All Main Campus Library facilities are open and operating at full capacity to Georgetown faculty, students, and staff. The Library will be closed to external community members and guests through December 2021, with limited exceptions. Find the most current information available on the Library's COVID-19 FAQ.

or browse databases: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #

You are here



Religious Liberty: The Concern of All

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

On January 12 there was released to the press a Manifesto by a new organization called "Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State" (hereafter referred to as PU). The thesis of the Manifesto is admirably clear. First, its remote but all-essential and primarily operative premise is that the Catholic Church "holds and maintains a theory of the relation between church and state that is incompatible with the American ideal." Secondly, this theory inspires American Catholic policy—a "policy plainly subversive of religious liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution." Thirdly, this policy is pursued by the strategy of the limited objective (or, as Protestant writers usually love to call it, the "camel's-nose" strategy); the design is "to fracture the constitutional principle at one point after another where the action can be minimized as trivial or disguised as falling within some other category than that of its ultimate intent," its ultimate intent being nothing less than the "nullification" of the First Amendment, through securing for the Church "a position of special privilege in relation to the State," from which position it will be able "to deny or to curtail the religious liberty of all other churches, and to vitiate democracy." Fourthly, two dangerously long steps to this ultimate ecclesiastical goal have already been taken: 1) the Church has achieved "privileged access to the ear of the state" through Myron C. Taylor at the Vatican; 2) Catholic-school children in some States have achieved a position of privilege because they share equally with other school children in the matter of bus transportation and free textbooks.

This is the situation created by the "aggressions," "assaults," "encroachments" of the Catholic Church on the principle of separation of church and state. The situation is one of "threat," "danger," "peril." It is a situation unique in history: a Catholic minority is jeopardizing the religious liberty of the majority—of Protestants, Jews and secularists. And this situation has called PU into being, after nearly two years of gestation in the patriotic minds of a handful of Protestant ministers and Scottish Rite Masons, vigilant, while others sleep, in the nation's hour of peril. PU's purpose is to save the day for American democracy, on an initial budget of $100,000.

At first sight, PU appears on the scene as a political lobby. In two places the Manifesto carefully points out that its pressure is to be directed towards agencies of government. It has no controversy with the Catholic Church, but with the "representatives of government, all the way up through the States to Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House," which "weakly yield to (the) demands" of this "powerful church." The great thing that PU has to do is clear: "The Americanism of the people's representatives in the various branches of government must be stiffened to resist the aggressive activities of those who would subvert the Constitution to their own sectarian interest." For its own part, PU has no sectarian interest. There is great insistence on its purely political aim, most meticulous disavowal of any anti-Catholic animus, most explicit denial of any intention to introduce religious divisions into political life, most thoroughgoing repudiation of all religious intolerance. On the banner of PU is not written, "No Popery!" but simply "Separation of Church and State!" (Or more in particular, "No Myron C. Taylor at the Vatican!" and "No Money for Catholic Schools!")

This banner is raised in the midst of a "united Protestantism which is sinking its own differences in a common effort" to enforce these two great negations. All Protestants, therefore, are declared in; an earnest invitation is extended to patriotic Jews; and the doors are open even to those Catholics who happen to have some "patriotic loyalty." Moreover, in addition to enlisting individual citizens in support of its negations, PU also offers itself "to all churches and synagogues as their own instrument" for the high political purpose of bringing to bear "their prompt and concerted resistance to the encroachments" of the Catholic Church. Consequently, PU appears not only as a political lobby, but as a political lobby that is the instrument of all organized religious forces in the United States, except the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church is the enemy, but not (be it hastily said) as a religious organization. As such, it has a constitutional right to exist in the United States; this right PU acknowledges, in an austere, self-sacrificing gesture to the First Amendment. The Catholic Church is the enemy only in as much as it is a religious organization intent on vitiating democracy. And even under this aspect: it will be subject to no direct attack. The whole idea is simply to thrust in front of the state—harassed, beleaguered, weak, on the point of capitulation to the relentless demands of the powerful Catholic Church—the still more powerful, saving shield of PU.

