Obama, Catholics and Americanism

It would be difficult to conjure up a more offensive tirade to ethnic, Catholic ears than the one Barack Obama’s pastor delivered after 9/11 about chickens coming home to roost. Catholics do not have a monopoly on patriotism by any means, but patriotism has a monopoly on the American Catholic mind. Obama referred to the "immigrant experience" in his speech on race Tuesday. He was half-wrong and half-right when he said that immigrants felt that they built their lives from scratch. They brought a lot with them from the Old World: their faith, their language, their cousins, their cuisine. But, it is undoubtedly true that immigrants and their children felt that they achieved their place in the mainstream of American life, it was not given to them. And, it is even more true that the waves of Irish, German, Polish and Italian immigrants sought to assimilate to the dominant culture, and that this urge to fit in bestowed upon them a fierce and deep patriotism. The fact that the Army served as a great melting pot during both World Wars, times of heightened patriotism, only accentuated the devotion of white ethnic Catholics to the Stars and Stripes and all it stands for. It was not always so. In 1834, a Nativist mob burned the convent of the Ursuline sisters in Charlestown, Massachusetts for no particular reason than that it seemed the thing to do. After the Civil War, and despite the honored service of Catholic regiments such as the Sixty-Ninth "Fighting Irish" New York State militia in battle, the 1884 campaign was highlighted by the remark of Republican Samuel Burchard, "We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion. We are loyal to our flag." The slab of marble that Pope Pius IX sent for the Washington Monument was met by a mob and tossed into the Potomac. Race is not the only part of America’s history where bigotry is encountered. Anti-Catholicism has an equally long, though much less harsh, pedigree than anti-black prejudice. Fighting Nativism in the 1850s has the same moral weight as fighting racism today. And, anti-Catholicism is as much a phenomenon among liberals as among conservatives: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. observed years ago that "anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the Left." Obama argued that we American must move beyond racial divisions as Kennedy argued that we must move beyond denominational ones. The key difference, and for Obama the key difficulty, is that Kennedy said his religion would not matter to his political conduct and Obama said we need to attend to race in order to transcend it. This was a courageous call because his short-term political prospects are not served by this discussion. Nonetheless, in Philadelphia Tuesday, standing close to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, Obama set forth a vision of a more hopeful future than that which animated the sermons of Pastor Wright or the racial resentments of ethnic, white Catholics to which Gerry Ferraro gave a voice. There is ground in Pennsylvania even more hallowed than the lawn of Independence Hall. Gettysburg is the most sacred soil in America, consecrated by the blood of soldiers, hallowed by the words of Lincoln. On that field, there is a monument to the Fighting Irish brigade to which Obama should go and make another speech about his vision of America, about what patriotism means to him, about how his experiences of bigotry – of facing it and transcending it – correspond to the experiences of countless Irish and Polish and German and Italian immigrants. From the Wheatfield at Gettysburg, Obama can invite all Americans as he did the other day, to look up from the burden of the past, to a more hopeful future. Tuesday, Obama needed to hit a home run, and he did. But, it was a heady, intellectual home run, focused on race. There is no other politician in America who could give the speech we heard two days ago, free of cliché, smart, lyric. Now, he needs to hit a home run with the white, ethnic, super-patriotic Catholics of Pennsylvania. And, only Obama can put his own experience of race into a broader context of American struggling against bigotry and how that struggle has made America a unique beacon of liberty for the entire world. Happy Triduum everyone! Back on Monday with a look at how Sen. Clinton can maintain her hold on the Catholic vote. Michael Sean Winters
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
10 years 10 months ago
I wonder Michael Sean if you are not more into rhetoric than getting things done. Obama fever certainly has taken hold of you and we are all finished if Barack does give a speech at Gettysburgh. It will, of course, be a master stroke. But you, and others of the like, need to know that a saturation point is coming in which we be Obamaed out. If he does get elected all else will anti-climactic. Maybe we need Lady Macbeth, whose figure looms in the anti-feminism of this campaign, to tell us how there is a lot of "sound and fury signifying nothing."
10 years 10 months ago
Race is and always has been an issue in our country. Yes, many of my immigrant ancestors faced much prejudices and hatred but most usually when they " assimilated" they were accepted because of their skin color. No matter how hard a black woman or man tries they are alway suspect be many white people. I do not want to be judged by what some of our pastors have said in public. Last presidential election I was totally upset with the statements of some of the bishops about Senator Kerry. How can we judge another person? I do not agree with the Rev. but I do not think Senator Obama should be judged by the actions and words of another person. Was Jesus a prostitute because he associated with prostitutes? Margaret Meeker


The latest from america

An extraordinary minister of the holy Eucharist distributes Communion during Mass at Transfiguration Church in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
According to a report released by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University on Jan. 22, just 33 percent of bishops in the United States think the church “should” ordain women as deacons.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 22, 2019

When the poet Mary Oliver died last week at the age of 83, my social media feeds blossomed into a field of tributes.

Lisa AmplemanJanuary 22, 2019
Most of the undocumented immigrants who are in the United States have overstayed a visa and did not cross the border illegally, according to a new analysis from the Center of Migration Studies.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 22, 2019
The church is my home because my home was a domestic church.
Katie Prejean McGradyJanuary 22, 2019