Protestantism, anti-Catholicism, and public education in the United States

Despite its tradition of de-centralized, local control, the public school system in America has functioned as the established Church of the United States.

The destruction of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Philadelphia in the 1844 Nativist Riots, as depicted in John B. Perry's "A Full and Complete Account of the Late Awful Riots in Philadelphia". (Image: Wikipedia)

This election season, the political eyes of the nation turned to Virginia, my current state of residence. The race for governor turned an off-year election decidedly on, with the battle between Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin and Democrat (and former governor) Terry McAuliffe understood by many to be a referendum on the 2020 presidential election—and by some, nothing less than a battle for the Soul of America and the future of civilization as we know it.

These cosmic issues have found a curious focus: education. Many Virginians are up in arms about elite, liberal school boards imposing progressive ideology—be it transgenderism or wokeness—on innocent, unsuspecting children. Youngkin styled himself a defender of “parents’ rights” in education, while McAuliffe predictably came to the defense of the education establishment. Youngkin’s victory has been hailed as a victory for parents.

From a Catholic perspective, the conflict around education raises historical questions and reveals a certain historical short-sightedness. How did we get here? The historian can only answer that we are, in some sense, right where we have been from the beginning of public education in America. Have school boards always been at war with parents? Not directly. The original combatants were school boards and churches, most especially the Catholic Church, which at the beginning of public education in the United States struck most Protestants as the single greatest threat to American democracy.

The very existence of public schools has perhaps never fit comfortably with the American ideal of democratic self-sufficiency. The Founders certainly believed in the need for an educated citizenry, but as suffrage was restricted to a propertied (and educated) elite in the first decades of the republic, there was no need for widespread public education; educated men of property were self-sufficient by virtue of their education and property.

The difficulties began when those property restrictions fell away: with the unwashed masses able to vote, what would become of the great work of the Founders? Some, call them Jacksonian Democrats, believed that the average man was gifted by God and/or Nature with all of the qualities needed to be a politically responsible citizen. Others, call them Whigs, were not so sure. The political descendants of the old Federalist wing of the Founding generation, Whigs insisted that the common man needed education in order to be a responsible citizen—with “responsible,” of course, meaning someone who would see eye-to-eye with Whigs on the great political issues of the day. Education has thus been a matter of politics from the very start.

It was, moreover, a matter of religion. The disestablishment clause of the First Amendment had bequeathed a tradition of religious pluralism to the new nation. The overwhelmingly rural character of early American society brought with it a geographic dispersion that allowed the various religious groups to keep at a peaceable distance. Increasing urbanization, along with proposals for a common, public school system, threatened to break this peace.

All parties involved in the early debates over education believed that true education required some sort of religious instruction, if only to reinforce basic Christian moral principles. The average Christian of the early 19th century had yet to see the line between morality and “sectarian” doctrines as clearly as the more deistically inclined Founders. Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists open to the idea of education initially wished to educate their children in denominational schools. Whig education reformers believed such religious divisions would defeat one of the main purposes of public education: to tame the anarchic tendencies of modern democracy by developing a single standard of rational citizenry.

Denominational identities remained strong enough to breed suspicion of universal standards of Christianity. That so many leaders of the “common school” movement were Unitarians, a denomination at the far liberal extreme of American Protestantism, only exacerbated these suspicions. Horace Mann, one such Unitarian, assumed the office of Secretary of the newly created Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837. He endeavored to persuade skeptics that a public school should refrain from teaching any religious precepts particular to specific denominations but must nonetheless teach the Christian morality common to all denominations. Moral instruction would take place simply by the reading aloud of passages from the Bible, without comment, at the beginning of every school day. No Protestant could object to the reading of the Bible.

Before the various Christian groups could decide if such necessary reading were sufficient to Christian education, a new group that did object to Bible reading entered the debate: Catholics.

The increasing immigration of Catholics to the United States during the 1830s was no small part of the troubling, democratic destabilization that reformers sought to contain through education. Catholic bishops in growing cities such as Philadelphia initially greeted the new public school system as an opportunity for Catholic immigrants to integrate into American society and acquire the education that would help them rise in the world. Still, the Bible reading proposed by Mann and other educational leaders presented an obstacle for Catholics who were forbidden to read unauthorized translations, such as that of the Anglican King James Bible, the standard translation used by English-speaking Protestants. Bishop Francis Kenrick of Philadelphia spent several years in the late 1830s trying to work out some sort of compromise with the city’s Board of Controllers for the Public Schools.

