Old Religious Hatreds Die Hard

Whatever the minor flaws in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie Gangs of New York, the critically acclaimed movie did call attention to a number of hot button issues in 1863 New York and the rest of the still fairly young country. One of the hottest of the hot buttons was the religious differences between two rival gangs – the Protestant “Natives” and the Irish Catholic “Dead Rabbits.” 

In the movie the Natives espoused the philosophies of the “Know-Nothing” party (more precisely called the American Party, which eventually was absorbed into the Republican Party), of the 1840s and 50s – keep America for Americans, limit immigration, and especially stop the influence of Irish and German Catholics who the Know-Nothings felt were controlled by the Pope in Rome. 

Today Catholics make up about one- quarter of the U.S. population, but in the early 1800s, the U.S. was still an overwhelmingly Protestant country. This was slowly changing. Between 1845 and 1851 alone (the Great Potato Famine years) nearly 1 million Irish, primarily Catholic immigrants came to the U.S., and by 1850, the Irish made up 43 percent of the foreign-born population. 

Protestant animosity toward Catholics had been steadily growing as a result of the influx of these primarily poor Irish Catholic and somewhat better off German Catholic immigrants. What began as verbal attacks against the Catholic Church by some prominent Protestant leaders in the 1830s -- the Catholic Church is “the Whore of Babylon” and the Pope is the Anti-Christ -- escalated into bloodshed in the 40s and incidents such as the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844. 

The Bible Riots began after Irish Catholic Churches were targeted by Nativists following complaints by Catholic parents that their children were being forced to read from the King James Version of Bible in school every day. The Protestants in Philadelphia decided to put ‘the papists’ in their place. Three days of violence ensued.

In 1869, fuel was added to the fire when New York’s famous Tammany Hall, possibly the lone Irish Catholic stronghold in the country at the time, managed to obtain $1.5 million in state money for Catholic Schools. New York Protestants did not like having to share state funds with the Catholics and they let the Catholics know in no uncertain terms. 

What needs to be kept in mind here is that up until this time public schools throughout the country were essentially Protestant schools, run by Protestant administrators and staffed by Protestant teachers. Many superintendents of state departments of education were, in fact, Protestant clergymen.  

As already noted, the standard public school curriculum included prayer and daily Bible readings from the King James Bible. This is because educators firmly believed, as did many of the Founding Fathers, that religious instruction was an integral component of a good education. As Benjamin Rush, Founding Father and Signer of the Declaration of Independence, said, “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” The religious foundation, however, had to be Protestant. 

But when Catholics started setting up their own parochial schools and asking for a share of the state funds for schools, the overwhelmingly Protestant populace was none too pleased. They were not about to allow the Catholics to change the status quo.      

By 1875 the anti-Catholic sentiment in the country had grown to a point that President Ulysses S. Grant felt compelled to call for an end to the use of public funds to support “sectarian schools.” While there is still some debate over the meaning of the word “sectarian,” the general consensus was that sectarian meant “Catholic.” What Grant intended was that Protestant schools would continue to receive funding but Catholic “parochial” schools would not be allowed to share in the largesse.

Grant’s call resulted in James G. Blaine, then Speaker of the House, proposing a Constitutional amendment prohibiting the use of state funds at “sectarian” schools. The amendment passed overwhelmingly in the House, but failed in the Senate by only 4 votes. The failure resulted in many states quickly moving to adopt Blaine amendments in their own state constitutions. The Republican legislators that backed the amendment also took steps to make sure that any new territories that would become states after 1878 incorporated Blaine amendments in their proposed state constitutions. Today some 37 states have a Blaine Amendment, or a version of it, in their constitutions.

If he were alive today, Blaine might be kicking himself over his shortsightedness, as might all the other Protestant leaders who thought they were protecting Protestant curriculum-based schools from future incursions by ‘the papists’ by adopting Blaine Amendments. These amendments are now being used to block true school choice in those states that have s such an amendment in their constitutions.

An obvious question that this raises is what would K-12 education  look like in the U.S. today had not those short-sighted people in the 1870s been so determined to keep all public schools in every community “Protestant?” What if none of the 50 states had adopted Blaine amendments? How many education-related SCOTUS rulings might have turned out differently if all the states had always allowed state money to be used to support whatever kind of K-12 school a local community decided it wanted -- be it faith-based or secular, Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish? 