Sternly, with United Protestant and American voice, PU will recall to our. intimidated lawmakers and Supreme Court judges their duty to exercise the "ultimate guardianship of religious liberty and religious tolerance." And to stiffen their spinelessness, it will solemnly warn them that recreancy to their duty (shown in disobedience to the wishes of PU) will mean that "upon them will rest the responsibility for lighting the fires of shameful religious resentment and conflict that will inevitably ensue." Thus it also appears that PU has its own technique. In so far as the Manifesto reveals it, it is the ancient scare-technique, very effective against government (the shout shout through the palace windows: "If thou release this man, thou art not Caesar's friend!")

One might also call it the "policy-through-nightmare" approach. Pitilessly, in four places, the Manifesto unveils before the staring eyes of government the panorama of American society as it certainly will be, unless PU has its way. If Mr. Taylor stays much longer at the Vatican, if the Everson decision (on bus transportation) and the Chance decision (on free textbooks) are not soon reversed by the Supreme Court, if one penny of Federal aid, intended to equalize educational opportunity for all American children, should go to equalize it for children in Catholic schools—then, mind you, the result will be "to light the fires of intolerance and fanaticism which our government is designed to prevent, " to divide American society into hostile sectarian camps [and] intensify sectarian intolerance," to set afoot "bitter conflict and disorder," to make it "difficult, if not impossible, to maintain peaceful and friendly relations between the ecclesiastical beneficiary of these violations [the Catholic Church) and the other churches of the land." In a word, some Protestant ministers will be plenty mad.

What, then, is to be thought of this new political instrument of the Protestant churches? What is to be done about it? Some wrong and futile things will doubtless be said and done about it. For my part, I suggest that it first be considered in historical perspective. Then one's initial dismay may give way to hope. There is reason to hope. This is so, whether one considers the organization itself, or its line. Consider first the line.

The Manifesto says: "The free churches of America have been slow in recognizing the gravity of the situation that was developing before their eyes. But they can no longer ignore the fact that their own religious liberty is in peril." There has been blindness and deafness, indeed; for the peril has been continually held before the eyes of the American people, not least by Protestant ministers, for a century and a half. In 1928, for instance, it was defined by the famous Fellowship Forum (which boasted more than a million readers) in terms almost identical with the title of today's new organization: "On the one hand is the Roman Church, seeking political power, while on the other are being arrayed the Protestant churches and all those citizens who believe in complete separation of church and state." The particular issue in 1928 (a Catholic for President) was different from those of today, but the basic issue was that now raised by PU. Again, in 1911, an appropriately titled magazine was founded on PU's very premises, which it formulated thus: "The Menace was launched in the belief that the Roman Catholic Political Machine, in its political intrigues and its interference with established American institutions, is the deadliest enemy of our civilization and our liberties." Moreover, the anguished warnings of W. J. H. Traynor, President of the American Protective Association, must somehow have reached the ears of the free churches of America; the main line of the APA was to prevent Catholics from subverting the Constitution and destroying the public school system; and its protests in 1892 against Cardinal Satolli's mission in Washington are not unreminiscent of contemporary protests against Mr. Taylor's mission in Rome.

