- Missionaries of Republicanism: A Religious History of the Mexican-American War by John C. Pinheiro
In Missionaries of Republicanism, John Pinheiro traces religious, racial, and ideological themes within American culture to explain how Americans justified, opposed, and interpreted the Mexican-American War. While Democrats and Whigs sparred over issues like slavery, expansion, and protective tariffs, anti-Catholicism provided a “common vocabulary and shared categories of thought” that helped unite an otherwise divided nation (16). The central argument is that the roots of Manifest Destiny (and antebellum American identity) were planted in anti-Catholic soil. The “unifying discourse” of anti-Catholicism – which increased as a result of Texas’s annexation and the war – “transcended section, religious denomination, and political affiliation” (1). It tied together racial and nativist assumptions that collectively informed how Americans viewed themselves and their neighbors to the south.
Much of Pinheiro’s book aims to show how Americans of nearly all denominations, political orientations, and classes viewed the war through an anti-Catholic lens. Pro-war Democrats emphasized the potential for missionary activity if the United States annexed the “mongrel” Catholics of Mexico. Anti-war Whigs scoffed at this notion, arguing instead that Mexican Catholics were unfit for civil or religious freedom. While Protestants had long believed that American Catholics of English and Irish descent were unsuited for republican government, their Anglo-Saxon or “white” heritage suggested that they might be transformed into republican citizens. Not so for Mexican Catholics. The combination of their inferior race and religion, to many Americans, rendered them incapable of managing the demands that came with republican government. The war “clarified these preexisting perspectives on race, national identity, and religion” by drawing on the tradition of anti-Catholicism during an especially tense period of Protestant-Catholic relations (4). [End Page 73]
Pinheiro also delves into the politics of the 1840s. He explores the tensions that the Polk administration faced as it tried to convince Catholics in America and Mexico that this was not a religious war while simultaneously appeasing the nativist factions within the Democratic Party who insisted that Providence had been responsible for the conflict. Polk appointed Catholics as chaplains to calm Catholic concerns, but this move only reinforced anti-Catholic anxieties about the growing influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Chapters on the annexation of Texas, Manifest Destiny, recruitment, soldiers’ experiences during the conflict, and Protestant leadership explore those anxieties and the ways in which anti-Catholic sentiments influenced responses to the war.
Pinheiro’s most salient point is that American identity and the war itself were unintelligible without reference to anti-Catholicism. In that way, this work may be read alongside a rich literature on American anti-Catholicism. But Pinheiro successfully marries the anti-Catholic tradition to prevailing racial assumptions of the era. Missionaries of Republicanism therefore contributes to an emerging scholarship on religion and race. It will be of interest to scholars of American religion, race, and specialists in the Mexican-American War. Although some scholars will lament that it leaves Catholics themselves relatively muted, Pinheiro’s work will delight academics across a variety of disciplines.