Monthly Archives: September 2015

US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis wave during an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, September 23, 2015. More than 15,000 people packed the South Lawn for a full ceremonial welcome on Pope Francis' historic maiden visit to the United States. AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

OP-ED The Pope is Coming to Get Us

[Please note: this piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post, September 23, 2015]

Pope Francis has garnered praise from around the world, as well as in the U.S.

Pope Francis has garnered praise from around the world, as well as in the U.S.

When Pope Francis arrives in the United States this week, he will be greeted with an extraordinary outpouring of affection and adulation. It will come not merely from Catholics, but also from among Americans of all faith traditions and even non-believers. The sources of this favorable view of Pope Francis vary, from progressive Catholics hoping for change in the Church on issues like abortion and gay rights, to Americans thrilled to see the pontiff speak so powerfully on wealth inequality and threats to the environment. Francis’s popularity has earned him a visit to the White House and an opportunity to speak before a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City stood as the most vivid symbol of the Catholic arrival in the U.S.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City stood as the most vivid symbol of the Catholic arrival in the U.S.

But it was not that long ago that word of the impending arrival of a pope on the shores of the United States would have triggered bloody riots and a call to arms. Indeed, for most of this nation’s history Americans saw the Pope as a sinister and dangerous leader who was determined to destroy America’s experiment in republican government.

Anti-Catholicism has deep roots in American history. But its hey day was the mid-nineteenth century. What sparked this surge in anti-Catholic hostility was the arrival of several million Catholic immigrants from Europe (primarily Ireland, Germany, and later Italy). Its impact was dramatic and unnerving for Americans who considered the United States a Protestant country. In New York City, for example, the Catholic population boomed from just ten percent of the total in 1815 to fifty percent in 1865.

Why did Protestant Americans fear and despise Catholicism so intensely? Some opposition stemmed from differences in religious doctrine on matters like baptism and the Trinity. But most focused on broader social and political questions. First, opponents of Catholicism argued that Catholics could never become good republican citizens because they owed allegiance to a foreign potentate – the Pope – rather than popularly elected leaders.

Second, Protestants pointed to the fact that the Pope and his Church had a long record of hostility towards the fruits of the Enlightenment, everything from science (e. g. the persecution of Galileo) to individualism, reason, and secularism. And the Church had condemned democracy and upheld monarchy and obedience to traditional authority.

This image, "Popery Undermining Free Schools and Other American Institutions," appeared in Edward Beecher's 1855 book, The Papal Conspiracy Exposed and Protestantism Vindicated.

This image, “Popery Undermining Free Schools and Other American Institutions,” appeared in Edward Beecher’s 1855 book, The Papal Conspiracy Exposed and Protestantism Vindicated. It shows a kingly pope pointing at an American public school, indicating his intention to begin his overthrow of the republic here.

Third, these first two points formed the foundation of a far greater threat posed by the Catholic Church: the Pope was secretly plotting to destroy the young American republic. Such a claim sounds absurd to modern Americans, but in the mid-nineteenth century it held widespread credence. Indeed, one of the best-selling genres of literature in this period were books purporting to reveal the papal plot to overthrow America. Many were written by well-known and respected figures such as Samuel F. B. Morse of telegraph fame and Edward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Morse, for example warned in a popular work, The Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (New York, 1835), that “Popery is a political, a despotic system, which must be resisted by all true patriots… We may sleep, but the enemy is awake; he is straining every nerve to possess himself of our fair land. We must awake, or we are lost.” His was one of hundreds of anti-Catholic books and pamphlets published between 1820 and 1860, not to mention many newspapers and magazines with titles like, The Protestant Vindicator.

The 1844 "Bible Riots" in Philadelphia was the worst incident of anti-Catholic violence in this period. The dispute centered over whether Catholic children in public schools could read from Catholic bibles rather than Protestant ones.

The 1844 “Bible Riots” in Philadelphia was the worst incident of anti-Catholic violence in this period. The dispute centered over whether Catholic children in public schools could read from Catholic bibles rather than Protestant ones.

In the midst of this fury highly organized political movements such as the Know Nothings emerged to mobilize against a perceived Catholic invasion of America. “Every Catholic stands committed as an enemy to the Republic,” declared one Know Nothing newspaper. “Let us regard every Roman Catholic as an enemy to the country—and so treat him.” This attitude led to countless episodes of anti-Catholic violence, the most infamous being the 1844 Bible Riots in Philadelphia that left 20 dead and 3 Catholic churches in ashes.

President John F. Kennedy, 1962

President John F. Kennedy, 1962

Anti-Catholicism and anti-popery in the United States persisted for decades beyond the 1850s. But it gradually diminished as Catholic immigrants assimilated into American life and became contributing members of society. It also helped, of course, that the feared papal plot to destroy America never materialized. After World War II some still questioned whether Catholics could be good Americans. But John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 effectively put an end to that issue (at least in mainstream American politics). Today, Catholics make up a third of the members of Congress and six of nine justices on the Supreme Court. So Pope Francis need not fear that his visit will revive the Know Nothings.

Polls show that many Americans fear an Islamic conspiracy to take over America. Many 19th century Americans feared a similar Catholic conspiracy.

Polls show that many Americans fear an Islamic conspiracy to take over America. Many 19th century Americans feared a similar Catholic conspiracy.

