Continuities in American Anti-Catholicism: The Texas Baptist Standard and the Coming of the 1960 Election

Article excerpt

In June 1960, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson told evangelist Billy Graham that religion would dominate the fall campaign if Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts received the Democratic nomination.

Graham dutifully reported the prediction to his preferred candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon, the presumptive Republican nominee. Kennedy's Catholicism promised to present challenges in Johnson and Rayburn's home state of Texas, and Texas was "in play" in 1960. Southern Baptists, the largest and most powerful Protestant denomination in the Lone Star State, could help swing the state and the election. The Baptist vote in 1960 was heavily anti-Catholic, and the state's leading denominational newspaper, the Baptist Standard, helped fuel that sentiment. Moreover, the Standard's anti-Catholicism did not suddenly blossom in 1960. Rather, it exemplified long-standing American nativist viewpoints with regard to the Roman Catholic Church. (1)

Historian John Higham described anti-Catholicism as "the most powerful of ... antiforeign traditions" in American history. Because the Catholic Church's "traditions did not ... harmonize easily with the concept of individual freedom imbedded in the national culture," many Americans throughout the nineteenth century held that Catholics might rebel and impose their religious precepts. By 1910, Higham argued, that fear of a Catholic revolt had generally dissipated, but antipathy toward the church's reactionary reputation remained. Dale T. Knobel asserted that American anti-Catholicism grew from the perceived danger church teachings posed to "intellectual autonomy." Critics of Catholicism distinguished between 'American" Catholics and "Roman" Catholics, to set apart those most highly susceptible to hierarchical control and those immunized from it. It also became fashionable to focus criticism upon "political" Catholicism rather than "religious" Catholicism, allowing critics to deny charges of bigotry against all Catholics. (2)

David Brion Davis researched themes common to anti-Mormon, anti-Masonic, and anti-Catholic literature and noted that nineteenth-century critics felt "rank-and-file members were not individually evil," but became ensnared in the Catholic Church's clutches and held there by threats of excommunication and damnation. The "cunning" of priests and higher clerics took advantage of "gullible" Protestants, and lulled people into inattention while the church slyly took ever more power and wealth. Exposes by former Catholic Church members confirmed the worst suspicions of the critics. Thus, anti-Catholic views did not spring from the imaginations of conspiracy theorists and professional haters alone. John T. McGreevy examined supposedly more sophisticated critics of Catholicism, who made similar arguments as late as the 1940s and 1950s. Paul Blanshard, liberal intellectual and former Congregationalist minister, linked Catholicism to fascism, presenting the church as a threat comparable to international Communism. Blanshard's concerns drew favorable comment from the likes of John Dewey, McGeorge Bundy, and Albert Einstein. (3)

David H. Bennett described American anti-Catholicism as part of a political tradition linking nineteenth-century nativists with the New Right of the twentieth century. These groups viewed America as an "Eden" threatened by intruders incapable of being 'American." "Traditional nativism" in America was an amalgam of "antialienism" and anti-Catholicism. Catholics threatened the American Eden because of their fidelity to a church that opposed core American values. Against a field of feuding and fiercely independent Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic monolith appeared dangerously unified and resolute. For Bennett, Al Smith's crushing defeat in the 1928 presidential election amounted to a "last stand" of "traditional nativism," and Bennett argued that immigration restriction helped ensure that it "would not emerge as in the past. …