June 1, 2009
Supreme Court Catholics
— Martin E. Marty
If/when Judge Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in as a member of the United States Supreme Court, there would/will be six Roman Catholics on it. My trained and focused eye -- trained to do "sightings" of public religion in the various media, including the internet, and focused on the chosen subject of the week -- has been seeking evidence of anti-Catholicism among mainline Protestant and Evangelical leaders, in the form of expressions of worry and prejudice. Unless between Saturday (when I write) and Monday (when readers read) some surprise occurs, public controversies over her appointment will not yet have attracted the voice of any non-Catholic bishops, moderators, denominational presidents, church-body newspapers, or representative columnists.
Why is this remarkable? This week I reread Philip Hamburger's Separation of Church and State, a five-hundred-page examination of the subject. His thesis is the partly substantiated claim -- here's the dust jacket speaking -- that "separation became a constitutional freedom largely through fear and prejudice" voiced by militants who "adopted the principle of separation to restrict the role of Catholics in public life." They were Know Nothings, members of the KKK, and eventually "theologically liberal, anti-Christian secularists." Hamburger offers abundant sad and scary quotations from olden days, from sad and scared Protestants and non-Catholic religionists.
Alas for their heirs: Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy, as well as vast cultural and churchly changes, ended the olden days and ruined the old show. If mainline Protestants, who make up one-fifth of the populace, and evangelical Protestants, who make up at least a third, want to make a point of being anti-Catholic and showing it by commenting on this appointment, they surely are stealthy attackers. Mainline Protestants turned "ecumenical" two-score years ago, as they and most Catholics became buddies. Evangelical Protestants, who decades ago called the Pope the Antichrist foretold in the Book of Revelation, now link with his successors on selected social issues which are in contention. Were it not for professional Catholic defense organizations which are ready to pop up to represent their interests on cable TV, we would find that Catholics and non-Catholics pick and choose whom and what they will support or reject in public life.
Wait a minute! What about the blogs? Yes, they reveal an underground of anti-Catholics, including many ex-Catholics. The Washington Post "On Faith" column, edited by Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn and crafted by David Waters, which includes a stable of diverse characters, I among them, stimulated discussion of the "Six Catholics on the Supreme Court" issue, referenced below. Waters first deals with the comment by Catholic editors left and right, and then turns it over to the bloggers. "On Faith" screens out the vile kind of bloggers who invent new variations on obscenity, blasphemy, and, well, bad manners. Still, along with good stuff, there is some venom.
What strikes me is how unrepresentative the self-named angry Christians in the string of commentators are, if measured against the wider church bodies and leadership. Some simple, raw, old-fashioned anti-Catholicism is present, but it has to share space with Catholics who argue how Catholic someone has to be to be Catholic, and all the rest. At the end, such blogs give us a license to yawn when the Catholic defense people rise to complain and rage about anti-Catholicism. We have instead important things to discuss. One hopes they can be argued amid the noisy and predictable debate this season.
For the Washington Post "On Faith" blog, see: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/undergod/2009/05/is_she_catholic_does_it_matter.html?hpid=talkbox1
Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Harvard, 2002).
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.