HM - March 2017 - Backstory: Catholics in America

Classroom Applications

Catholics in America
Teacher Resource Set

by Joan Musbach


Background for Teachers
From the vantage point of the present, it is hard to envision a time when being a Catholic disqualified you from public office—when electing a Catholic president was unthinkable. This reality is in jarring contrast to the historical narrative of the settling of the English colonies in North America and the founding of our nation, which typically tells of people coming to America for religious freedom.  Often left out, because it is relegated to a course in world history, is a thorough understanding of the Protestant Reformation and its impact on English colonization in North America. Many twenty-first century students do not understand the intensity of religious beliefs in what is called by some historians, “The Age of Faith.” Also often left out of the classroom narrative are the details of who did and who did not have religious freedom in America.  Severe limitations were placed on the religious freedoms of Catholics, Jews, and non-believers.  The lesson that follows focuses on the attitudes and restrictions of the Protestant majority as related to Catholics in America.
Americans often conclude that with the addition of the First Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing free exercise of religion, Catholics in America would be free of limitations resulting from religious prejudice.  But this was not the case.  True, legal restrictions on Catholic participation in government were eliminated. But as the numbers of Catholics in America increased throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, discrimination took different forms as white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants continued to view themselves as the true Americans, seeing Catholics as a foreign influence loyal to the Pope in Rome. This continued to be a commonly expressed belief all the way to the election of John F. Kennedy, the first and only Catholic President of the United States. Having put to rest the belief that a Roman Catholic could not be a loyal American, do we now see similar thoughts attached to Muslims? Have we switched feelings of religious bigotry from one group to “the other”?
In the lesson material that follows, students will have the opportunity to develop and practice several of History’s Habits of Mind. These Habits of Mind provide life-long advantages, helping students develop mature thought processes for both learning and living.
The significance of the past in shaping the present can be seen in both positive and negative aspects of American attitudes towards religious groups in the present. The past can provide lessons in how fears of “the other” were/are exaggerated and often unwarranted. The principle of freedom of religion, believed to be part of our founding story and guaranteed in our founding document, still provides a standard to which most Americans aspire. But students may well ask if we have replaced one religious group with another as an object of hate and fear.
Perceiving past events and issues as they might have been experienced by the people of the time, with historical empathy rather than present-mindedness, challenges adolescents.  While it may not be possible for twenty-first century adolescents to comprehend the intensity of religious belief that resulted in settling America, they can perhaps comprehend the worry and fear generated by large numbers of immigrants to America with different religious beliefs and practices.  Native-born Americans of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries feared changes in their way of life because of the new immigrant population. 
This lesson focuses on the work of anti-Catholic groups to ensure Protestant domination.  Understanding the impact made by individuals, groups, and institutions at local, national, and global levels both in effecting change and in ensuring continuity is key. Neither the Know Nothings nor the Ku Klux Klan could prevent participation by Catholics in American government.  Despite tolerant attitudes expressed by American leaders, individual heroes seem to be lacking in this story.  Change seems to have come about largely through the collective energies of Catholics in America who proved themselves to be American and Catholic.
There are a number of primary and secondary sources included in this lesson for students to analyze. Students will interrogate texts and artifacts and pose questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate, and evidence-based interpretation.  As they do so, they are asked to reach an understanding of the times that produced the sources and use the information gathered to formulate statements about the issues based on the evidence they have examined.
These lessons contain an abundance of information about the difficulties experienced by Catholics in America over three centuries.  Used in their entirety, they show progress in America towards a more tolerant, inclusive nation, and at the same time, the lessons illustrate the difficulty of bringing about social change.


Procedures: Part 1—Religious Freedom in the Founding Era
Step 1:            Ask students to consider the following question: What do you know about freedom of religion in the United States’ Founding Era (1607-1791)? As students make contributions, list them on the board from “Least Freedom” to “Most Freedom.”
Step 2:            Distribute Source 1 and ask students to read the first two pages of the source (Part 1: Colonization and Catholicism).  As students read, instruct them to complete the graphic organizer found in Handout 1, or use a graphic organizer you prefer. Explain that at the end of class they will turn in an exit slip on which they will:

  • list three pieces of information from the reading that surprised/amazed you
  • identify two ideas/events you would like to know more about
  • write one question you would like answered about this information
Step 3:            Provide students with a copy of Handout 1 that corresponds with each part of Source 1 (so four copies total of Handout 1). For homework, assign students the remaining portions of Source 1 and have them complete a graphic organizer on each portion of this reading.

