What Is Nativism?

Writing in the New York Daily News in late July 2015, Cardinal Timothy Dolan reflected on the history of nativism in the American culture.

Cardinal Dolan noted the persistence of anti-immigrant, anti-foreign, anti-Catholic “nativism” as a driving force in American political and social life. “[Nativism] flourished in our country during the 1840s and 1850s — actually becoming a popular political party, the Know-Nothings — and appeared again, in the 1870s as the American Protective Association; in the 1920s, as the KKK; and during post-World War II America as Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State,” he wrote (July 29, 2015).

This brought a quick response from Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the contemporary incarnation of Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State (POAU).

Accusing Cardinal Dolan of “telling lies,” Lynn stated that in its 68-year history POAU “never engaged in violent and hateful actions like the KKK. Our sole mission has always been to prevent religious groups from merging their dogma with the government and forcing all Americans to live under sectarian law.”

This is disingenuous at best, an Orwellian whitewash of history at worst. While POAU was never violent, it was most assuredly American nativist. It remains so in its current public posture as “Americans United.” It is rooted in anti-Catholic assumptions and has utilized anti-Catholicism in its rhetoric, philosophy and fundraising.

Anti-Catholic Roots

While nativism is a unique American phenomenon, its anti-Catholic roots were present in post-Reformation England. The Puritans arriving in the New World brought with them an anti-Catholicism that was fundamental to their beliefs and worldview. This anti-Catholicism would become normative thinking in Colonial America. Every colony except Rhode Island had legislation that in varying degrees banned Catholics from public life. In Massachusetts, Catholic clergy found in the colony faced execution.

As matters heated up between the colonies and England, anti-Catholic rhetoric and sentiment were utilized at every opportunity by both sides. Tories claimed that the Revolution was in the hands of those who were secretly papists; colonists charged that England was setting up an alternative Catholic empire beyond the Appalachians to keep them in line.

In the early years after the Revolution, anti-Catholicism was fairly muted only because there were so few Catholics to target. Anti-immigration sentiment was similarly muted. Immigrants were seen as necessary in building up the new country, particularly as most were skilled, non-threatening laborers from England and Protestant Ireland.

This didn’t last. Irish immigration — Catholic Irish immigration — increased and American nativism came to the fore in 19th-century America as a result. Its basic tenet was that “native” America was under siege by foreign immigrants. These “foreign,” alien influences were undermining American culture, American rights and a unified, “native” American way of life.

From its inception, American nativism was staunchly, bitterly anti-Catholic. Anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic bigotry fed off each other. In 1834, Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, charged in a series of published letters that the Catholic monarchs of Europe under the pope’s direction were subsidizing Catholic immigration to America with the intent of undermining the United States.

At virtually the same time, Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” fame, argued in “A Plea for the West” (1835) that the growing Irish immigrant population was creating a Catholic school system to brainwash American children in “papist despotism.” It was all part of the Catholic conspiracy to take over America. The year prior, Beecher had preached a series of anti-Catholic sermons in Boston that led to a mob burning down an Ursuline convent.

“Conspiracy” was a key element of American nativism. It believed that there was a conscious conspiracy, a conscious foreign plot out there to destroy America. At the heart of this conspiracy was the Catholic Church. And its chief tools were immigrants and Catholic schools.

Catholic schools, they believed, were brainwashing generation after generation of Catholics to serve the political and social agenda of the Catholic hierarchy and the pope. They were also trying to undermine public schools when they sought public funding.

Catholic immigrants were the “muscle” of this conspiracy, providing a huge ignorant voting block that would follow the dictates of the hierarchy and overwhelm by sheer numbers the Protestant — native — Americans.

From the 1830s on, American nativism, as Cardinal Dolan pointed out, would be a constant in American life. From the Know-Nothings in the 1840s through “Americans United” today, American nativism aims to squeeze out Catholic schools and legally limit, as much as possible, Catholic impact or voice in public life.

Organizations Involved

Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State (POAU) was founded in 1947 with an anti-Catholic agenda rooted in more than a century of this American nativism. By its very name, it made clear that this was a “militant” Protestant organization aimed at the Catholic Church, a foreign tyranny as described by Glenn Archer, Barry Lynn’s predecessor.

