catholics in the new Protestant nation
Part II. Immigrant Infiltrators or Loyal Fighters and Workers?: from the 1840s to the 1960s – on the explosion of Catholic immigration, and America’s paranoid response to the “foreign, monarchist, and papist threat”
Part III. (Divided) Defenders of America’s Traditional Values: from JFK to today – how Catholics, divided but impossible to ignore, are increasingly finding themselves at the forefront of America’s most important issues.