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Continuities in American anti-Catholicism: the Texas Baptist Standard and the coming of the 1960 election.

In June 1960, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson told evangelist Billy Graham that religion would dominate the fall campaign if Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts received the Democratic nomination.

Graham dutifully reported the prediction to his preferred candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon, the presumptive Republican nominee. Kennedy's Catholicism promised to present challenges in Johnson and Rayburn's home state of Texas, and Texas was "in play" in 1960. Southern Baptists, the largest and most powerful Protestant denomination in the Lone Star State, could help swing the state and the election. The Baptist vote in 1960 was heavily anti-Catholic, and the state's leading denominational newspaper, the Baptist Standard, helped fuel that sentiment. Moreover, the Standard's anti-Catholicism did not suddenly blossom in 1960. Rather, it exemplified long-standing American nativist viewpoints with regard to the Roman Catholic Church. (1)

Historian John Higham described anti-Catholicism as "the most powerful of ... antiforeign traditions" in American history. Because the Catholic Church's "traditions did not ... harmonize easily with the concept of individual freedom imbedded in the national culture," many Americans throughout the nineteenth century held that Catholics might rebel and impose their religious precepts. By 1910, Higham argued, that fear of a Catholic revolt had generally dissipated, but antipathy toward the church's reactionary reputation remained. Dale T. Knobel asserted that American anti-Catholicism grew from the perceived danger church teachings posed to "intellectual autonomy." Critics of Catholicism distinguished between 'American" Catholics and "Roman" Catholics, to set apart those most highly susceptible to hierarchical control and those immunized from it. It also became fashionable to focus criticism upon "political" Catholicism rather than "religious" Catholicism, allowing critics to deny charges of bigotry against all Catholics. (2)

David Brion Davis researched themes common to anti-Mormon, anti-Masonic, and anti-Catholic literature and noted that nineteenth-century critics felt "rank-and-file members were not individually evil," but became ensnared in the Catholic Church's clutches and held there by threats of excommunication and damnation. The "cunning" of priests and higher clerics took advantage of "gullible" Protestants, and lulled people into inattention while the church slyly took ever more power and wealth. Exposes by former Catholic Church members confirmed the worst suspicions of the critics. Thus, anti-Catholic views did not spring from the imaginations of conspiracy theorists and professional haters alone. John T. McGreevy examined supposedly more sophisticated critics of Catholicism, who made similar arguments as late as the 1940s and 1950s. Paul Blanshard, liberal intellectual and former Congregationalist minister, linked Catholicism to fascism, presenting the church as a threat comparable to international Communism. Blanshard's concerns drew favorable comment from the likes of John Dewey, McGeorge Bundy, and Albert Einstein. (3)

David H. Bennett described American anti-Catholicism as part of a political tradition linking nineteenth-century nativists with the New Right of the twentieth century. These groups viewed America as an "Eden" threatened by intruders incapable of being 'American." "Traditional nativism" in America was an amalgam of "antialienism" and anti-Catholicism. Catholics threatened the American Eden because of their fidelity to a church that opposed core American values. Against a field of feuding and fiercely independent Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic monolith appeared dangerously unified and resolute. For Bennett, Al Smith's crushing defeat in the 1928 presidential election amounted to a "last stand" of "traditional nativism," and Bennett argued that immigration restriction helped ensure that it "would not emerge as in the past." Instead, by the 1950s, anti-Communism had replaced religious prejudice as an animating force of fear politics. According to Bennett, Richard Nixon's 1960 defeat simply reinforced the end of the "old nativism." (4)

Baptist Standard's Continuity with Texas Anti-Catholicism

Hostility toward Catholicism had deep roots in Texas. Anti-Catholic sentiment figured in Anglo Texans' opposition to Mexican rule, 1821-1836. U.S. Senator Sam Houston worked to build a Southern following for the Know-Nothings in the 1850s, partly because he hoped nativism would prevent a division over slavery, but also because he took seriously the movement's anti-Catholic fears. Texans supported Herbert Hoover rather than Al Smith in 1928 in no small part because of the Democrat's religion. The voices of "political preachers" helped ensure that the "Catholic question obtrude[d] itself ... constantly." Texas Southern Baptists numbered 1,262,451 by 1960, and the Baptist Standard, with a circulation of 385,000, influenced churches, preachers, Sunday School teachers, and laypeople. (5)

Between 1954 and 1960, the Baptist Standard revealed elements of that "old" Catholicism to be alive, well, and still influential. The Standard emphasized the authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It described the insidiousness of the church's designs in the world and in the United States. It hammered away at the church as a foreign, un-American institution, threatening the freedoms of citizens. Innovatively, the Baptist journal also tried to keep alive these concerns by highlighting their commonality with the struggles of the Cold War. Standard writers also built anti-Catholic sentiments around Southern Baptist doctrine and practice.

