Toward A Better Anti-Catholicism


In the December issue of The Outlook, historians D.G. Hart and John Muether continue a series on Roman Catholicism. The third installment, Anti-Catholicism, Good and Bad, has been the most intriguing to me thus far. (Here is the first installment.) 

As the title suggests, the authors are essentially putting forth that there are two kinds of anti-Catholicism. First the bad kind:

“So strong was religious warfare that parts of nineteenth-century America resembled Northern Ireland today. A political party was established to oppose Roman Catholics from holding public office. A secret patriotic society, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, began in 1849, admitting only American-born Protestants without Roman Catholic relatives. Members swore to oppose the election of foreigners or Roman Catholics. Because of their secretiveness ands their frequent furtive responses to inquirers with ‘I don’t know,’ they became known as the Know-Nothings.”

Add to what can only be tallied up to religious bigotry the irony of Protestants from Josiah Strong to Charles Hodge to Abraham Kuyper who suggest that resident within Calvinism are the seeds to all that westerners hold ideologically dear. Strong’s best-seller, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (1885) insisted that:

“Wherever Protestantism went civil liberty followed. The two greatest characteristics of Anglo-Saxons were civil liberty and spiritual Christianity.”

Presbyterian New Schooler Albert Barnes, in Presbyterianism: Its Affinities (1863) wrote:

“…all just notions of liberty in modern times [were connected with the fundamental principles taught by Presbyterianism].”

Charles Hodge in an 1855 lecture on the nature of Presbyterianism:

“It is the combination of the principles of liberty and order in the Presbyterian system, the union of the rights of the people with subjection to legitimate authority, that has made it the parent and guardian of civil liberty in every part of the world.”

And, of course, Abraham Kuyper in Lectures on Calvinism (1898):

“The logical development of what was enshrined in the liberty of conscience, as well as liberty itself, first blessed the world from the side of Calvinism.”

Some of the above works had at least a tangential purpose to show how Roman Catholicism, as opposed to Calvinism, was contradictory to good American citizenship. It would seem that true religion is not only useful to show how Roman Catholicism is unpatriotic but, even more interesting, also relevant to the felt needs of statecraft. One wonders just what is the appreciable difference is between the likes of televangelists per Joel Osteen and the writings of Abraham Kuyper. It may be that what scrapes the sensitivities of certain Presbyterians about the former is simply the crass and uncouth application of true religion to the baser felt needs of humanity, while the latter appeals to the felt needs of the merely sophisticated and cultured. What isn’t clear is why one deserves more ire than the other, that is, if Jesus’ kingdom really isn’t of this world.

Even so, the authors go on to suggest “a better anti-Catholicism.” They point out that whatever else Vatican II shows, its dovetailing with a lessened confidence about modern politics on the parts of Protestants has helped to reduce the antagonism between the descendants of Geneva and Rome in the contemporary geo-political landscape. As it concerns the former, in a word, “The older arguments about liberty and tyranny no longer make sense.”

And so after having previously suggested the possibility that, instead of Rome being necessarily opposed to the core values of a liberal democracy, it could be that Roman pontiffs conceived an “organic and ordered society was better for families and churches than the chaotic, individualistic, and rootless one that modern politics encouraged,” Hart and Muether instinctively and wisely advise:

“The challenge for Protestants today is to recover older and better arguments against Rome than the ones American Protestants have so often used. A good form of anti-Catholicism exists. It is based on Protestant beliefs about the Bible, sin, salvation, and worship. Those beliefs were essential to the Reformation. But beyond the history, they are crucial to men and women who want to be right with God.”

Agreed. After all, if Roman Christians (who invented the spiritual discipline of quiet times) routinely invite Jesus into their heart, want to take back America for Christ, transform the culture and read their bibles privately and pray—all things that have become absolutely central to devout modern Protestantism—then the only thing that explains the Protestant spitting and cursing about a distant cousin marrying a Roman Catholic is the bad kind of anti-Catholicism. But religious bigotry is not befitting those who would that a better Protestantism prevail.

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18 Responses to Toward A Better Anti-Catholicism

  1. Pingback: There Are Ways to Criticize Rome « Heidelblog

  2. Pingback: Sacramental Piety

  3. John Bugay says:

    A good form of anti-Catholicism exists.

    Zrim, thanks for pointing out this distinction. I think the authors are totally correct in this.

  4. sean says:

    As Peter Townsend wrote; “Meet the new boss same as the old boss”

  5. RubeRad says:

    Hmmm. You need to balance your Kuyper quote up there against another:

    if Israel was chosen for the sake of Religion, this in no way prevented a parallel election of the Greeks for the domain of philosophy and for the revelations of art, nor of the Romans for the classical development within the domain of the Law and of State.

    As for Catholic tyrrany vs. Protestant liberty, it seems to me that the New World provides a pretty convincing suite of examples. I would say that the Catholic/tyrranical side of that equation is twofold: the Roman ecclesiastical structure is hierarchical authority, and that mixed in with an unhealthy conflation of kingdoms (church over state), gives you tyrrany. Wherever things are getting better, I would credit the secular state for getting out from under the thumb of Rome. And of course sometimes when people don’t know how to do liberty right yet, they throw off religious tyrrany and end up with secular tyrrany, a.k.a. communism.

