“Papist” is the pejorative term ascribed to a Roman Catholic and arose in the late 1600s spurred by the English Reformation. Hostilities against papists trace to the time of Henry VIII’s rejection of theological fealty to the Pope who declined to approve of Henry’s effort to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Subsequently, under English law, no one who professes to be a Catholic can succeed to the throne. Nevertheless, Henry became also head of the Church of England, consolidating and conflating secular and religious rule.
The entwining of religion and state offered painful experiences to many who sought religious freedom in the New World of North America and ultimately resulted in the separation of the two in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. But fear and anxiety about papists and the putative influence of the Pope did not disappear from local suspicions and remained the object of bias and prejudice transmitted from English heritage.
Following waves of immigration from traditionally Catholic countries, especially Ireland, in the mid-1800s, antipathy toward papists was renewed with the emergence of the Know Nothing political party. Millard Fillmore, a Know Nothing leader, was elected vice president in 1848, succeeding to the presidency in 1850 as the nation’s 13th commander-in-chief upon the death of Zachary Taylor. The movement lost much of its energy in the last half of the century.
Concerns about Catholic patriotism remained quiescent until the presidential election of 1928, when the faith of Al Smith, governor of New York, rekindled suspicions of foreign control by a distant religious leader dictating the administration of a US president. The identical issue emerged three decades later in the campaign of John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Concerns about Catholic patriotism remained quiescent until the presidential election of 1928, when the faith of Al Smith, governor of New York, rekindled suspicions of foreign control by a distant religious leader dictating the administration of a US president. The identical issue emerged three decades later in the campaign of John F. Kennedy in 1960. In Houston, the candidate spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, assuring skeptics:
I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.
Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
Kennedy reminded his audience that in his 14 years of service in the US Senate, which oath is the same as that sworn by the president at inauguration, that he believed he was faithful to that oath. He then offered an ultimatum for all elected officials:
But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office.
The critics are unhappy that Biden is not sufficiently Catholic in not following the dictates of his religion. At the same time, while the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty, the very same critics do not applaud Biden’s pronounced opposition to it. The disconnect is typical of right wing ideology.
The current attacks on Joe Biden and his relationship with his faith cite to his support for abortion legislation that is condemned by the Catholic Church. In effect, the critics are unhappy that Biden is not sufficiently Catholic in not following the dictates of his religion. At the same time, while the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty, the very same critics do not applaud Biden’s pronounced opposition to it. The disconnect is typical of right wing ideology.
There is some consistency between the Know Nothings and the Tea Party in a shared fear of losing predominance or, as one characterized it, as a sharing of an emotional grammar. Too, the birther fiction about Barack Obama was rooted in “otherism.” Such right wing ambivalence spawns inherently contradictory assertions. In the Houston address, Kennedy chastised rigid litmus tests as false equivalencies contrary to established principles and values expected of elected officials:
I would not look with favor upon a president working to subvert the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so. And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test — even by indirection — for it.
Biden’s critics of his religious or moral dissonance with his faith reflect an indirection intended to adhere to a contemporary cultural war belief about abortion. Insisting that President Biden identify his public responsibility with that of his faith contravenes Kennedy’s admonition and breaches the separation of church and state. Worse, the critics applaud the possibility that the American bishops will formalize a protocol permitting church officials to deny participation in the sacrament of Communion. Such allows them to shield their views with plausible indirection while simultaneously affirming an elected official should be bound by religious doctrine of a particular faith.
For the present, Biden has steadfastly refrained from extensive comment on the issue, except to state that the matter is “personal.”