Anti-Catholic views have a long history in America. With the recent nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, they are back in the public eye.

Anti-Catholic cartoon,1899
Anti-Catholic cartoon,1899.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Hatred against Catholicism has a long history in the United States. It goes all the way back to before America was even independent. Shadows of it have also been seen in many of the attacks on the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nominated replacement, Amy Coney Barrett. These shadows are most relevant in attacks on her faith and accusations that she’ll push said faith on others.

Early sentiment

The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things; an anti-Irish cartoon by Thomas Nast, 1871
“The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things”; an anti-Irish cartoon by Thomas Nast, 1871.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Fears of Catholicism go back to before the United States was even a country. It stems from the British traditions we Americans use as our philosophical bearings. For instance, John Locke, the philosopher from who the Founders borrowed many ideas from, gave two exceptions to his calls for religious freedom. One of which was Catholicism because of perceived higher loyalty to the king. Catholics were seen as untrustworthy and potentially seditious.

In America, anti-Irish sentiment began to come into prominence with Irish immigration in the mid to late 1800s. In the late 1840s, many Irish flocked to American cities to escape the Irish Potato Famine. This sentiment was largely due to the fact that the Irish were predominantly Catholic.

The American Party, usually called the Know-Nothings, gained many followers in the 1850s through its explicit hatred of Catholics. The Know-Nothings saw conspiracies from immigrant Catholics at every turn. Much of this fear was related to the hierarchical nature of the Church. In a theme that will soon become apparent, there were many fears about Roman influence over American democracy. In other words, they were seen as unreliable and potentially treasonous.

The 1920s

Hands off! By Rev. Bradford Clarke, an anti-Catholic cartoon, 1928.
“Hands off!” By Rev. Bradford Clarke, an anti-Catholic cartoon, 1928.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Ku Klux Klan had been largely destroyed during the Grant Administration of the late 1860s and early 1870s. However, in the 1920s, it grew to prominence again. This was done by expanding their hatred from just blacks to religious minorities such as Catholics as well.

The KKK portrayed Catholics as wanting to instill a king in the United States. They also believed they were instigators of tyranny and rebellion. The KKK portrayed itself as defenders of white Protestantism. In doing so, they warped the fundamental principles of American democracy to argue against freedom of religion.

The KKK’s rebirth was not the only sign of the anti-Catholicism of 1920s America. The 1928 election was also a clear sign of rampant bigotry towards Catholicism. This was because Al Smith, the Democratic nominee, was the first Catholic nominee of a major party. His faith made him seem like an outsider to the majority Protestant nation of the time. As Michael Rooney argues, his opposition to Prohibition did not help his image of being un-American.

1928 electoral map.
1928 electoral map.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Ultimately, Smith would be beaten badly on Election Day. He would only receive a total of 87 electoral votes to the Republican Herbert Hoover’s 444. He lost the popular vote as well 57% to 41%. In fact, Smith could not even keep together the Solid South. This is referring to the Old Confederate States which were strongly Democratic between the Civil War and the 1960s. He even lost the state he was governor of, New York.

Importance of Church and State Fears

John F. Kennedy's inauguration, Jan. 20, 1961.
John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, Jan. 20, 1961.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Fears of the toppling of the separation of church and state have long been at the forefront of anti-Catholic sentiment. This is best exemplified by attacks of “dual loyalty” in one variation or another. This is the idea, also used against Jewish Americans, that their allegiance is split. In the Catholic sense, it is the idea that they can’t be loyal to the Constitution since they also answer to their church.

This attack was one that the first Catholic president had to work very hard to shake. In the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy’s faith and loyalty were constantly under suspicion. This is the reason why he had to continuously talk about his commitment to the separation of church and state. If he didn’t, there likely would have been continued worries about whether he was being influenced by Rome.

The best example of JFK’s method of overcoming suspicion was from the 1960 Democratic primary in West Virginia. In this heavily Protestant state, the issue was front and center. In his defense, he appealed to constitutional values. These included the 1st amendment separation of church and state. They also included his appeals to the bans on religious tests in Article VI.

The 2020 Supreme Court Confirmation Fight

Inside the Supreme Court of the United States.
Inside the Supreme Court of the United States.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Recent events have brought questions of Catholic bigotry back to the fore. These revolve around the nomination by President Donald Trump of 7th Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Judge Barrett is very devout in a conservative version of Catholicism. As a result, her faith has been a major topic of conversation for some. This is the wrong thing to attack.

Most of the attacks have centered on whether she can separate her legal views from her religious ones. In doing this, some people have taken to using some of the old tropes I have laid out in detail here. There have not been many who have claimed that she is beholden to the Pope. However, they have accused her of trying to push her religion through the law.