    Conversely, Presbyterianism is by definition more grassroots, and even with a healthy distinction between the two kingdoms, it helps the 2nd kingdom, if the citizens are already used to representative government in the 1st kingdom.

  6. Good post.

    I remember when Beckwith jumped the Tiber I did a series of posts highliting the irony of the evengelical’s objection to his switching teams.

    They should do one of those ’70s commercials they used to do for Folgers Crystals: “We secretly switched the Statement of Faith of this large evangelical megachurch with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Let’s see what the people think.”

    Hint: People wouldn’t notice, as long as their pastor wore the right kind of vestments (a Hawaiian shirt and khakis).

  7. Zrim says:

    Rube, I have more from Lectures on Calvinism:

    “One desire has been the ruling passion of my life….That in spite of all worldly opposition, God’s holy ordinances shall be established again in the home, in the school and in the State for the good of the people; to carve as it were into the conscience of the nation the ordinances of the Lord, to which Bible and Creation bear witness, until the nation pays homage again to God.”

    “Hence Calvinism was bound to find its utterance in the democratic interpretation of life; to proclaim liberty of nations; and not rest until both politically and socially every man, simply because he is man, should be recognized, respected and dealt with as a creature created after the Divine likeness.”

    “If Calvinism had not been passed on from our fathers tot heir African descendants, no free republic would have arisen in the South of the dark Continent…so Calvinism still carries in itself a wondrous power for the future of the nations…Calvinism alone arms us with an inflexible principle, by the strength of that principle guaranteeing us a sure, though far from easy victory.”

    [Quoting from American historian George Bancroft]: “The fanatic for Calvinism was a fanatic for liberty, for in the oral warfare for freedom, his creed was a part of his army, and his most faithful ally in the battle.” Concurring, Kuyper writes, “The logical development of what was enshrined in the liberty of conscience, as well as liberty itself, first blessed the world from the side of Calvinism….Rome’s world and life view represents an older and hence lower stage of development in the history of mankind. Protestantism succeeded it, and hence occupies a spiritually higher standpoint. He who will not go backwards, but reaches after higher things, must therefore either stand by Protestantism, or on the other hand, point out a still higher standpoint.”

    Uncle Abe needs to get hisself straight.

    As to tyranny, it owes more to human sin than certain religious formulations, I think. I don’t think you can get more Calvinistic than that.

  8. Zrim says:


    Nice reference and analogy.

    Like I said at your place, ECT makes more sense to me every day. Take some of the comments by your local Catholics and I don’t know if it’s them or my Pastor Rick speaking.

  9. Jackson says:

    So, the Anti-Christ nature of the Roman Catholic church means nothing any more to confessional Protestants?

  10. Zrim says:


    Who said that? Just be careful how the term is used. It’s all in the wrist.

    (You probably won’t like this but I also take issue with calling Mormons “cultists.” In a post-Jim Jones age, I think “false religionists” is much better.)

  11. RubeRad says:

    JJS, the Folger’s analogy is awesome! How could we actually try that out? I guess we’ll just have to content ourselves with man-on-the-street (evangelical-at-the-conference) interviews by WHI’s Shane Rosenthal.

  12. RubeRad says:

    As to tyranny, it owes more to human sin than certain religious formulations, I think

    I would say that, by definition, an imperial church fosters more tyrrany than a presbyterian church. And a presbyterian model mitigates the effect of any one man’s sin as surely as our governmental system of checks & balances.

    That speaks more of history than the present, however; I don’t think Rome really exercises much actual power over states anymore (at least no more than Elizabeth exercises over her British empire).

    Your 2nd paragraph up there (“every man, simply because he is man”) sounds very common-grace-y and 2K-y.

    And I think part of the whole point is Calvinism –> 2K –> liberty, vice Romanism –> papist imperialism –> tyrrany, no? It’s not that Calvinism causes liberty as much as it allows liberty.

  13. RubeRad says:

    In a post-Jim Jones age

    In Jim Jones related news, RSC’s recent post is brilliant!

  14. Zrim says:


    Yes, Romanism certainly does give the human disposition to tyranny a better foothold. But I think we should exercise a lot more caution so that we don’t fall over into a mere demonizing.

    Which has been my point to the good professor in my comments to his Jim Jones post (which are an extension to another post he had about Masons being “cultists”). The point doesn’t seem to be landing.

  15. Jackson says:

    I’m sensing downgrade in this post and comments thread.

  16. Zrim says:


    May I say that one man’s downgrade is another’s perspective?

  17. RWJ says:

    Your reason for being anti-catholic is? Were you attacked by a pack of them at your grade schools one day? Do you spend as much time with other protestant denominations that disagree with you?

  18. Zrim says:


    I think if you actually read the post you’ll find it’s meant to be an ironical phrase.

    The last time I was attacked by Catholics was this past summer at a family reunion on my father’s side. And since they are my favorite side of the family, when I say “attacked” I mean “partied with.”

    I spend all my time in the wayward CRC as a disgruntled member.

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