- Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture
Scholars of religion in the United States have long argued that anti-Catholicism is in many ways endemic to U.S. culture. The first settlers, particularly the Puritans, brought their prejudices with them as they established their City Upon a Hill, where anti-Catholicism was deeply woven into the nation’s foundational fabric. Elizabeth Fenton’s Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture expands this argument to demonstrate that anti-Catholicism in fact formed the backing on the quilt of U.S. liberal democracy. The ideologies of various Protestant denominations comprise the multifaceted squares of democratic pluralism, freedom, and equality, but these are bound [End Page 68] together by their underside: a contrasting perception of Catholicism as monolithic, enthralling, and hierarchical.
In her introduction, Fenton states that her book’s central premise is that U.S. conceptions of “religious pluralism and its corresponding ‘right of conscience’ – two highly prized features of secular liberal democracy – drew their force from anti-Catholicism.” Nineteenth-century U.S. Protestantism, then, helped define both diversity and individual freedom through anti-Catholic cultural productions. Here Fenton moves past Jenny Franchot’s premise that anti-Catholicism was the vehicle through which Anglo-American Protestants forged a unified identity. Fenton argues that pre-twentieth century anti-Catholicism served as a measure for the country’s capacity to accommodate religious pluralism and as a warning to preserve its political and social freedom. Domestic Protestantism, in Fenton’s view, thus emerged as the guarantor of religious liberty and respect for difference through its dramatic contrast to perceived “foreign” Catholicism.
Religious Liberties has six chronologically arranged chapters, which demonstrate how Catholicism operated as a foil for liberal democracy, a test of its provisions, and a proof of its failings. The first two chapters analyze documents from the founding era, including the Quebec Act and the response to it by the Continental Congress. Fenton claims that early national discussions about the relationship of church and state are centered in this period’s fear and hostility to Catholicism. The discourse intensified during the antebellum period into debates over democracy’s limits. In an especially interesting chapter on the captive nun tale, Fenton explores the way the popular novel interrogates the suitability of women’s participation in the liberal democratic public sphere.
Chapters 4 and 5 demonstrate the way anti-Catholicism paired with discussions of slavery to complicate the notion of nineteenth-century liberal democracy. Fenton convincingly posits that Haitian Catholicism “disrupted the liberal abolitionist conversion schema” by [End Page 69] her reading of contemporary biographies of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture against works by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Herman Melville. Her final chapter explores ways Henry Adams’s Democracy (1880) and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) marshal anti-Catholicism to critique the perceived failure of U.S. liberal democracy. In the twilight of the nineteenth century, the heady goals of the founding fathers have seemingly devolved into republican despotism, becoming less aligned with liberal Protestantism, and more like the Catholicism they sought to exclude. Through this illuminating study of nineteenth-century anti-Catholicism, Fenton thus ironically establishes the centrality of Catholicism to the development of key ideas about religion and freedom that form the patchwork of the nation.