Lyman Beecher was Prophetic

Anti-Catholicism is one of the most difficult topics that I teach on the history religion in the United States. Students today, most of whom were born about the time that the Dude was trying to recover his rug (i.e. the first Iraq War), have no understanding or feel for the sort of animus that Protestants in the U.S. once had for Roman Catholics. One of the most important expressions of anti-Catholicism came as late as 1949 when Paul Blanshard wrote American Freedom and Catholic Power, which was not an obscure monograph but a best-seller.

That sort of anti-Catholicism still haunted the days of my youth, despite the election in 1960 of the first Roman Catholic as president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This anti-Catholicism was seriously deficient. It drew its animus not from a defense of the Reformation and the formal (sola Scriptura) and material (justification) principles of Protestantism. Instead, it was rooted in a very anti-2k conflation of Protestantism with liberal society (in the form of republicanism and democracy). Because Roman Catholics were subject to a foreign prince (the pope), and because the Church itself was one of the most feudal and medieval (anti-modern and anti-democractic) of institutions, followers of Rome could not be “good” Americans. They were outsiders and Protestants were insiders. That’s why Protestants had public schools and Roman Catholics needed parochial (in both senses) institutions.

Lyman Beecher put anti-Catholic notions succinctly in his book A Plea for the West where he worried about the influx of Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany (at the time a mere trickle compared to what was coming in the 1840s):

If [Roman Catholics] associated with republicans, the power of caste would wear away. If they mingled in our schools, the republican atmosphere would impregnate their minds. If they scattered, unassociated, the attrition of circumstances would wear off their predilections and aversions. If they could read the Bible, and might and did, their darkened intellect would brighten, and their bowed down mind would rise. If they dared to think for themselves, the contrast of protestant independence with their thraldom, would awaken the desire of equal privileges, and put an end to an arbitrary clerical dominion over trembling superstitious minds.

Since 1970 the old Protestant anti-Catholicism has vanished. Some of this owes to the culture wars in which evangelical Protestants have recognized Roman Catholics as some of the surest defenders of traditional morality, especially on matters sexual. Another important factor is that Roman Catholics have “gotten right” with the United States. That is, they have become some of an American way of life’s chief defenders. The process began notably with John Courtney Murray’s book, We Hold These Truths (1960). But it continues and a recent post confirms how American and modern Roman Catholics in the United States have become. Here is what Joseph Pearce has to say:

One of the truths of Christendom which lays the very foundations of freedom is the Christian insistence on the mystical equality of all people in the eyes of God and the insistence on the dignity of the human person that follows logically, inexorably and inescapably from such an insistence. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God, it doesn’t matter if people are black or white, healthy or sick, able-bodied or handicapped, or whether babies are inside the womb or out of it. It doesn’t matter that people are different, in terms of race, age or innate abilities; they are all equal in the eyes of God and, therefore, of necessity, in the eyes of Man also. This is the priceless inheritance of Christendom with which our freedoms are established and maintained. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God and Man, everyone must also be equal in the eyes of the law.

If, however, the equality of man is denied, freedom is imperiled. The belief of Nietzsche, adopted by the Nazis, that humanity consists of übermenschen and untermenschen, the “over-men” and the “under-men”, led to people being treated as subhuman, worthy of extermination and victims of genocide. The progressivist belief of Hegel, adopted by Marx and his legion of disciples, that a rationalist dialectic, mechanistically determined, governs the progress of humanity, led to the deterministic inhumanity of communism and the slaughter of those deemed to be enemies of “progress”. The French Revolution, an earlier incarnation of atheistic progressivism and the progenitor of communism, had led to the invention of the guillotine as the efficient and effective instrument of the Great Terror and its rivers of blood. The gas chamber, the Gulag and the guillotine are the direct consequence of the failure to uphold the Christian concept of human equality and the freedom it enshrines. In our own time, the same failure to accept and uphold human equality has led to babies in the womb being declared subhuman, or untermenschen, without any protection in law from their being killed at the whim of their mothers.

Apart from the connection between freedom and equality, the other aspect of freedom enshrined by Christianity is the freedom of the will and the consequences attached to it. If we are free to act and are not merely slaves to instinct as the materialists claim, we have to accept that we are responsible for our choices and for their consequences.

What is remarkable about this argument is that it is precisely the one that Protestants used to use against Roman Catholics. In other words, especially prior to Vatican II, Rome’s hierarchy was especially skeptical about republican institutions and for good reason given how the French Revolution played out for the Church in France. But now Rome seems to be fully on board with those very institutions that Protestants embraced to justify themselves to the wider world. Winthrop’s city on a hill morphed into Wilson’s war to make the world safe for democracy.

What is also important to notice is that just as Protestants had to adapt (and liberalize) their faith to underwrite the U.S. project by giving up Calvinism’s notions about divine sovereignty and human sinfulness (think Finney and Fosdick), so Roman Catholics like Pearce (anyway) have forgotten that Thomas Aquinas was a predestinarian who believed that the human soul was incapable on its own of free will. In other words, the United States first assimilated Protestants to Americanism and now it appears that it is also working its wonders with Roman Catholicism.

The only immunity appears to be two-kingdom theology. It allows you to defend republican (or sacral monarchical) ways in one realm, and divine sovereignty in the other. No muss, no fuss (if only).


13 thoughts on “Lyman Beecher was Prophetic

  1. Bryan Cross: Or, we agree with St. Thomas when he argues explicitly that we do have free will.

    RS: One is free in the sense that one is not forced by God to sin. But one is not free to do God by his own will and one is not free to obtain grace from God for self as he pleases. Those who are in in are in bondage to sin (Rom 7:14) and those in the flesh cannot subject self to the law of God (Rom 8:6-8). One is not free to cause self to be born again because that is done by the will of God alone (John 1:13), not to mention that man has no power to overcome sin, self, and the devil himself.


  2. Hi Darryl,

    You may enjoy this visual exclamation point to argument:

    Choose Your Pope!

    via Lutheran Satire of course. 😉


  3. Lily, I had seen that somewhere else last week but thanks for making it available here. And good to hear from you. I guess all of this talk about Texas smoked you out.


  4. I’m afraid I missed the talk about Texas – would you mind getting me up to speed or pointing me to it? Actually, I dropped by because I’ve been watching some of Hillsdale’s video lectures on the constitution. Natch, I thought of you and had to come by and say hi!

    I’m glad you’re still familiar with Lutheran Satire and still faithfully blogging and teaching. I guess it doesn’t surprise me that your students would have a hard time understanding those times. We seem to be drowning in progressivism. Hence the link to LS.


  5. “The New Testament witness does not separate the saving work of Christ, His will to save from His will to be Lord. His Lordship and salvation are inseparable because He is the one who has done the deciding and He is the one whose life now defines the life of the Christian and Christian community. The only will that is free to do any choosing where God is concerned is God’s will. For us to claim such freedom is not the key to salvation, it is blasphemy. For it is claiming something for ourselves that belongs to God alone.”

    From a piece my pastor (Mark Anderson) wrote about “free-will”.


  6. Thank you, Dr. Hart, for a very interesting post.
    Of course, Leo XIII is turning over in his grave because he wrote,

    …it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced.” (Longinqua: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Catholicism in the United States. 1895.)

    It’s interesting to see that Americanism trumps “irreformability”.



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