Similar controversies were brewing in the other great Catholic population center of the time, New York City. Bishop John Hughes, whose pugnacious style earned him the nickname, “Dagger John,” was far more confrontational than his counterpart in Philadelphia. A native of Ireland who bore the memory of his country’s oppression at the hands of English Protestants, Hughes viewed the efforts of reformers to promote a new, non-sectarian model of education as nothing less than an assault on Christianity. In his “Address of the Catholics to Their Fellow Citizens of the City and State of New York (1840), Hughes states:

A new sectarianism antagonist to all Christian sects has been generated in . . . the public schools . . . this new sectarianism is adopted by the Common Council of the City, and is supported, to the exclusion of all others, at the public expense. Have the conscientious Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Lutherans, and others, no scruples of conscience at seeing their children, and the children of the poor brought up under this new sectarianism? It is not for us to say, but for ourselves we can speak. And we cannot be parties to such a system, except by legal compulsion against conscience.

Hughes’s attack on the education elite is completely in keeping with his reputation as a nineteenth-century version of a Catholic culture warrior. More surprising is his ecumenical appeal to Protestants to unite with Catholics in a Christian coalition against secularism.

Both the attack and the appeal sound strikingly contemporary. Both failed to affect the trajectory of public education or relations between Catholics and Protestants. Faced with a choice between following the lead of Unitarians or making common cause with Catholics, American Protestants chose the Unitarians, who at least still allowed for the reading of the King James Bible. In 1844, Catholic objections to the King James Bible led to riots in Philadelphia, which left two Catholic Churches burned and twenty people dead; today’s School Board scuffles seem tame in comparison.

Following these events, Dagger John put all of New York City on notice that he would burn the whole city down should Protestants dare to attack any Catholic churches on his watch; they did not. These events forced Hughes to retreat from his brief moment of moral ecumenism and commit himself to building up a separate parochial school system that would keep Catholic children safe from contamination by the secularism and Protestantism that animated the public schools.

The days of anti-Catholic rioting have largely passed. One echo of this early struggle remains: the dream of a common morality. In addressing New York’s Protestants, Hughes appealed to more than a common enemy:

For though we may differ in our definition of the religion of Christ, still we all generally profess to believe, to revere it, as the foundation of moral virtue and social happiness. Now we know of no fixed principle of infidelity, except in the negation of the Christian religion. The adherents of this principle may differ in other points of skepticism, but in rejecting Christianity they are united.

Again, such sentiments sound strikingly contemporary, of a piece with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the general ethos of the “Christian Right.” As we have seen, Protestants in Hughes’s time refused to accept the ideal of a moral alliance with Catholics. That such a consensus seems to exist today among some conservative Americans reflects less a vindication of Hughes’s vision than a somewhat blinkered vision of morality. The political and economic revolutions of the last two hundred years brought with them a moral revolution: a rejection of the broad range of customs and norms through which people understood the duties and obligations that came with membership in a community for a new, narrow set of contractual rules, usually expressed in the negative: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie. Can “thou shalt not teach critical race theory” really stand in for a common morality?

Hughes’s battle with the education establishment of his day contains yet another parallel to our own: the adversaries in past and present battles both claim only to be defending a “common” morality not dependent upon the authority of any particular religious group or denomination. The dream of a neutral, universal morality independent of religion was central to the vision of the Founders: a common morality would provide the basis for social stability once provided by an established church. With the emergence of public education, that dream descended from an Enlightenment elite to the vulgar masses, who had a surprisingly wide range of ideas about the nature of religion and morality. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening brought a widespread revolt against traditional clerical authority in mainline Protestant churches, what the historian Nathan O. Hatch has called the “democratization of American Christianity.” From Mormons to Shakers to the ever-increasing number of more conventional Protestant sects, the diversity was staggering in comparison with eighteenth-century America.