But one can go still farther back, to the great Protestant names of the decades; between 1820 and 1850 men among whom Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam could have stood with pride. There was Robert J Breckinridge, William Craig Brownlee, Samuel B. Smith, Lyman Beecher —and the granddaddy of them all, the author of Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the U.S., and Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the U.S. During the Roarin' Forties, all these Protestant leaders roared out the theme of these books, on which generations of Protestants fed: "Up! Up! I beseech you. Awake! Let the tocsin sound from Maine to Louisiana! Fly to protect the vulnerable places of your Constitutions and your Laws! Place your guards—you will need them, and quickly, too. And first shut your gates." The voice is the voice of Samuel Finley Morse, founder of American nativism, but the line is the line of Charles Clayton Morrison, author of the PU Manifesto. The same line appears in the very title of Brownlee's magazine, The American Protestant Vindicator and Defender of Civil and Religious Liberty against the Inroads of Popery. And it was thoroughly publicized in some forty-five other Protestant periodicals during those swaggering decades. Their prototype, the New York Observer, stated in 1824 the 1947 Christian Century line: "Protestants ought to remember that it is the papal policy to be mild until they have the power to be severe." The PU line, therefore, is not new. Seemingly, the same grave situation that alarms the Oxnams, Poteats, Morrisons, Newtons and Mackays of today alarmed their worthy forebears a century ago. And these stalwart Protestant Americans formed their organizations, too. There was the American Reformation Society, of which the American Vindicator was the official organ; it led the first defense of American public education against the assaults and encroachments of Catholic schools. There were in succession the American Protestant Association, and the American Protestant Society (the first seriously to call on Protestants to sink their differences and unitedly confront the Roman menace), and the American Protestant Union, and the Protestant Alliance, and the Order of United Americans, and the World Convention and Evangelical Alliance, etc., etc. All these organizations had in their platforms the PU line; the American Protestant Association, for instance, put as one of its purposes: "To awaken the attention of the community to the dangers which threaten the liberties and the public and domestic institutions of these United States from the assaults of Romanism:" All these organizations huffed and puffed, with varying degrees of vehemence, across the American scene for a few years, until in the 1850's, they were swallowed up in the tide of Know-Nothingism, for which they had prepared the way.

A glance at history, therefore, assures us that the scare-technique, the nightmare-theory of constitutional defense, are not novelties. This is not to say that they have lost their power; the angry mutterings emitted from many Protestant conventions testify to the contrary. However, what I do consider encouraging is the fact that the ancient spectral threat is now made to walk the night in much more civilized garb. To change the metaphor, the cry through the palace windows is not a hoarse shout, edged with frenzy, the articulation of some-thing elemental in the mob. The voice indeed still carries to the Governor, but its tone is quiet, its accents cultured, its rhetoric restrained.

For instance, PU would not think of stating in its constitution, as did the American Reformation Society in 1836, that it was proceeding "with devout confidence in the sanction of the Great Head of the Church to aid our efforts in withstanding the “power and great authority of the Beast and the strong delusion of the False Prophet:" The ancient symbols that had such effect upon the veins of an elder generation—the Man of Sin, Babylon the Great, the Scarlet Whore, the Arch Servant of the Dragon—are not current in today's controversy. Were the Baltimore Provincial Council meeting today, it would considerably revise the statement it made in 1829:

Not only do they assail us and our institutions in a style of vituperation and offense, misrepresent our tenets, vilify our practices, repeat the hundred-times refuted calumnies of the days of angry and bitter contention in other lands, but they have even denounced you and us as enemies of the liberties of the republic, and have openly proclaimed the fancied necessity of obstructing our progress, and of using their best efforts to extirpate our religion.

It is happily different now. Today's Awful Disclosures do not concern Maria Monk and what was done to her in the convent; they concern simply Leo XIII and what he said in Immortale Dei, Peruvian bishops and what they said in a pastoral, a Spanish catechism and what it says about Liberalism, etc. We are, it seems, still "enemies to the liberties of the republic," and our progress is still to be obstructed. But the lurid images of the Apocalypse have vanished, leaving only the pale metaphor of a camel's nose.

Here, then, is PU set in something like historical perspective. And I am left encouraged. For the question rises: Perhaps it is not a mob out there, but a group of men grown reasonable? Men not angry and intolerant, but confused and concerned? Perhaps the thing to do is not to hurl epithets at them through the windows of a rectory (even if they were "wolves in sheep's clothing," would they go meekly away, thinking more highly of us, because we call them that?). Perhaps the thing to do is to go through the City and, where one finds these knots of men, talk to them. There is no agreement between us and them in religious faith; but is this a reason why there should be no lines of communication between them and us in matters where religious faith touches the structures and processes of civil society—their society as well as ours?