Procedures: Part 2—Religious Freedom in the Founding Era
Step 1:            Project or distribute Source 2, “The Mitred Minuet.” Distribute Handout 2 and ask students to use the handout to analyze Source 2 individually or with a partner.
Step 2:            After students consider the context, symbolism, and cartoonist’s argument on their own or in groups, discuss the cartoon as a class. If the questions listed below do not emerge as part of the students’ analysis, guide them to answer the following questions:
  • What is the cartoonist’s attitude toward Catholics? How does he make this clear in the cartoon?
  • How is the Quebec Act portrayed? How might this concern with Catholicism relate to the American Revolution?
The following summary provides more information about the engraving:
The silversmith and engraver, Paul Revere created a cartoon for The Royal American Magazine called “The Mitred Minuet.”  It depicts four contented-looking mitred Anglican bishops dancing a minuet around a copy of the Quebec Act to show their “approbation and countenance of the Roman religion.”  Standing nearby are the authors of the Quebec Act, while a devil with bat ears and spiky wings hovers behind them, whispering instructions.
See The British Museum’s description and curator’s comments here

Step 3:            In the students’ journals/learning logs/notebooks, instruct students to construct the following graph.
                        Title: Taking the Temperature of Religious Bigotry in America
      Vertical Axis: Either Fahrenheit or Celsius, marked from freezing to boiling temperatures.
Horizontal Axis: Dates: 1620, 1715, 1774, 1780, 1820. For each date draw a thermometer.  Estimate the intensity of anti-Catholic sentiment for each year and color in the mercury to that level in the thermometer.
You may wish to discuss the appropriate level with the class and reach consensus on where the level should be on each thermometer. This activity will be repeated for each segment of subsequent lessons.

Procedures: Part 3—Social and Political Ramifications of Anti-Catholicism
Step 1:            Play the BackStory segment – “A Cloistered Lie
Step 2:            Project or distribute Source 3, “Ursuline Convent Fire.” Begin by asking students to consider the context of the event depicted in the image. When did the fire take place? What do they know about life in Massachusetts during this time? What do they see in the image?
Step 3:            Distribute Source 4, “An Anti-Catholic Petition from New York Nativists to the U. S. Congress, 1837.” Introduce the document:
Between 1784 and 1820 the Roman Catholic population in the United States grew from 30,000 to 300,000. Many of these Catholic immigrants were uneducated, unskilled, and blamed for a wide variety of problems emerging particularly in American cities, problems such as poverty, crime, and disease.  They were also blamed for depressing wages and worsening labor conditions.  Anti-Catholic sermons and speeches were frequent, including those of the Rev. Lyman Beecher, father of Harriett Beecher Stowe, who shared his anti-Catholic sentiments in Boston churches around the time the Ursuline Convent was burned. The document you are about to read was one of many being sent to Congress.  The sentiments being expressed here are labeled “nativist,” which means believing that native-born, or long established Americans needed to be protected from the bad effects of immigrants and immigration.
Step 4:            As students read, they should consider the following questions:
  • When was the document written?
  • Who was/were the author(s)?
  • What is the purpose of this type of document?
  • What conditions in the United States of the 1830s contributed to the outbreak of nativism?
  • What conditions might have contributed to New York being a hotbed of nativist activity?
  • What did the petitioners fear most about the Catholic immigrants?
  • How did the petitioners define religious liberty?  Is “toleration” what is guaranteed by the First Amendment?
Step 5:            Divide the class into Congressional Committees of three. Designate half of the committees as from the House of Representatives and half from the Senate.  Each committee is to determine an appropriate response to the petition, remembering that they are elected officials. Remind students that Representatives are elected directly by the people; at this time Senators were elected by the various state legislatures. They must consider how attentive to the prevailing constituent attitudes they must be if they wish to continue as members of Congress.
Step 6:            Each group will write their committee’s response using the “Pass Around Paragraph” strategy: As a group, determine the topic sentence that states your committee’s response to the petition. Pass around the paper and each committee member adds two sentences explaining the reasoning (initial your sentences).  Pass the paragraph around until it reaches at least 13 sentences.  Writers are to make sure that the phrasing of their sentences creates a paragraph that reads logically from beginning to end. Remember to reply to the specific requests made in the petition and to each of the reasons given for making the request.

Procedures: Part 4—Political Responses to Anti-Immigrant Sentiment
Step 1:            Project a graph or chart showing immigration to America between 1830 and 1835, or call students’ attention to a printed graph or chart showing pre-Civil War Irish and German immigration. Ask students to predict what change, if any, will occur in American sentiment toward immigration of Catholics.
Step 2:            Have students access and read (or print and distribute) the site below that connects the burning of the Ursuline Convent and the emergence of the Know-Nothing Party.
Step 3:            Distribute and have students read Source 5, “Immigration, Politics, and the ‘Know-Nothing’ Party.” Discuss: Should the United States exclude immigrants on the basis of religious or political belief? Are there nativist attitudes in America today?
Step 4:            Mini-Research Assignment: Research statements of candidates for the presidency in 2016 revealing sentiments and intended actions pertaining to immigration. Compare and contrast these with anti-immigration sentiments and actions in pre-Civil War America.
Step 5:            Instruct students to add to their “Taking the Temperature Graph” thermometer readings for 1834, 1855.


