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Catholics, Civil Rights, and the Holy Name | Jonathan J. Bean, Ph.D. | Ignatius Insight | August 17, 2009
the nomination hearing for Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Senator Al Franken (D-MN)
asked whether there was a "right to privacy" that might include
abortion or birth control. Sotomayor answered that there was a string of
precedents establishing the "right to privacy," all the way
backto a 1920s-era case that gave parents control over their children's
Although she did not mention the case by name, Sotomayor was referring to an issue and
decision (Pierce v. Society of Sisters) that deeply divided the nation: The issue was simple: could you be Catholic and
"100% American"? The Ku Klux Klan answered with a resounding
"No!" as it reincarnated itself to attack American Catholics nationwide.
The Klan was so powerful that it secured passage of an Oregon law banning all private schools, and there were bill to do the same
in other states. Fortunately, the Court ruled that children were not "mere
creature[s] of the State" and struck down efforts to criminalize
My new book, Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader (University Press of Kentucky, in association with
the Independent Institute, 2009) emphasizes the role of Christianity (and
Judaism) in the classic tradition of civil rights. This "classical
liberal" tradition is neither Left nor Right but was deeply influenced by
Judeo-Christian notions of natural law. Naturally, Catholics played a role in
upholding the "natural rights" of men and women.
Race and Liberty in America discusses how
the Catholic Church married interracial couples, a
private act that was illegal in dozens of states until the Loving decision of 1967 declared marriage a "natural
right." My entry on Lovingincludes a statement by U.S. Catholic bishops in support of the
plaintiffs. The bishops cited language from the Vatican II Council:
The Church was "committed to the proposition that 'with
regard to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination,
whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social
condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary
to God's intent.'"
This was not the first time Catholics stood for the natural right of life and the
liberty of marriage or reproduction. During the 1920s, the sole Catholic
Supreme Court Justice, Pierce Butler, dissented from the infamous case
legalizing sterilization of "inferior" individuals and races (Buck
v. Bell, 1927). "Progressive" justice Oliver Wendell
Holmes spoke for the majority when he wrote that "three generations of
imbeciles are enough." Holmes invoked the principle of
compulsory vaccination as precedent for forced sterilization. Holmes
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting
to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their
imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing
their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough
to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are
the anti-Catholic Klan was most powerful, its
members attacked Catholics as "inferior" and less than
"100% American." The Klan secured immigration
quotas limiting migration from Catholic countries. Along with the
efforts to ban Catholic schools, the Klan discouraged
public schoolsfrom hiring Catholic teachers. The situation
became so heated that New York Governor (and future president) Franklin D.
Roosevelt signed a law that prohibited discrimination on the basis of
religion in public school hiring. (FDR's position on Catholics and Jews left
much to be desired but he knew how to land on the right side of a political issue).
In 1924 the Klan flexed enormous political power before crumbling in the
midst of a sex scandal and exposés of its corruption. Race and Liberty in America shows how President Calvin Coolidge undercut the KKK by refusing to appear at their massive D.C. rally (the Imperial Wizard was
not pleased). Instead, Coolidge choseto address a parade of 100,000
Catholics celebrating the Holy Name Society.
Coolidge's speech advocated religious and racial toleration--a clear blow
at the anti-black, anti-Catholic Klan. He spoke of Christian toleration
again by addressing the graduating class of Howard University, the
historically black college in Washington, D.C.
In a word, Catholics were at the center of many civil rights struggles, including
the struggle to be recognized as equal to other Americans. With the help of
classical liberalism, they secured their rights to free association (schools)
and all the "privileges and immunities" of citizenship. In turn, they
fought for the "natural"right to marry whomever we please by
drawing upon natural law--a doctrine rooted in Catholic thought. Race and
Liberty in America illustrates the power of
classical liberal belief in individual freedom, God, and color blind law.
Protestants, Catholics, and Jews all contributed to this anti-racist tradition,
from 1776 to the present day.
As the Professor-Policeman-President story fades, we might remember that this country has
overcome deep-seated hatreds based on religion. Can we do the same with race?
Yes, we can. However, rather than concede "rights talk" to the Left
and Right, we Americans need to rediscover a tradition that emphasizes our
respect for individual dignity. That tradition is deeply rooted in Christian
concepts of man and God.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
Privacy, the Courts, and the Culture of Death | Dr. Janet E. Smith
Biblical Aspects of the Theme of Faith and Politics | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond L. Dennehy
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
Dei Verbum and Christian Morals | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
"Can Catholics Be 'Real Americans'?" | Mark Brumley
On Being Catholic American | Joseph A. Varacalli
The State Which Would Provide Everything | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Speaking Up For Life | An Interview with Deirdre McQuade, the
USCCB's Director of Planning and Information
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker
Jonathan J. Bean, Ph.D, is a Research Fellow at the
Independent Institute and professor of History at Southern Illinois University.
A graduate of St. Michael's College (Vermont), he attends Our Lady of Mount
Carmel Church in Carterville, Illinois, with his family.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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