Roman Catholicism in the United States: A Thematic History

By Margaret M. McGuinness; James T. Fisher | Go to book overview

FOUR
Strangers in Our Midst: Catholics in Rural America

Jeffrey Marlett

Do any American Catholics like country music? Have singers like Merle Haggard, Shania Twain, or Dierks Bentley attracted Catholic listeners? Do any Catholics appreciate environmental activists, Wendell Berry, or Pope Francis’s Laudato Si? Why should it matter? Answering those questions goes a long way toward understanding America’s polyvalent rural Catholic heritage. Urban life pervades most historical studies of U.S. Catholicism. The well-established, but mostly overlooked, traditions rural Catholics have created receive far less attention. Yet Roman Catholicism has enjoyed a long presence in America’s rural environs: from Maine to California, northern Michigan to Louisiana’s Acadiana parishes, Catholics helped populate rural America. While their numbers may never have been large, Catholics have lived and worked and worshipped in rural areas since colonial times.

Rural Catholicism posed challenges—pastoral, spiritual, environmental, and social— for a church self-identified with the cities where a largely immigrant, second and sometimes third-generation membership staked a most conspicuous claim. Rural America, once idealized as the foundation for a virtuous Protestant-American republic, saw that Jeffersonian inheritance threatened by economic and political setbacks. These deprivations restricted opportunity and gave rise to popular stereotypes of rural life as violent, crude, culturally impoverished, and spiritually deadening. While struggling with these misperceptions, rural Catholics also discovered in most times and places that their religious convictions set them apart from their neighbors.

An organized Catholic effort to address rural and agricultural issues did not unfold until the 1920s. During that decade the Catholic “rural life movement” emerged as church

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