This reality is a testament to the strength of religious tolerance in modern American society. But we must not delude ourselves into thinking our work is done on this front. For the history of United States makes clear that this tradition of religious tolerance is one that has evolved and expanded over time to include many faiths initially deemed beyond the pale, including not just Catholics but also Jews, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. We would do well to keep this in mind as recent immigration continues to expand the nation’s religious diversity. This is especially true in the case is Islam, a religious tradition that polling data reveals many Americans view with fear and hostility not very different from that reserved for Catholics a few generations ago.

15-dollar-minimum

OP-ED Laboring Against Inequality

[Note: this op-ed was originally published in Newsweek, Sept 5, 2015]

This Labor Day weekend finds the United States confronted by many troubling and contentious questions related to workers and the economy. These questions range from the minimum wage to paid family leave, from collective bargaining rights for public sector workers to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City on September 5, 1882.

The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City on September 5, 1882.

Linking these seemingly disparate questions is their connection to the broader question of rising wealth inequality in American society. So acute has this problem grown in recent years that many social commentators have taken to referring to our era as a Second Gilded Age. This phrase represents more than a clever rhetorical flourish, for the original Gilded Age (1870-1900) was rocked by many of the same questions that challenge the U.S. today, especially the problem of increasing wealth inequality. In fact, it was in the midst of this turmoil that American workers established Labor Day.

The first Labor Day occurred in New York City on September 5, 1882. The original parade drew about 5,000 workers and the idea rapidly caught on across the country, eventually leading to its establishment as a national holiday.

Workers carried signs in the first Labor Day parade that highlighted their concerns in the Gilded Age.

Workers carried signs in the first Labor Day parade that highlighted their concerns in the Gilded Age.

What was the motivation behind the establishment of Labor Day? One detail from the original commemoration in 1882 provides a hint: a sign carried in the parade proclaiming a simple yet profound message: All Men Are Born Equal. What was happening in American society in 1882 – over a century after Thomas Jefferson made a similar bold claim in the Declaration of Independence – that would compel a worker to make such a sign?

The answer is rapid and intensive industrialization. This process transformed the United States into the world’s leading economic power by 1900. But it also brought with it widespread poverty. Evidence of this troubling duality could be found everywhere, but especially in New York City where mansions of big business tycoons like Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Carnegie arose along Fifth Avenue, while in the rest of the city two-thirds of the population lived in cramped and squalid tenements. In short, the establishment of Labor Day signaled that Gilded Age America faced a crisis over growing inequality.

Americans in the first Gilded Age responded to this crisis of inequality by forming unions and staging strikes – an astonishing 37,000 strikes between 1880 and 1900. But they also developed and popularized a key insight regarding republican citizenship: that political equality (one vote) was no longer adequate to maintain a healthy republican society. Modern industrial life, with huge corporations, global markets, and increasing numbers of people working for wages, made it clear that republican citizenship included an economic dimension. As the reformer and labor activist Henry George wrote in 1879, “In our time…creep on the insidious forces that, producing inequality, destroy Liberty.” If one was overworked and yet unable to earn a living wage, argued George and other reformers, his right to vote was meaningless. He had sunken into “industrial slavery.” Extreme inequality, in other words, would destroy American democracy.

Roosevelt included "Freedom from Want" as one of the Four Freedoms he proclaimed in 1941

Roosevelt included “Freedom from Want” as one of the Four Freedoms he proclaimed in 1941

Motivated by this insight, the labor movement and social reformers in the 20th century pushed for policies aimed at limiting the power of big corporations and the wealthy while protecting and enhancing the opportunity for the average citizen to live a decent life. These policies included the eight-hour day, increased workplace safety, collective bargaining rights, income taxes, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. Their success reflected a growing acceptance of the idea that for republican citizenship to be real, it had to include a baseline of material well-being. By the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enshrined “Freedom from Want” as one of the nation’s four essential freedoms. “True individual freedom,” he said, “cannot exist without economic security and independence.”

Political leaders like Roosevelt, along with a strong labor movement, combined to boost the well-being of the average American. The result? Extreme wealth inequality decreased steadily. Whereas in 1890 the top 1 percent of Americans owned 51 percent of all wealth, by 1979 the 1 percent owned 20.5% of all wealth.

Economic inequality has become a significant political concern in recent years, a period some call the Second Gilded Age.

Economic inequality has become a significant political concern in recent years, a period some call the Second Gilded Age.

But since 1980, a weakened labor movement and changes to the tax code (among other things) have resulted in a dramatic shift back toward increased wealth and income inequality. By 2010 the top 1 percent’s share of all wealth stood at 35.4 percent – and rising.

So this weekend, as millions celebrate Labor Day by refraining from labor, Americans would do well to reflect on the core claims of the early labor movement: that the nation’s democratic values and republican institutions are threatened by economic policies that leave a small number extremely wealthy and powerful and the majority struggling to attain or hold onto a piece of the American Dream.

Labor Day reminds us that while we all are created equal, we also grow up to live in a society shaped by policies and laws that determine whether opportunities for success are focused on the great majority of citizens or merely on the 1 percent.

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Edward T. O’Donnell is an associate professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA and the author of Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age (Columbia University Press).