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Past and Present

Religious Intolerance Is Not Dead In America

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Pope Francis’s recent triumphant visit to the United States, which included a speech to a joint session of Congress, suggests that one instance of historic prejudice has dramatically receded in this country.

During the formation of the U.S., various Protestant denominations controlled America’s early religious life. Moreover, because the Protestant Reformation sought to correct perceived errors and excesses of the Catholic Church, its proponents formed strong positions against the Pope and his followers.

Anti-Catholic sentiment accelerated during the mid-19th century when Irish Catholic immigrants, seeking relief from economic problems at home, flooded into this country. In the decades immediately preceding the Civil War, a wide variety of native-born, Protestant Americans, used a variety of techniques---from literary character assassination to physical attacks---to impede the integration of Catholic immigrants into American life. By the early 20th century, the anti-Catholic crusade included the prominent hate group, the Ku Klux Klan.

Notwithstanding the strong tradition of anti-Catholicism in the United States, which included the belief that Catholic politicians took their orders from the Pope instead of the American people, John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic elected to the Presidency in 1960.

Considering this historical backdrop, Pope Francis’s warm reception in the halls of Congress and throughout the country was, indeed, encouraging. Yet, as presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson’s recent comments about Muslims suggest, religious intolerance is not dead in America.