When America feared and reviled Catholics
The mind-set is all too familiar: A radical religious group, lurking inside the country, owing loyalty to a foreign power, threatens America. No one denies that its members have a right to worship as they please, but good Americans, patriots, feel compelled to call for curbs against the menace they present. Because of the number of Americans sharing these fears, calls for restrictions on the religion are voiced openly and unapologetically, even proudly.
Today this description may bring to mind the flap over the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York, or recent calls for greater restrictions on Muslims in America, like banning their service on the Supreme Court or in the Oval Office. But in fact, it describes the year 1920, when the reviled group was Roman Catholics, not Muslims. As Mark Twain once quipped, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
In the early 1900s, many Americans were genuinely frightened by the perceived religious threat of the Roman Catholic Church and the suspected imperialistic intentions of its leader, the pope. He was plotting the overthrow of the United States, warned the fearful, to “make America Catholic.” His foot soldiers, tens of thousands of Catholic men who called themselves the Knights of Columbus, were busily stockpiling arms and ammunition in the basements of their churches, all in preparation for the day when their papist leader would give the signal for the violent insurrection to begin.
The holders of such beliefs were not just some fringe crazies safely outnumbered by their clear-eyed, religiously tolerant neighbors. To the contrary, widely popular, openly anti-Catholic literature spilled from newsstands across the country, newspapers like Sen. Tom Watson’s Jeffersonian out of Atlanta and the Menace of Aurora, Mo., whose subscriptions dwarfed those of the largest newspapers in New York City and Chicago combined. Elections were won on promises to oust Catholics from positions of public trust. Only “true Americans” should hold such positions, went the warning, not Catholics who were loyal first to their religious leader in Rome.
A number of state legislatures were persuaded to take steps against the perceived threat as well, mirroring the anti-Catholic fear in their “convent inspection laws.” These laws, little remembered today, authorized the warrantless searches of Catholic buildings — convents, monasteries, rectories and churches — for weaponry and for young women supposedly seduced into the nunnery by Catholic lies.
Religious fear on this scale had fatal consequences. Eighty-nine years ago in Birmingham, Ala., in the midst of this simmering anti-Catholic atmosphere, Father James E. Coyle was brutally slain. Coyle, a native of Ireland, had been sent to the United States to begin his priesthood. When he dared to stand up in defense of his faith, federal agents warned the bishop in Mobile about death threats on Coyle’s life and pledges to torch his Birmingham church.
Such threats were not idle. During this same period, the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan exploded after it rebranded itself a “patriotic” fraternal organization dedicated to safeguarding America against the threat of Catholics, Jews and the immigrants flooding the country in unprecedented numbers. This new Klan attracted some of “the best men in town” — doctors, lawyers, judges, law enforcement officers, even clergymen.
On Aug. 11, 1921, one of those men — a Methodist minister, the Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson — brought a loaded gun to the porch of Coyle’s home and shot him dead in front of a street full of witnesses. About an hour earlier, the priest had committed the apparently unforgivable act of marrying Stephenson’s 18-year-old daughter to a practicing Catholic wallpaper hanger of Puerto Rican descent.
The KKK quickly circled its wagons around its initiate, raising funds for Stephenson’s defense and hiring his lead attorney, a young future Supreme Court justice, Hugo Black. Black, it was hoped, might persuade a Southern jury to see Stephenson as the community’s champion rather than a bigoted killer. Articles published in the Menace throughout the trial pounded the same theme, pitting one of the most potent worries of the day against justice itself. You can guess the outcome.
Stephenson walked out of the courthouse a free man, and he never so much as apologized. Black joined the Klan himself 18 months later and, with its support, was elected to the U.S. Senate. Only years later did he calmly state that he did not share the Klan’s beliefs and was no longer a member, after a reporter revealed his membership as he prepared to take his seat on the Supreme Court. Black survived the ensuing scandal.
At the time, these men did not consider themselves religious bigots. They believed themselves patriots, upright fathers and sons, husbands and brothers protecting their families, and the nation, against a foreign threat they feared was intent on their destruction.
The anti-Catholic fever of the 1920s was not a regional story; it was an American story, extending north, east and west, casting Catholics as second-class citizens for decades. It didn’t truly end for another 40 years, when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy felt compelled to say directly that his allegiance was to the United States, not the pope. Today, the worst of the anti-Catholic fervor might simply be an embarrassment, were the consequences less dire and were there not so many signs that we haven’t learned from our mistakes.
Sharon Davies is a professor at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the author of “Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America.”