By Thomas A. Tweed
Whose country is this? It’s ours. That’s been the recurring answer to that persistent question. Of course, in religiously and ethnically plural America that means many groups have claimed the nation as their own. As Reverend Josiah Strong did in his 1885 book Our Country, some have proposed that this is an Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation. But others have proclaimed primacy too. There was already a grid of tribal nations here when Europeans started planting flags and raising crosses. Catholics got here before Protestants, and Spaniards of Jewish heritage sailed with Catholics on the first ships to the hemisphere. Mormons, including those now running for president, can make their case too, since among sacred scriptures only the Book of Mormon claims to reveal America’s role in the cosmic drama of salvation. So whose nation is it? Or, to pose the question differently, in a country with the First Amendment’s prohibition against “establishing” any faith as the official one–but with a legal guarantee of “free exercise” and an unwritten agreement that religions can try to exert influence–how do religions assert their presence in American national life? And who’s won that competition?
Some recent developments might suggest Catholics have won. One event in the capital in October 2010 would have worried Reverend Strong: during the “Red Mass” (the annual Catholic rite for lawyers and politicians and attended by five Supreme Court justices that year) a Catholic Vice President, Joe Biden, shook hands with a Catholic Chief Justice, John Roberts Jr., during the ritualized greeting or “sign of peace.” For Protestants who agree with Strong, it gets worse: another Catholic, John Boehner, serves as Speaker of the House, and the highest court includes no Protestants, three Jews, and six Catholics. So was this always–or has it become–a Catholic nation?
Well, I’m not foolish enough to get in the middle of that fight. But I can tell you a bit about how the battle’s been waged and how Catholics have done. Better yet, let me rush ahead to the moral of the story. Here are America’s (spoken and unspoken) Rules of Religious Competition, guidelines that Catholics helped to set and, like other faiths, sometimes violated.
Fight it out in the capital. The religious can try to have influence in legislative chambers, media outlets, and federal courtrooms; but another site is crucial in a nation constrained by the First Amendment — the streets of Washington. Since Congress officially founded the District of Columbia in 1790, citizens have taken to the streets — in parades and demonstrations — to ritually claim civic space. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington; and many others inspired by religious principles have walked the streets to make their presence known or shape public policy, from the Million Man March to the March for Life. It’s the American way. Faiths also have asserted presence by erecting memorials and building churches in Washington. That’s the American way, too. Many monuments use religious language or appeal to the nation’s divine guardian. Further, the original plan for the District even called for a national church, and in 1893 Congress approved a National Cathedral that would be associated with a single Protestant group, Episcopalians.
Give 110%. If we had a nickel for every athlete who said that before a competition, we could balance the federal budget. But we know what those athletes mean: they’ll try hard. Similarly, the religious can work vigorously to gain ground in civic space, our rules suggest. And just because the field’s not level or you’re losing the competition doesn’t mean you give up. Catholics didn’t. They took to the streets in processions, demonstrations, and parades, as with the 1924 Holy Name Society Parade, when President Coolidge spoke to 100,000 Catholics. That same year an archbishop dedicated the Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial and a priest celebrated the first mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Catholicism’s counter to the Episcopalian National Cathedral across town. By the 1920s, as local journalists reported, D.C. had become the “spiritual capital.” With Catholic influence, that ritual and architectural competition in Washington became part of the American way of being religious.
Fight Fair. This religious battle isn’t a free for all. Some lines can’t be crossed–or can’t be crossed without someone crying foul. For example, in 1854 an anti-Catholic group stole the stone donated by Pope Pius IX and intended for the Washington Monument because they feared that Catholics “will burn our Bibles, bind our consciences, [and] make slaves of us.” More than a half-century later “a guerilla warfare of words” broke out because each Thanksgiving between 1909 and 1913 the standing U.S. president, first Taft and then Wilson, attended a mass at a Washington Catholic church and thereby seemed to endorse “the attempt to convert our national Thanksgiving holiday into a Roman Catholic festival.” Both incidents reveal religious intolerance, but there’s a hint about the American rules of public religion in those responses too. To place a Catholic stone in that civic monument would establish one faith, the protester’s logic went. Either include a stone from every faith or disallow all of them. The ritual controversy had a similar logic: you can’t link a national holiday like Thanksgiving with one denomination. It’s just not fair. So, in America, you can fight vigorously for the nation’s soul, but you can’t make your faith the official one or prevent other faiths from competing. Denominations can win a battle or two: Episcopalians preside at the worship space where presidents get memorialized; Catholics enjoy more than their share of Supreme Court justices and many of them, along with politicians, attend the Red Mass. But that just means, by America’s rules, other faiths need to try harder–and give 110%.
Thomas A. Tweed is Shive, Lindsay, and Gray Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. His most recent book is America’s Church: The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital.
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