Many have deliberately misinterpreted her words to push this narrative. For instance, she has been criticized for calling on her students to use their legal careers to build the Kingdom of God. This quote is from a 2006 Commencement Speech when she was a law professor at Notre Dame. They also have gone after her for a law review article she wrote in 1998 about Catholic recusal ethics on the death penalty. This last paper has been used to try to claim that she believes her faith should supersede the law.

Kingdom of God

Amy Coney Barrett at her 2017 confirmation hearing
Amy Coney Barrett at her 2017 confirmation hearing.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

I’ll start with her claims about the “Kingdom of God” as this is the one I’ve seen the most. The claim made is that she believes that it’s her duty to use the law to impose the Gospel on people. This is completely untrue. It is taking a quote wildly out of context to make it seem menacing.

In the context of this commencement, she is clearly speaking in a personal context, not a legal one. The speech is not calling for theocracy. Instead, she is telling her students to give their lives to Christ and to let Him guide their lives. She is reminding her students that serving God is the ultimate purpose of life. In fact, she says as much immediately after the quote that is being used dishonestly.

….That you will always keep in mind that your legal career is but a means to an end, and as Father Jenkins told you this morning, that end is building the kingdom of God. You know the same law, are charged with maintaining the same ethical standards, and will be entering the same kinds of legal jobs as your peers across the country. But if you can keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love, and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer.

Amy Barrett, 2006 Notre Dame Commencement Speech

The entire speech is about life lessons for young Catholic lawyers. She advises them to pray every day, to tithe, and to find friends who share their beliefs. This is common language across all Christian denominations, Catholic or Protestant. She is saying that her students should live their lives as an honor to God. It is not a sign of an aggressive religion-first jurisprudence. Instead, it is basic Christian theology about a person’s life.

Amy Barrett’s Claims about Death Penalty Recusal

The Supreme Court Building, Washington, DC.
The Supreme Court Building, Washington, DC.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Another claim is she doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state, due to a paper she wrote in 1998. This paper about the ethics behind how Catholics should balance the contradictions between their faith and the law. The claim being made is that she said Catholics should always recuse. This has been made out to look like she’s claiming an inability to separate faith and law. It is also being used to suggest that she is hypocritical to suggest recusal from the death penalty but not other issues like abortion. However, she and her co-writer’s point was exactly the opposite of that narrative.

In this article, she does mention that Catholics should recuse themselves if they can not affirm a death. This is done in the context of objective fairness. However, she mentions that the law comes before questions of personal conviction. If the two conflicts, the law should win. Recusal should come if objectivity can not be attained.

Her writing is a rebuttal to the very argument she is accused of endorsing. It is a resistance to the idea that Catholics should recuse in cases simply because they’re Catholics. The argument she’s making is that the law has to come first in the job of a judge. If that can’t be done than the judge must recuse.


Amy Coney’s Barrett’s nomination has lead to plenty of misinformation. Much of this has shadowed old stereotypes surrounding Catholic people in public office blending religion and judicial duty. Her writings and public comments have emphasized the same things Kennedy did in 1960. Judges must focus on the law and their oath first. Insinuating that the devout can’t do this hurts all of us.

History has not always been kind to Catholic Americans. They have continued to have to answer questions about their loyalty to America’s founding documents. In the current political climate, some have renewed these old attacks. This needs to stop. The focus should be on qualifications. Attacks on faith should be off limits.

Sources

  • Amy C. Barrett & John H. Garvey, Catholic Judges in Capital Cases, 81 Marq. L. Rev. 303 (1997-1998). Available at: https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/law_faculty_scholarship/527
  • Barrett, Amy Coney, “Associate Professor Amy Coney Barrett, Diploma Ceremony Address” (2006). Commencement Programs. Paper 13. http://scholarship.law.nd.edu/commencement_programs/13
  • Benoit, William L. “John F. Kennedy’s Image Repair on ‘The Catholic Issue’ in the 1960 West Virginia Presidential Primary.” American Communication Journal 21, no. 1 (2019).
  • MacLean, Nancy K. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. Oxford Univ. Press, 1995. https://books.google.com/books/about/Behind_the_Mask_of_Chivalry.html?id=xOamVVhPQ6UC.
  • Ritter, Luke. Inventing America’s First Immigration Crisis: Political Nativism in the Antebellum West. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2020. https://books.google.com/books/about/Inventing_America_s_First_Immigration_Cr.html?id=sy37DwAAQBAJ.
  • Rooney, Michael (2011) “Anti-Catholicism v. Al Smith: An Analysis of Anti-Catholicism in the 1928 Presidential Election,” Verbum: Vol. 9 : Iss. 1, Article 2.