Saturday, February 11, 2017

When Christian Cultures Clashed

Image result for Difference Between Catholics and Protestants

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, Martin Luther was at the forefront of an attack on a dominant Christian Culture, the Roman Catholic Church. As most Christians know, Christianity has since splintered into many subcultures, which often do battle over matters of belief.

Although the contentiousness between Catholics and non-Catholics has considerably abated in North America and Europe, there were times in the UK and its large North American colonies (after 4 July 1776, the United States), when Catholics were treated as outsiders—as people of a foreign religion.
Some features of the acrimonious verbal and physical battles between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians bear a similarity to current concerns aimed at people whose religion is suspect.

Catholics are of course those Christians under the leadership of the Pope. Non-Catholics are a diverse group consisting of several Orthodox traditions, Anglicans, Protestants, and a few other groups. In social science research, various classifications are used. I find in the US that people often think of Christians as either Protestants or Catholics.

I’m focusing on the United States because recent rhetoric in the world’s foremost superpower reminds me of previous battles between ruling Protestants and minority Catholics. And I wonder if people with sharp religious differences may one day live peacefully as most Catholic and non-Catholic Christians do today. Of course, I am mindful of the more recent horrid clashes between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland but that deserves a separate investigation though it is relevant to a broader understanding of religious conflict.

There are probably many ways to categorize the historic animosity between U S Catholics and Protestants. I’ve chosen a few based on Haidt’s analyses of moral-political values (See more in Chapter 4, A House Divided).


The recent concerns about unchecked immigration in Europe and the United States have been leading reasons for political change in the UK and USA. The attempted immigration ban by President Trump has been attacked as a thinly veiled attempt at keeping out Muslims because of the high percentage of Muslims in the countries named in his executive order. I won’t debate the issue of religion and the order here (see links below for related stories). My point is that many Americans fear Muslims because of the 911 attacks and the ongoing war against people who claim to be Muslims and often use the language of their faith in battle cries.

Pope Day” in the U S colonies was celebrated by burning effigies of the Pope on 5th November when the English remembered the Catholic, Guy Fawkes, who attempted to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James I, considered by some to be a Catholic sympathizer. That celebration in the US officially ended in 1775 when George Washington issued an “executive order” banning the event to obtain assistance from Catholic France to defeat the British forces.


As recent as the 1990s, the Catholic faith of Justice Clarence Thomas was an issue. In 2010, Coffman in the conservative Christianity Today magazine asked: “Does it matter that there might soon be no Protestants on the Supreme Court?” Obviously, it mattered enough to warrant an essay, which noted only Jews and Catholics were on the court. Ironically, the current nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is an Episcopalian and former Catholic (Denver Post).

As I note in my book, A House Divided, the research supports the view that judges take their faith to court.

The U S has come a long way since 1641 where the “papists” were not permitted to hold a public office or even serve on a jury in Virginia.


Writers like Samuel F. B. Morse (Morse code fame) and Lyman Beecher (famous Beecher family) warned US citizens in the 1830s of Catholic plots against Protestants brought about through immigrants from Catholic countries and the Catholic parochial schools. Anti-Catholic violence was evident in the 1834 burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, MA- the day after Beecher preached his third anti-Catholic sermon.

Authority fears continued into the 20th Century. I recall the anti-Catholic rhetoric hurled against Catholic Presidential Candidate, John F. Kennedy who had to address the issues in a famous speech given 12 September 1960. Here’s a quote:

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.


Loyalty fears can overlap with authority fears as evident in the concerns about President Kennedy’s religion. The fears may be construed as loyalty to the rules of the church vs. the laws of the US.
Such fears continue in the form of the Sharia law followed by Muslim groups. Here’s a 2012 quote from Presidential Candidate, Newt Gingrich.

“We should have a federal law that says under no circumstances in any jurisdiction in the United States will Sharia [law] be used in any court to apply to any judgment made about American law…”(Source TIME, 2016).


Purity concerns are common to many religions and Christianity is no exception. Purity fears can take on various dimensions including basic fears of contamination from impure hands and foods to more abstract notions of impure, unholy, and untouchable people and doctrines (aka heresies and cults).
According to Massa, a salacious best seller of 1836, Maria Monk’s, Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Monastery in Montreal, told of a Protestant girl who escaped from a Catholic convent where she was a victim of sexual abuse. 

The recent exposure of sexual abuse by Catholic priests has fanned suspicion of celibacy and questions of the link between celibacy and sexual abuse (e.g., Power, SMH, 2014) despite some research (e.g., Oddie, CH, 2014;  Peralta, npr, 2011).

Doctrinal heresy is another form of purity. It is no surprise that various religious groups wish to distance themselves from others who commit some act considered at the time to be socially undesirable or worse. In the “Pope Day” festivities mentioned previously, the Pope was sometimes considered to be The Beast in the Book of Revelation.


I would not be surprised to find people capable of disputing all of the points I have made. Nevertheless, I think it reasonable to conclude that Protestants and Christians have had sharp disagreements in the past 500 years that have led to violence.

People care to distinguish their tribe from other tribes. Religious people are no exception. If we are not talking about  walls around castles and nations, we may be talking about psychosocial walls or boundaries of beliefs that identify members as inside or outside.

Often religious leaders establish boundaries based on belief or practice-linked belief (e.g., baptism). Although the harsh rhetoric in the West is often voiced by Christian and Muslim conservatives, harsh words, suspicion, and discrimination is not limited to fundamentalists. Moreover, when more salient clashes are less in the news, Christians find themselves at war against other Christians over issues such as women’s rights, LGBT rights, capital punishment, and so forth.

My hope is that understanding, promoting civil discussions, and bringing people of different beliefs and practices together, can lead to a safer and less contentious society as usually happens when Catholics and Protestants currently interact without concern for their religious beliefs.

Links to related articles I read (see intext links for other sources).