It’s a bit difficult to determine today all of the effects of the anti-Catholic sentiment that was so prevalent in the U.S., and which continued all the way up through the 1930s. However, on June 1, 2007, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights conducted a briefing in Washington, D.C. in an effort to determine the impact of Blaine Amendments on school choice voucher programs and to:

“. . . address the origins of the original federal Blaine amendment and whether any of the anti-Catholic sentiment behind the original amendment continues to taint the existing amendments or baby Blaines in a manner that renders them unconstitutional or illegal.”

As Anthony R. Picarello, Jr., Vice President & General Counsel of

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, stated in his six-page written statement to the Commission,

“Specifically, the term “sectarian” both expressed and implemented hostility to the faiths of those immigrants (especially, but not only, Catholics) who resisted assimilation to the “nonsectarian” Protestantism then taught as the “common faith” in the “common schools.” Denying aid only to “sectarian” schools allowed the government to continue funding the teaching of the government’s preferred “nonsectarian” faith through the public schools, while penalizing financially those who resisted that faith.”

Picarello’s testimony was supported by testimony from Richard D. Komer, Senior Litigation Attorney at the Institute for Justice. Komer, who spent 14 years working for the federal government as a civil rights attorney, and by 2007 had another 14 years of additional experience doing school-choice litigation at the Institute for Justice. Because of his background, Komer brought an interesting perspective to the Commission. In his 12-page written testimony he stated:

“Together, [my] 28 years [of experience] have led me to conclude that the problems with American public education are systemic, and confirm the wisdom of Economics 101 that monopolies really do deliver poor quality services at a high price. They also have confirmed the wisdom of Economics 102, that government monopolies are even worse. Despite colossal increases in spending on public education, the public education system is doing no better a job today than 30 years ago.

“As long as we persist in funding the vast majority of our children’s educations through the existing public school model, this hideously expensive failure will continue.

“Our K through 12 system of education is a disgrace in international comparisons, while our higher education system is the envy of the world. One of the reasons for such a contrasting record of success and failure is that our higher education system is characterized by a far higher degree of consumer choice.”

Picarello and Komer were both arguing that Blaine Amendments are being used today to prevent true school choice where voucher systems are being implemented.  Vouchers, they argued, are given to parents, not to religious schools, and parents should be able to use the vouchers to procure the best possible education for their children in the same way that college students who get federally-backed student loans use them to attend the school of their choice. 

Arguing against this position were Ellen Johnson, President, American Atheists, and K. Hollyn Hollman, General Counsel, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Their argument was that voucher programs should not be used to allow public funding of private religious programs and purposes. 

The Anti-Defamation League also submitted a written statement to the Commission that stated, “. . . school vouchers are bad policy and do harm to religious liberty in America.”

Only liberals can argue that choice is bad when it comes to education but it is good in every other way.

The entire 147-page report of the proceedings, which includes the written testimony and a transcript of the meeting, is well worth reading. Pages 53 and 54 of the report list the states that have Blaine Amendments in their constitutions.

Contrary to what today’s intellectual elite/progressives would have people believing, religion was part of the public school curriculum in the U.S. throughout most of its history. Today’s concept of Separation of Church and State, no prayer in public schools, and the modern interpretation of the Establishment Clause are all the work of activist liberal judges and phony secular progressive twists on U.S. history and the Founder’s views on what kind of Republic they were establishing. The goal in all of this has been the re-shaping of the country into a secular progressive haven.

Religious animosity and the Blaine Amendments chased Catholics right into the outstretched arms of the Democratic Party in the 1800s. This has finally started changing, but the damage that was done by this anti-Catholic sentiment and the Blaine Amendments had consequences that have affected the Judeo-Christian culture in this country in ways folks could not have imagined 150 years ago. 

School Choice and School Vouchers are good things. But they pose a serious threat to the march of secular progressivism because parents just might prefer to have their children attending a faith-based school rather than a secular one. All practicing Christians and Jews living in a state with a Blaine Amendment in its constitution should be badgering their state representatives and pushing for ballot initiatives aimed at getting rid of them. 

With Relativism and Secular Progressivism attacking religion, morals, and Judeo Christian principles, Practicing Jews and Christians of all denominations in the U.S. need to come together to restore our Republic and our culture because, to paraphrase, ‘united we might yet stand but divided we shall surely fall.’ 

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