Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture

By McIlhenny, Ryan | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture


McIlhenny, Ryan, The Catholic Historical Review


Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth Century U.S. Literature and Culture. By Elizabeth Fenton. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. Pp. xii, 178. $65.00. ISBN 978-0-195-38409-3.)

Few scholars of anti-Catholicism have tried to understand the role of religious discrimination in shaping a uniquely American liberalism. In Religious Liberties, Elizabeth Fenton shows how "U.S. conceptions of religious pluralism and its corresponding 'right of conscience'. . . drew their force from antiCatholicism" (p. 1). From the Quebec Act of 1774 to Reconstruction, with a brief afterword on the role of anti-Catholicism in the politics of the 1960s, Fen ton shows how popular American writers from Thomas Paine to Mark Twain exploited the ideology of a tyrannical- and thus inherently antidemocratic-Catholicism that functioned to construct an American political consensus, positioning "Protestantism as the guarantor of religious liberty" (p. 18).

To preserve political representation and "deliberative democracy," defined as "a political mode that promotes a public sphere in which citizens engage in rational debate with one another" (p. 12), religious freedom had to be restricted if not fully denied, "sacrificing democracy in the name of deliberation" (p. 63). This revealed the paradox of deliberative democracy. AntiCatholicism was used, Fenton argues, as a negative contrast to the freedoms inherent in a Protestant political establishment, revealing how deliberative and representative democracy was also "fraught with tension and uncertainty" (p. 84). Regardless of Catholicism's effort to participate in "representative governance," especially given the political reform efforts of Pope Pius G? in Italy or the revolutionary accomplishments of Haitian Catholics, a politically driven Protestantism could never recognize the possibility that nonProtestant could participate in a religiously plural society.

Research on this topic is limited, especially in the number of historians engaged in it, making it somewhat disjointed. …

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