Procedures: Part 5—The Battle Over School Funding
Step 1:            Introduce the topic by playing the BackStory segment, "Catholic Schooled."
Step 2:            Elaborate on the Common School issue in the 1870s.
Reformers before the Civil War begin to encourage taxpayers to support free public schools.  These “common schools” became increasingly important as Americans emphasized the need to “Americanize” the children of the growing immigrant population. Consistent with America’s founding, this meant acculturating them to the Protestant version of Christianity.  The education in the public schools involved daily prayers and Bible reading, typically from the King James Version. 
Catholic parents objected to having their children educated in this manner and started parochial schools.  As the Catholic population grew in many areas, Catholic parents sought tax support for their parochial schools or, at least, the exclusion of overtly Protestant religious instruction in the common schools.  They were successful in cities with large Catholic populations like Cincinnati, Chicago, New York, and Buffalo.  By 1875 the “school question,” Protestant versus Catholic, had become a major national issue. Protestants protested with an anti-Catholic cry:
            “And shall our Common Schools, the republic’s strongest hope
            Be wielded by deceitful Priests, a Bishop or the Pope?”
Thomas Nast, the widely popular cartoonist, entered the battle.
Step 3:            Distribute Source 6, the Thomas Nast cartoon from 1875, “The American River Ganges” and Handout 2. Students might benefit from working in pairs so they can
discuss the symbolism and meaning in the cartoon.
There is excellent help in decoding this cartoon available in Reading Like A Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle & High School History Classrooms, pages 61 – 64 which you might like to access.
Step 4:            Have students add 1875 to their “Taking the Temperature Graph.”
Step 5:            Distribute Source 7. Ask students to read Grant’s 1875 speech in Iowa and respond to the questions on Handout 3. Distribute Source 8. Ask students to read the two interpretations of the speech. Instruct students to consider the position taken by each author in Source 8 and the extent to which the author provides evidence for this position.
Step 6:            Distribute Handout 4 and explain the short writing assignment.
Step 7:            Discussion:  How would you rate the presidential leadership of U. S. Grant on the issue of the Common Schools?

Procedures: Part 6—A Catholic for President? The Elections of 1928 and 1960
Step 1:            Distribute Sources 9 and 10 and Handout 2. After students read the excerpts on Source 9, ask them to use Handout 2 to analyze the political cartoons.
Step 2:            Distribute Source 11. Be sure students note that the Blue/Red labels do not adhere to labels used currently to represent the Republicans and Democrats. Ask students to pose questions about the 1928 election results. For example, in order to understand the information conveyed in Source 11, what do they need to know? What do they wonder about the voting patterns noted on the map? How might they use their understanding of the issues and context of the time period to pose thoughtful questions that would help them interpret the results of the election?
Step 3:            Listen to the BackStory segment, "President or Puppet?"
Step 4:            Distribute Source 12 and ask students to answer the questions on the page.
Step 5:            Distribute or project Source 13. Ask students how the Catholic population of the United States changed between 1928 and 1960. What were the potential political implications of this change? Have students read Sources 14 and 15. Consider the following questions to discuss Source 15:
  • Why would Catholic leaders of the Democratic Party be reluctant to nominate Kennedy?
  • Do Catholics always vote for the Democrat?
  • What does the article tell you about southern voters?
  • How have voters changed between 1928 and 1960?
  • Could nominating a Catholic pull Catholic votes from members of the other political party?
  • Is the “Catholic Vote” large enough to elect the president?
  • Do you think the writers for U. S. News believe that Kennedy can be elected?

Step 6:            Divide students into groups of three, designated as “Kennedy Campaign Advisors.”  As a group, they are to create a briefing paper for the candidate advising him on the likelihood of his election and advising him how to handle the “religion question” in his campaign. Share the memos with the class.
Step 7:            Pose the question, how did Kennedy deal with the issue?  Distribute the text of Kennedy’s Houston speech.  

Have students follow along as they view the speech on YouTube. Select the video supplied by OdysseyNetworks.
Step 8:            Have students research the religion of the candidates and religious issues for the elections of 2004, 2012, and 2016. Then write a paragraph answering the question:
Was the Election of 1960 a turning point in religious bigotry in American politics or just a change in focus?
Step 9:            Add to your “Taking the Temperature Graph” – 1928, 1960, 2016
Note:   Sources 16 and 17 are provided for use, as appropriate, to support other materials included in these procedures.


All Sources

All Handouts

Standards and Citations