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America’s Sacred Politics

It is unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result.

NEW YORK – Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland was the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Although one of the Founding Fathers, as a Catholic Carroll was not allowed to hold public office. This changed only in 1789, when the Constitution prevented Congress from establishing any religion, and religious affiliation ceased to be a test for those seeking public office.

Not everyone was happy about this separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson was attacked by some as a dangerous infidel, and zealots believed that religion would die in America if he were elected president. To this day, there are many people who would like to put religion back into the center of public and political life. This is presumably what US Attorney General William Barr, a deeply conservative Catholic, meant when he denounced “secularists” for launching an “assault on religion and traditional values.”

Prejudice against Catholics as enemies of liberty and potential traitors (because of their spiritual allegiance to Rome) also died hard. In 1821, John Adams wondered whether “a free government [can] possibly exist with a Catholic religion.” Anglo-American freedom and democracy was traditionally associated with rugged Protestant individualism; Catholics were believed to be reactionary slaves to an ecclesiastical hierarchy. Individualistic Protestants were free-thinking, industrious, and devoted to making the best of themselves (materially, as much as spiritually), whereas Catholics were backward and not infrequently lazy.

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