From the 1660s until the revolution, American colonists burned effigies of the pope yearly. Loyalist officials were accused of promoting “the Popish religion.” Most colonists would have regarded the public display of crosses suspiciously.
There were Catholic signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as others who spoke out in favor of tolerating them; George Washington himself cracked down on “Pope’s Day” celebrations. But it’s equally important to note that the concept of religious liberty, especially in the context of the Southern colonies, mostly arose from the need for accommodation between the established Anglican Church and dissenting protestants. Religious liberty did not by definition extend to Catholics, because their loyalty to a foreign sovereign was a political matter as much as a religious one.
Many have written about how Catholic toleration during the revolution was due mostly to America’s alliance with France. That and the pragmatic need to put aside differences in a time of war forced New Englanders to moderate their rabid anti-Catholicism, which prior to the outbreak of hostilities used the king’s toleration of French Catholics in Quebec to inflame revolutionary sentiments, a radical point of view encapsulated by the slogan, “No king, no popery.” Even during and after the revolution, full rights of citizenship were not granted to Catholics; after 1776 in Georgia, the Carolinas, and New Jersey they could vote but not hold public office. Elizabeth Fenton has argued that Catholicism was the foil American liberalism needed to develop.
Along the same lines, T.H. Breen identifies anti-Catholicism as one of three major facets of British colonial identity, the others being constitutional monarchism and commerce:
The second element distinguishing the British Empire of the eighteenth century from its European competitors was Protestantism. Religious confession energized national identity. An English person assumed an obligation not only to uphold the constitution but also to resist the spread of Catholicism. Not surprisingly, the seeds of England’s dislike of Catholicism — an emotion that came close to mass hysteria — could be found in the history of the English Reformation. Henry VIII broke with the pope, and then his strong-willed daughter Elizabeth I turned back that Spanish Armada in 1588. The Spanish had intended to root out the religious heresy. Long after the threat of direct attack had receded, the English people still imagined dark conspiracies designed to weaken the Protestant faith. Such notions acquired greater credibility during the seventeenth century, as a succession of Stuart kings either married Catholics, compromised themselves by accepting large subsidies from Catholic nations like France, or, in the case of James II, converted to Catholicism. None of this pleased the ordinary people. In 1688 England’s ruling class sent James II packing — a defining moment known as the Glorious Revolution — and in his place invited William and Mary to accede the throne. The new monarchs’ major appeal was their unquestioned commitment to the Protestant cause.
Eighteenth-century Americans wove anti-Catholicism into their own sense of being British. However deficient in charisma were the Hanoverian kings who for more than a century after 1714 held the British Crown, they defended Protestantism against its continental enemies. In America this commitment translated into a long series of wars against the French. When the British finally emerged victorious from the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the colonists assured themselves that a Protestant God had supported British troops in the battle for Canada. Within this imperial framework it did not mater much whether one attended a Congregational, Anglican, or Presbyterian service, nor to what extent the leveling spirit of evangelical revivalism had swept up an individual or community. All Protestants qualified as proper British subjects. And Catholics were implacable enemies. As the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew explained in a politically charged sermon delivered in Boston in May 1765, “Our controversy with her [Rome] is not merely a religious one … But a defense of our laws, liberties and civil rights as men in opposition to the proud claims of ecclesiastical persons, who under the pretext of religion and saving of men’s souls, would engross all power and property to themselves, and reduce us to the most abject slavery.”
Another relevant line from that sermon is “Popery and liberty are incompatible; at irreconcileable enmity with each other,” which would have been common sense to most of the Founding Fathers.
John Adams took the rhetorical architecture of anti-Catholicism and applied it to the Church of England and the protestant government in his Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law in 1765, referring to apostolic succession as a “fantastical idea” and praising Massachusetts’ founders for rejecting episcopal delusions. As a New Englander, he rejected bishops for theological and philosophical reasons; a century earlier, Virginia rejected them because a bishop would have threatened the gentry’s hold on parish vestries. The Anglican religion, defined by bishop and king — representing canon and feudal law respectively — has never recovered in America, after a revolution in opposition to both, and the leftward drift of American protestantism has continued unabated, through unitarianism on down to the gingham and well-oiled beards of the “emerging church.”
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Religious liberty privileges more progressive-friendly kinds of religion, by design. That is the reason why the ACLU will support Religious Freedom Restoration Acts when they’re applied to Sikhs and Native Americans but not Christian bakers. If orthodox Christians, particularly Catholics, wonder why religious liberty no longer seems to apply to them, a large part of the answer is that it was never meant to.
Update: I’ve been meaning to link this piece by Mike Church about Patrick Henry’s support for the clergy and this seems like a good time.