Perhaps we could read Leo XIII with them, and the Syllabus of Errors; alone, they read these documents as Candace's eunuch read Isaias. We could even talk to them about Msgr. Ryan's comments on Immortale Dei, and Father Connell's pamphlet on religious liberty. Perhaps we could exchange views on the history of Spain, its political tradition, the character of the Spanish people, the problems of Ibero-American civilization. Perhaps we could go over with them the constitutional history of the First Amendment, its interpretation in legislative and executive action, the problem of its transmission to the States via the Fourteenth Amendment; and then take up the history of American education and the instances of Federal and State aid to religious schools, and the relative rights of parents and the State, and the current menace of "professionalism." Perhaps we could together take to a higher and broader plane the whole problem of the relations between government and religion, and try to frame them in something better than sheer negations; particularly, we could pursue this problem in the field of education. And to do this the better, perhaps we could first measure together the real threat to the common American tradition and our democratic institutions—the secularism that bears within itself the seeds of future tyrannies. Then perhaps we might even form with them another organization with a still lengthier but more meaningful title, "Catholics and Protestants and Jews and Other Americans United for Cooperative Relations between Church and State in View of the Peril of Secularism, Especially in Education." More simply, perhaps we could agree to be American citizens, divided in religious faith, but united in our loyalty to the First Amendment.

Perhaps we could do these things. Perhaps if we did them, we would get nowhere. Perhaps all passion is not yet spent. Perhaps it would be Breckinridge and Hughes all over again. There are so many perhapses. But one thing at least cannot be qualified by that timid adverb: nightmares are no norm for constitutional interpretation or legislative policy, nor is policy-through-nightmare part of the rational, responsible democratic process. It is high time for Protestants to wake up—return to reality—see an analyst—at all events, give up the scare technique, the appeal to fear. For a century and a half the tocsin has been sounded from Maine to Louisiana; isn't that about enough? The technique is effective indeed; but its main effect has been simply the progressive secularization of American society, particularly of education. There are important questions to be argued today; let us argue them, and not deal in bogeymen. We are all big boys and girls now.

On the other hand, it is time that Catholics, too, woke up. We need to go down into the City and prove by more deeds than we have hitherto shown that we are the friends of its liberties, that our progress is its progress, that our power is in its service, that no man has to fear from us infringement of any of his rights. It is time, moreover, that we realized that even nightmares are constructed from the fragments of the day. These Tagesreste—a few scraps from papal encyclicals, episcopal pastorals and popular pamphlets, together with a few fragments of history—are the stuff of which PU's nightmarish projection has been made. When shall we present totally, intelligently, intelligibly, the truth of the relations between the church and civil society? We have no reason to suppose that we are easy to understand, that our doctrine presents no paradoxes and our history no scandals. To understand both, good will is needed. And one does not command good will, much less denounce people into showing it. But one can evoke it by extending it, sincerely. And it helps greatly to extend it first.

Finally, for God's sake ( I mean the phrase literally and with prayerful reverence), can we not all remember that this is 1948, not 1848? There is a revolution going on. But this time it is not revolutionary Liberalism that is in flood-tide, sweeping before it the Orleanist monarchy in France and the throne of the Austrian Emperor, and setting, as the men of '48 supposed, for the farther shore of security for the rights of man. It is a different revolution. Significantly, it had its beginning just a century ago this January, when Marx and Engels issued the Communist Manifesto. The event was unmarked by the Morses and Brownlees and Beechers of that day. Truly has it been said: "The free churches of America have been slow in recognizing the gravity of the situation that was developing before their eyes. But now they can no longer ignore the fact that their own religious liberty is in peril," in the general peril to all the liberties of all the world. America is in the revolution of 1948. And the Manifesto of 1848 should set the Manifesto of 1948 in its ultimate perspectives, certainly to Catholics—and perhaps even to the men who signed it.