The mind-set is all too familiar: A radical religious group, lurking inside the country, owing loyalty to a foreign power, threatens America. No one denies that its members have a right to worship as they please, but good Americans, patriots, feel compelled to call for curbs against the menace they present. Because of the number of Americans sharing these fears, calls for restrictions on the religion are voiced openly and unapologetically, even proudly.
Today this description may bring to mind the flap over the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York, or recent calls for greater restrictions on Muslims in America, like banning their service on the Supreme Court or in the Oval Office. But in fact, it describes the year 1920, when the reviled group was Roman Catholics, not Muslims. As Mark Twain once quipped, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
In the early 1900s, many Americans were genuinely frightened by the perceived religious threat of the Roman Catholic Church and the suspected imperialistic intentions of its leader, the pope. He was plotting the overthrow of the United States, warned the fearful, to “make America Catholic.” His foot soldiers, tens of thousands of Catholic men who called themselves the Knights of Columbus, were busily stockpiling arms and ammunition in the basements of their churches, all in preparation for the day when their papist leader would give the signal for the violent insurrection to begin.
The holders of such beliefs were not just some fringe crazies safely outnumbered by their clear-eyed, religiously tolerant neighbors. To the contrary, widely popular, openly anti-Catholic literature spilled from newsstands across the country, newspapers like Sen. Tom Watson’s Jeffersonian out of Atlanta and the Menace of Aurora, Mo., whose subscriptions dwarfed those of the largest newspapers in New York City and Chicago combined. Elections were won on promises to oust Catholics from positions of public trust. Only “true Americans” should hold such positions, went the warning, not Catholics who were loyal first to their religious leader in Rome.