The Standard cast light upon the church hierarchy and Catholic authoritarianism abroad, particularly where Baptist missionaries labored in overwhelmingly Catholic nations. American nativism had long held that Catholic dominance made immigrants from such nations poor democrats and poor Americans. News items regularly emphasized high-handed state measures taken against Protestants to protect the dominant church. Stories revealed the extent of official repression in Italy, where government officials operating on Catholic Church instructions required Baptist churches to report their membership, interfered with tract printing and distribution, and even denied one Italian Baptist a Protestant funeral. Missionaries in Chile reported successful outreach, but also described the beating of a new convert by her own family. "And so goes Catholicism in South America--fearful, superstitious, dictatorial!" the article noted. About the only favorable news from Catholic Latin America came from Argentina, where dictator Juan Peron, already in trouble with the Catholic Church, lifted a ban on Baptist broadcasting. Faint Baptist praise for Peron offered Catholic editors a chance to tweak their Baptist counterparts' support for a dictatorial regime. (6)

Another angle of attack against the Catholic hierarchy common in the Standard involved spirited accusations about the church's lust for power and money. Repeated efforts to obtain federal and state aid for textbooks and transportation for parochial students attracted Protestant ire in the 1950s and 1960s. Such protestations might be fewer today, but principled objections were common among Baptists in the period. Principled objection, though, frequently contained a strong dose of anti-Catholic dogma. A 1955 article critical of federal aid took this slap at the hierarchy: "The ever-vigilant, alerted Roman Catholic hierarchy sincerely believes that the state is the civil arm of the church." As the 1960 presidential primary battles loomed, Standard editor E. S. James pointed to Charles de Gaulle's France as America's possible future, claiming the French president's subsidies to Catholic education set back that nation's "clock by almost 200 years." Catholic politicians, James warned, could never free themselves from hierarchical mandates. "America might elect 10 succeeding Catholic presidents who would refuse to do what de Gaulle has done," he wrote, "or any one of them might do even more for his church. One thing is certain beyond any doubt. He will never do it if we do not elect him." (7)

The image of the Roman Catholic Church as an insidious and manipulative institution plotting to enslave a free nation did not die off with the Know-Nothings or the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan. The church's power came from millions of unknowing accomplices--those in the pews. The Standard offered ordinary Catholics the benefit of the doubt, but still saw them as ruled by a clergy that hid needed information to make correct spiritual and political decisions. Former priest Emmett McLaughlin advised his Baptist readers not to worry about the three quarters of American Catholics he viewed as thoroughly Americanized. Rather, the danger lay in the one quarter of American Catholic laity classified as "good Catholics." These drones followed the rulings of the Church, "kept in ignorance" by clergy that "deliberately conceal[ed]" the truth behind its teachings. Baptist devotion to the Bible colored this vision of the typical Catholic. "We can believe the Catholic people are intelligent," E. S. James editorialized in response to a new emphasis upon Scripture by Bishop Leo Pursley of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Attention to the Bible could boost the laity's questioning of Rome. That would be especially welcome, James explained, for while there were "no doubt many Christians in [the Catholic Church] ... that does not guarantee that Christ would recognize it as a New Testament body." (8)

Complacency as Slippery Slope to Catholic Domination

Like nineteenth-century nativists and their latter-day variants, the editors and writers of the Standard worried that Protestants might become complacent, accommodate Catholicism, and start the nation down a slippery slope toward religious tyranny. Catholic statements about freedom and openness masked shrewd plots. From time to time, Baptist readers rebuked James for his strident tone against the church. A member of First Baptist, Dallas complained in a November 1956 letter to the editor that James's tone was "in bad taste." The editor's reply raised exactly these fears. "[T]hose who have remained docile and have acquiesced to the domination of the Roman hierarchy have soon found themselves swallowed up by it," he argued. While there may exist "good Catholic people," the editor continued, the Catholic Church hierarchy saw Protestantism as heresy and worked to frustrate it and defeat it wherever possible. (9)

Warning against creeping Romanism, Duke McCall insisted that the church's modus operandi always lulled the unwary until it was too late. Writing about the Catholic record on religious freedom, McCall struck at aid for parochial schools, reminding readers that the road to papal domination "uniformly begins with minor issues." Readers questioning James's comments on Kennedy's candidacy in early 1960 also got a lesson in the Catholic Church's stealthy agenda. One suggested that a Catholic "point of view" might help Baptist readers decide for themselves the merits of the Standard's anti-Catholic arguments. James thundered back: "It is not necessary to use this paper to give the Catholic point of view. Most of the major secular magazines and newspapers present that view and none other. We prefer to publish the unvarnished truth." (10)