It was this alleged “foreign” nature of Catholicism under the thumb of a “foreign” pope that was portrayed by POAU as anti-American, anti-democracy, anti-freedom.

At the time POAU was founded there was a fear in some mainstream Protestant circles that the Catholic Church was “winning America.” In a series of eight articles in Christian Century magazine toward the end of World War II, editor Harold Fey had argued that the Catholic Church was winning by “mobilizing powerful forces to move this nation toward a cultural unity in which the Roman Catholic Church will be dominant.”

The POAU exploited this fear in Protestant circles while combining it with a growing secularist perspective that the sheer weight of endless Catholic production of children would eventually establish foreign — Roman — control of America through the ballot box.

That was the argument made by Paul Blanshard in his book “American Freedom and Catholic Power” two years after POAU was founded. The Church’s goals, according to Blanshard, were to undermine American freedoms through a hierarchy that “controlled” the growing Catholic population.

This “Catholic power” would impose an authoritarian foreign religion and antiquated views on modern American society. It planned to destroy American liberties under the direction of the pope. The Catholic population would be the servile drones of this foreign conspiracy.

The POAU pitch from the start was that, in the words of Edwin Poteat Jr., a POAU founder and president, America faced a “clerical dictatorship” from Rome. He predicted a Vatican-engineered merger of Church and state in America because “a fundamental conflict exists between the ideals of democracy and the political ambitions of the Roman Catholic Church.”

The immediate threats, according to POAU in 1947, were Catholic schools that threatened to undermine public schools through state assistance, and that the government might establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

When the Reagan administration established diplomatic relations in 1984, POAU was vigorous and bitter in its opposition. It remains so today. It also has protested that the ambassadors appointed have been Catholic.

In its 1947 “Manifesto” POAU declared that the Catholic Church is “subversive of religious liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution,” that it pursues a policy designed to nullify the First Amendment to secure “a position of special privilege in relation to the State” and is determined “to deny or to curtail the religious liberty of all other churches, and to vitiate democracy.” The Manifesto complains of the “assaults,” the “aggressions,” the “encroachments” of the Catholic Church on American liberties.

All of which is classic American nativism. It is the position, as Cardinal Dolan pointed out, that created the Know-Nothing Party, motivated the American Protective Association, and defined the KKK in its attitude toward Catholics and Catholicism in the 1920s.

Catholic schools were a primary target of American nativists, who saw them as an indoctrinating force for succeeding generations of Catholics and the natural enemy of the public schools. This was the exact position taken by the revitalized Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s that fought to have Catholic schools declared illegal.

At various times POAU argued that American cardinals should be denied the right to vote because they take part in a foreign ballot (the election of pope) and that Jesuit priests also be forbidden voting rights as they are part of an “alien organization.”

The POAU would call for the appointment or election of non-Catholic judges only and would become directly involved in political campaigns to defeat any Catholic candidates. It helped to lead the forces that bitterly, and in the most bigoted language, opposed John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 solely because of his Catholic faith.

Americans United eventually dropped the “PO” as too blatantly anti-Catholic and expanded its activities to target conservative Protestant entities. But it remains today well within any definition of the American nativist tradition.

Despite its pleas to the contrary, Americans United is anti-Catholic in its rhetoric, activities and pettiness. It’s what keeps it in business. While it may not address immigrant issues, its foundation was and is grounded in American nativist principles of anti-Catholicism. It views all things Catholic as an attempt to impose a foreign, alien culture on America with the goal of undermining American rights.

And that is the very definition of American nativism as defined by the Ku Klux Klan.

Robert P. Lockwood has worked in the Catholic press and provided articles to many publications over a 40-year career. He is the author of the book “Anti-Catholicism in American Culture” (Our Sunday Visitor).

Neumann and Nativism
St. John Neumann knew Nativism doubly well — both as an immigrant and as a priest and bishop. Neumann’s life and ministry were presented with many challenges by anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic groups like the Know-Nothings.