For years the story about the Irish in America was an ode to their tenacity, intelligence, wit and certainly their profundity. It was also about their willingness and desire to become American. The transfer of loyalty to America was quick and profound. Irish-Americans have fought and died in every American war since they first began to arrive en masse before the Civil War. There is an even more important story about the Irish and it’s very timely in today’s political climate.
The story about the Irish in America is about race hate, ethnic prejudices, religious intolerance and Christian fundamentalism, a love affair with capitalism, cyclical economic problems, labor issues, pressures on cities and government, and mythologies about personal success -- all of which continue to haunt us today.
My writing tends to evolve as I write. I’ve never been able to stick to an outline or script in my life. Why start now? But if you will bear with me and read this and my subsequent article I think I can help you (and me) shed some bright light on our current problems. If we understand what the hell happened maybe we can help fix what’s happening now.
Let’s begin with the fact that between 1847 and 1860 nearly a million Irish Catholics arrived in the United States; they represented the first huge wave of poor refugees to immigrate. Until the Irish famine survivors arrived, Catholics were an extreme minority in a Protestant dominated land. Culturally and politically America was hostile to Catholicism; in some areas of the country this hostility survives to this day.
Anti-Catholic views were deeply embedded in the national character. Although America basically took form as an extension of English customs, common law and its Protestant faith, it is very important to understand that Protestant America evolved a very different form of Protestantism than the Anglican Church in England. The roots of this can be found in a quick overview of the Reformation which played out very differently in England than elsewhere.
Before the Reformation, which began when Luther, then a Catholic priest, had the audacity to nail his complaints about Rome to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517, there was only one Christian Church in the West and it was the Roman Catholic Church (there had been a schism before but the Reformation was a game changer like nothing that had come before). Luther wasn’t the first to challenge Rome or protest against its failings; let’s just say he was probably the first to live to tell about it. Thus, where there had been one (Catholic) influence, there were now two (Lutheran) but it didn’t stay that blissfully simple very long.
Within a very short period of time more religious leaders emerged, creating new denominations and challenging Catholicism and one another. Some truly represented theological differences with Catholicism while others, most notably Henry VIII in England, were old fashioned opportunists. Old Henry wanted more than multiple wives and he was clever enough to see that kicking out the Catholics allowed him to confiscate a massive amount of property and other wealth. Instead of being sincerely motivated to create a new denomination based on true theological differences from Rome, Henry just wanted to get rid of the pope, keep the broad, and grab all the dough. Shrewd.
Henry’s brilliant daughter, Elizabeth I, used religion to her advantage too and neither she nor her father, once they were in control of the money, were much interested in the refinements of theological thought and so it evolved that in large measure the Church of England remained very close in form and function to Catholicism. A lot of Englishmen didn’t like this and influenced by true religious zeal and the ideas of austere thinkers like John Calvin they wanted the Church of England to go the distance and “purify” itself of all traces of Roman Catholicism.
The history of the Puritan movement is fascinating and far too complex to serve up lightly in a blog but I’ll just say here that these men, who saw themselves as religious reformers, became a powerful force in history. They were the young intellectual and theological Turks of their day. In large measure the English found them wearisome. There came a time, after years of civil and foreign wars and the stresses of many social upheavals, when England was damn glad to see them go.
And as you already know, they came here.
Calvinist-Puritan thinking was “pietistic” and founded in Biblical literalism (which Catholicism is not) and an ethic of austerity, frugality and hard work that stressed Christian life consists in overcoming the flesh and glorifying God. The pietistic movement shaped the Anabaptists (Baptists), Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists that laid down the concrete foundation upon which a nation was built. It was liberalized for a short time by the Enlightenment and humanism of the men we call the “founding fathers.” By the time Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams gathered to form a new union they had seen the choke hold Protestants of every stripe and denomination had tried to place on the individual colonies. (An excellent topic for another time.) Their response was to create a separation of church and state (lost in current discussions is the obvious fact that if the founding fathers wanted to establish a state church they could have done so.)
One of the most profound tenets of Calvinism is the concept of “predestination” which is the belief that God has already determined who is saved or damned. As Calvinism developed, a deep psychological need for clues about whether one was actually saved naturally emerged and Calvinists looked to their success in worldly activity for those clues. Thus, they came to value profit and material success as signs of God's favor. This became an important underlying ethos. Other religious groups, such as the Pietists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists incorporated this underlying and powerfully defining line of thought, as well, so let’s just lump them altogether for the purposes of this article as “Protestants.”
Max Weber, in “The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism” wrote about the relationship between the ethics of ascetic Protestantism and the emergence of the spirit of modern capitalism. Weber argues that the religious ideas of groups such as the Calvinists played a role in creating the capitalist spirit and sees a correlation between being Protestant and being involved in business. Weber argues that the modern spirit of capitalism sees profit as an end in itself, and pursuing profit as virtuous so that worldly success is often seen as affirmation of God’s grace and pleasure.
Aside from the huge importance of Protestant thought in America (then and now), there also emerged a “frontier” mentality that was a purely secular belief about success. America’s early unlimited spaces and open opportunities appeared to give anyone who was willing to work hard a chance for success. “Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” and “applying a little elbow grease” to life became snappy formulas for success.
American culture became deeply infatuated with the idea that strength of character alone made a man successful and his success was proof positive that he was in with the Lord. Any form of non-conformity, cultural aberration, conflicts with the prevailing mores, or even just bad luck suggested a lack of character and a fall from grace.
Of course, the Irish came from an entirely different reality. They knew Grandma Rooney and a million others starved to death not because of any personal lack of character or Divine displeasure but simply because someone else held the reins of power. They also came from a religious tradition richly nuanced by 1500 years of theological thought that had given rise to a vastly different world view than the one embraced by Protestantism. When Luther threw out the papacy and its many sins he also threw out Aquinas, Augustine, Benedict and Jerome and the much more contextualized understanding of scripture that the Catholic Church had created.
When the Irish arrived in America they were met with hate for their race as well as their religion but they'd seen it before. Only now they were in a position to push back. Along with their strong backs and pugnacity they came with a historical tradition of resistance and defiance to oppression. Of course they also had the huge advantage that they spoke English.
But most of all they had their Church and America would never be the same. The differences between Catholicism and Protestantism are still at the heart of our culture wars.
(This article was also published at The Pragmatic Progressive 3/18/11)