To confirm the insidiousness of the Catholic threat, mid-twentieth-century Texas Baptists borrowed from the past, offering special attention to the testimony of former Catholic insiders. Tell-all treatments of the church, as well as stories of actual Catholics redeemed from papal domination, received play in the Baptist Standard. Throughout 1954, Emmett McLaughlin, a former priest from Phoenix, wrote a Standard column called "A Message to Catholics." The Standard's editor, David Gardner, praised McLaughlin's memoir The People's Padre. In his column, the ex-padre assumed his Baptist audience would use his words to reach Catholics. He also informed Baptists about whether or not Catholics could be good Americans (maybe) or if the Knights of Columbus really swore a secret oath to kill Protestants (they did not). McLaughlin intended his readers to better "witness" to Catholics, but also to reach Catholics themselves by encouraging Baptist laypeople to share his columns with their Catholic neighbors. (11)

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church's supposed hold on its members had spurred charges that "good" Catholics must be un-American. The Baptist Standard reflected this tendency with a new wrinkle. Caught up in the midst of a subsiding Red Scare, Texas Baptist journalists could not resist making parallels between the Catholic Church and the Communist menace. This represented an adaptation of liberal intellectual anti-Catholicism espoused by Paul Blanshard, but also countered historian David H. Bennett's assertion of the fading importance of "traditional nativism" by the 1950s. The Standard worked to weave Catholicism and Communism together in an unlikely dual threat to America's freedom and way of life. (12)

Sometimes Standard writers and editors complained of Catholic hostility to personal and religious freedom and compared it to that of Communism. At other times, they went so far as to accuse Catholicism of causing Communism. Ex-priest Emmett McLaughlin asserted that Catholic power "is often the indirect cause of Communism by keeping whole nations in ignorance and poverty." When an American Catholic cardinal praised religious freedom in the United States, a Standard article writer noted the church's abuse of Protestants in Latin America, and labeled the cardinal a hypocrite. If Communism represented "atheistic totalitarianism," the writer asserted, the Roman Catholic Church stood for "religious totalitarianism." (13)

The Baptist Standard and Senator John F. Kennedy

With Senator John F. Kennedy's entry into the presidential race in 1960, the Standard focused extensively on the un-American nature of the Catholic Church. Editor James credited Kennedy with being "a clean young man with intelligence, ability and competence." But before Protestants could support a Catholic in good conscience, the editor insisted, the American Catholic Church must renounce allegiance "to the foreign religio-political state at the Vatican" and declare "freedom from the domination of the clergy by American Catholic citizens." The first condition simply continued a hoary tradition of questioning the loyalty of American Catholics; however, the second carried a spiritual dimension unique to Baptists with their ostensible emphasis upon "priesthood of the believer." A month later, L. R. Elliott of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary restated these preconditions. Elliott insisted that Baptists should not and did not oppose the Massachusetts senator because he was a Catholic; rather opposition stemmed from his membership in a hybrid organization simultaneously a church and a state. The writer engaged in the bigot's favorite ruse--that demonstrating acceptance of individual Catholics allowed one to make attacks upon the church and be immunized from the accusation of prejudice. For Elliott, unless American Catholics broke with the Vatican, a Catholic presidency presented too grave a danger to contemplate. "The degree of presence of this dilemma is more evident in light of what is common knowledge," Elliott explained, "that the Church in every country follows a consistent pattern of seeking and using all the power and control it can gain" to advance its agenda. (14)

An examination of Baptist Standard content from 1954 to 1960 reveals continuity with earlier American anti-Catholicism. This phenomenon lays the ground for understanding the effects of Baptist hostility toward Catholicism upon Texas politics during the 1960 presidential election. Both party and commercial polling indicated the salience of the religious issue. A May Belden poll revealed that 76 percent of Texans knew Kennedy was Catholic, 60 percent saw that as a liability for him, and Protestants preferred Nixon by ten percentage points. Polls commissioned by the Kennedy-Johnson campaign showed 59 percent of Baptists supporting Nixon in mid-September. The Democrat's religion concerned 37 percent of Texas voters overall, but 58 percent of Texans supported Nixon. The Baptist Standard helped stoke these sentiments. (15)

Beyond continuity, the Standard's criticism of the Catholic Church made some departures. David Bennett's claim that anti-Catholicism had receded behind Communism as a concern of America's "party of fear" does not apply to Texas Baptists. The Standard made determined, if sometimes contradictory, efforts to make comparisons of the dangers of Communism and the Roman Catholic Church. While utilizing insights appearing in the liberal intellectual critique of Catholicism proffered by Paul Blanshard, the Baptist paper tended to spin these along lines reflective of such denominational imperatives as priesthood of the believer and emphasis upon the Bible. The effort of the Baptist Standard to influence Texas Baptists' view of Catholicism and the 1960 vote offer a window into the uses and foci of a nascent evangelical political clout now so significant in American politics.

