The author clearly believes the answer to the question posed in the headline, “Is Catholicism compatible with the American experiment?” is yes. I also suspect he and most people would say the answer to the question, “Was Catholicism compatible with British colonial America?” is no, since it was officially suppressed in most colonies.
So my question for Samuel Gregg is simple: When did this country become ‘compatible’ with Catholicism? 1776? 1783, when the yoke of a protestant empire that had used anti-catholicism as a political glue was thrown off? Or was it 1868, when the last protestant test oath for public office was revoked? The United States have nothing comparable to, say, the baptism of Clovis.
Brendan McConville, among others, have supposed that the three defining qualities of British colonial identity were attachments to a capitalist economy, protestantism, and the monarchy. The revolution jettisoned only one of those, and it wasn’t protestantism.
The appeal to religious toleration as a Catholic (or Catholic-‘compatible’) principle rooted in the Enlightenment is the least convincing thing in Gregg’s piece, because religious liberty was not embraced by a pope until 1965. And with good reason, because programs of “toleration” often went hand in hand with efforts to curtail the power of the church. In British North America, toleration was never understood to extend to Catholics, that was a later thing — right up until the revolution the pope was burned in effigy yearly. This was a key civic ritual that helped cement their identity as citizens of the British Empire, and anti-catholicism was one of the few things dissenters and Anglicans had in common.
The Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom reflects the same compromise between the state church and dissenters. Far from being driven by “the impetus provided by this Enlightenment concern” for religious liberty, it is not a primarily philosophical document at all. Religious toleration in Virginia was necessary because an embattled Anglican oligarchy needed the support of religious dissenters, reconciling the secular-minded ruling class and the anarchic revivalism taking root at the time.
Jefferson’s new law arose from an earlier debate during which he and James Madison conspired to quash religious education, something, again, dissenting protestants and a mostly secular-minded gentry could agree on. It also led directly to the only instance in American history of church land being systematically confiscated by the state in the Glebe Acts. The Statute on Religious Freedom is not a victory for religion, it’s something close to the opposite.
Since conservatives are out of power, today we are the ones begging for “toleration” where it once was baptists, congregationalists, and other dissenters, the leftists of their day. Gregg seems genuinely convinced that a lefty could be persuaded to support religious liberty with a pitch along the lines of, “see, as a person whose intellectual genealogy goes back to the Enlightenment, you should believe in religious toleration too.”
I also don’t get the author’s coldness to David Hume, Gregg extols the Scottish Enlightenment but seems to willfully misunderstand the most interesting part of it. He finds Hume too “irreligious” but won’t say an ill word of the man who cut up a Bible, wrote the anti-religious Statute, and banned Hume’s History of England from UVA on account of its alleged Tory bias.
(For far more erudite criticism of Actonians, I refer you to Opus Publicum)