American Anti-Catholicism in the 1920s

By Zhaoyang Liu

“The American River Ganges,” by Thomas Nast. Published in Harper’s Weekly on September 30, 1871, the caricature depicts Roman Catholic clergy as crocodiles attacking American children and schools. Source — Wikimedia Commons

Religious tolerance is oftentimes viewed as being a fundamental American value, inseparable from the country itself. Throughout U.S. history, religion and migration have often been linked. Religious diversity in the U.S. is often associated with migrants bringing new cultures and religious traditions along with them. It is a story as old as the Pilgrims’ settlement at Plymouth in 1620. Unfortunately, there is another side to the story. Skepticism directed toward the religious practices of newcomers dates back to the early colonies. Jews were discouraged from settling in New Amsterdam, Quakers were driven out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Anti-Catholic attitudes in North America have existed since the first European settlements.  

While the Puritans and Pilgrims fled Europe for religious freedom, it did not mean they were free of religious prejudice themselves. Puritans held a strong disdain for Catholics and the Pope. After the establishment of the United States, some of the founding fathers held concerns about Catholicism and its potential influence over the nascent country. They opposed the idea of Catholics holding political office, fearing that Catholics would be loyal to the Pope instead of their government.

In general, anti-Catholic attitudes began to wane in the aftermath of the American Revolution. However, anti-Catholicism found a new home in the nativist movement of the 19th century, spurred on by the arrival of German and Irish Catholic immigrants. This led to occurrences such the burning of Catholic churches during the Philadelphia riots of 1844. In the early 20th century, during the height of their influence, the Ku Klux Klan added anti-Catholicism to their message of white supremacy.

Depiction of the destruction of the St. Augustine Church in the 1844 Philadelphia Nativist riots, from “A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia,” by John B. Perry. Source — Wikimedia Commons

Below are three images that can be used to teach the history of anti-Catholic prejudice in the U.S.

Illustration titled “Hands Off,” by Reverend Branford Clarke. Published in “Heroes of the Fiery Cross,” by Bishop Alma White, 1928. Source — Wikimedia Commons

By Reverend Branford Clarke, from “Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty,” 1926. Source — Wikimedia Commons

By Bishop Alma White, published in “The Ku Klux Klan In Prophecy,” 1925. Source — Wikimedia Commons

Some scholars point to World War II as a turning point in public anti-Catholic attitudes. During the war, Catholic, Protestant and even some Jewish soldiers fought alongside each other. Others emphasize the election of President John F. Kennedy, who was the first Catholic to hold the esteemed office. Despite Kennedy’s popularity, anti-Catholic sentiment at the time led many to be concerned that his loyal would be to the Pope instead of the United States.

Nearing the time of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States in 2015, The Guardian published an article explaining the history of anti-Catholicism in the country. The following excerpt shows a historian’s opinion on the matter:

“‘When you look back at the true, hidden history of the United States this strand of anti-Catholicism is very powerful,’ said Kenneth Davis, a prominent historian and commentator. ‘We want to show this patriotic view that we were this melting pot of religious freedom. Nonsense. People wanted their own religious freedom, not freedom for others. There was a very, very deep hatred of Catholics.’”

The full article can be found at the link below:

Reflection Questions:

1. Why is Rome represented as a hand in the “Hands Off” cartoon? Based on the image, what did the Ku Klux Klan view as a solution to their concerns about the Catholic church?

2. How is “The Subtle Conspirator” similar to ‘The American River Ganges”? What common fears do both cartoons exhibit? What do the depictions of the Catholic church in these images reveal about anti-Catholic sentiments?

3. In “This Tree Must Come Down,” how do the animals on the tree reflect the Ku Klux Klan’s views on the Catholic church? Why did Bishop Alma White chose to represent Rome as a tree?