(1.) Billy Graham to Richard Nixon, June 21, 1960, Box 299, Vice-Presidential General Correspondence, Richard Nixon Papers, National Archives and Records Administration, Laguna Niguel, CA.

(2.) John Higham, Strangers in the Land (New Brunswick, N J: Rutgers University Press, 1955), 5-6, 179. Dale T Knobel, America for Americans: The Nativist Movement in the U.S. (New York: Twayne, 1996), 120, 122.

(3.) David Brion Davis, "Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47 (September 1960): 207, 208, 211, 217, 218. John T. McGreevy, "Thinking on One's Own: Catholicism in the American Intellectual Imagination, 1928-1960," The Journal of American History 84 (June 1997): 97-99. Blanshard's books on the threat of Catholicism include: American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949), Communism, Democracy and Catholic Power (1951), and Freedom and Catholic Power in Spain and Portugal: An American Interpretation (1962).

(4.) David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 2-8, 9-11, 13-14, 232-37, 319-21.

(5.) Arnoldo De Leon, The Tejano Community, 1836-1900 (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1997), 10-11. Gregg Cantrell, "Sam Houston and the Know-Nothings: A Reappraisal," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 96 (January 1993): 327-43. Norman Brown, Hood, Bonnet and Litile Brown Jug: Texas Politics, 1921-1928 (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1984), 410-19. Robert A. Calvert, Arnoldo De Leon, and Gregg Cantrell, The History of Texas, 3rd ed. (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2002), 374. The population of Texas in 1960 was 9,579,661; see ibid., 351. 1960 Standard circulation figures are a modern estimate, Mary Knox to author, September 20, 2004.

(6.) "Baptists in Italy and Spain Face Roman Oppression," Baptist Standard, June 10, 1954, p. 11. Andrew S. Allen, "Witness in Chile," Baptist Standard, May 27, 1954, 6. Duke K. McCall, "Can the Catholic Editor Read?" Baptist Standard, July 16, 1955, 7. On nativist concern with the effects of Catholic rule upon immigrants, see Knobel, America for Americans, 122, and Bennett, Party of Fear, 2-3.

(7.) Joseph M. Dawson, "Temptations of the Churches," Baptist Standard, July 23, 1955, 6-7. E. S. James, "When A Catholic Is President," Baptist Standard, February 3, 1960, 4.

(8.) Emmett McLaughlin, "A Message to Catholics: Can Devout Catholics Be Loyal Americans?" Baptist Standard, May 29, 1954, 7. E. S. James, "A Good Catholic Statement," Baptist Standard, June 15, 1957, 2.

(9.) "I Must Disagree," James Chambers to Standard editor and James's reply, Baptist Standard, November 10, 1956, 3.

(10.) Duke K. McCall, "Can the Catholic Editor Read?," Baptist Standard, July 16, 1955, 7. Vennie Smith to Standard editor and James's response, Baptist Standard, March 30, 1960, 3.

(11.) David Gardner, "A Priest's Journey Out," Baptist Standard, April 22, 1954, 2. Emmett McLaughlin, "A Message to Catholics," Baptist Standard, May 20, 1954, 7, and May 27, 1954, 5.

(12.) Bennett, Party of Fear, 13-14.

(13.) McLaughlin quoted in David Gardner, "A Priest's Journey Out," Baptist Standard, April 22, 1954, 2. James Lee Garrett, "Call to Catholic Friends," Baptist Standard, February 2, 1957, 11-12.

(14.) E. S. James, "Mr. Kennedy's Candidacy," Baptist Standard, February 17, 1960, 4. "Priesthood of the believer" is the Baptist understanding of an individual's ability to interpret Scripture and find salvation without the intervention or guidance of clergy. The doctrine, once nearly universally accepted, has come into increasing question among modern Southern Baptist leaders; see Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention (New Brunswick, N J: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 21, 87-89, 266. L. R. Elliott, "The President's Church Affiliation," Baptist Standard, March 2, 1960, 22. Emphasis mine. Knobel, America for Americans, 122.

(15.) Joe Beldon Co., "The Texas Poll, Report 585, May 9, 1960," Box 262, Senate Political Files, Lyndon B. Johnson Papers, Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Austin, Texas. Louis Harris and Associates, "A Survey of the Presidential Election in Texas in 1960," September 14, 1960, Box 45, Pre-Administration Papers, Robert F. Kennedy Papers, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts.

Ricky Floyd Dobbs is associate professor and chair of the Department of History at Texas A&M University-Commerce, Commerce, Texas.
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Author:Dobbs, Ricky Floyd
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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