Looking back from our own time, one might be tempted to object: “But at least they were all Christian!” When faced with the secularism of his own day, Hughes himself said as much. He was content to distinguish his common morality from that of his opponents by a vague, general friendliness toward religion. Dorothy Day once observed that American Catholics are far too quick to settle for the lesser evil. I would add that this habit has fostered another, more troubling habit: confusing a lesser evil with a positive good. Based on political ads, the parents who oppose critical race theory would seem to be okay with the status quo of sex education in public schools, which, with some regional variations and occasional bouts of “abstinence only,” amounts to instruction in contraception. Compared with this “business as usual,” critical race theory is moral small potatoes.

As a principle to guide public education, “parent’s rights” may seem preferable to any of the ideologies of our current education elite. Lost in the debate over rights and ideologies is the deeper issue of the role of the Church in education, an issue at the heart of the culture wars present at the creation of the public school system and central to the heroic history of the Church’s efforts to sustain a separate, parochial school system. For almost two hundred years, Catholics have been financially penalized for this commitment, forced to pay twice for education: taxes for public schools and out-of-pocket tuition for Catholic schools.

Hughes, writing in 1840, compared this to the situation of Catholics in Ireland, forced to support the established Protestant Church of Ireland. Despite its tradition of de-centralized, local control, the public school system in America has functioned as the established Church of the United States. Were a politician to eschew scare-mongering nostalgia, address this historic reality and propose a workable plan to correct this historic injustice, I might actually go out and vote.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Dr. Christopher Shannon 14 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014).

15 Comments

  1. Why do we insist on referring to what takes place in government-run schools as “education.” Education concerns itself with the search for “truth” which is obviously antithetical to what government schools do.

    Like pretty much every other entity in our culture – medicine, the military, the legal profession, etc etc, education has become wholly politicized and amounts to nothing more than indoctrination. At this point, government schools should relegate themselves to teaching the trades by preparing plumbers, electricians, carpenters, computer programmers and farmers. For anything more, provide vouchers to parents to educate THEIR children according to their own dictates. We need to stop government from pretending that our children in any way belong to them.

    • Your perspective is understandable but not entirely true. There are individual teachers in public schools who are maintaining their integrity and trying to teach kids their subject matter in as neutral a manner as possible. Many do actually care about the search for truth.

      Elijah thought he was the only faithful person in Israel, but there were actually several thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal. That may also be true in some schools.

  2. Father Edward McGlynn, confrere of the agrarian socialist Henry George, was a rabid opponent of a separate Catholic school system, claiming that it was contrary to Americanism. Following his excommunication for disobedience in 1887, McGlynn published articles and made speeches decrying the tyranny of the Vatican (at one point he called Pope Leo XIII an imbecile), the failure to endorse socialism as authentic Catholic doctrine, and the training of Catholic children in anti-American ideas. McGlynn and George were primary influences on Msgr. John A. Ryan of the Catholic University of America, whose reinterpretation of Rerum Novarum (1891) has become accepted as authentic Catholic doctrine. Another strong influence on Msgr. Ryan was Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, who was a supporter of Henry George and a primary source for Madame Blavatsky:
    http://just3rdway.blogspot.com/2021/11/you-aint-heard-nothin-yet.html

  3. Wow! Very nice summary of history around Catholic education in America and conflicts with the anti-Catholics. One of the real sad results of the post VC2 catholic Culture is the demise of the Catholic School system. We need a 21 st century Bishop Hughes to call attention to the problem.

  4. A superb synthesis! As I have been saying and writing for four decades: No Catholic parent should ever submit one’s child to the godless government schools. And, every priest and bishops needs to condemn those institutions forthrightly.
    Visit our website: catholiceducation.foundation.

    • I agree with you in principle, but what other viable alternatives are available? I went to a Catholic HS that was sound and intentional about teaching the faith. It was run by the Christian Brothers. Looking at the website recently, there was no mention of the school’s Catholic focus now. It just seems like a Private school.

  5. I appreciate the historical account but the comment that really struck me is “. . .sex education in public schools . . . amounts to instruction in contraception”.
    Nails it.
    Why has it taken so long for me to see this in print?

  6. I’m not sure it’s helpful to compare dead Catholics in one era to the school bear board protesters of today, as if there is a competition about which is worse. Certainly we have a lot of dead babies in our time due to the “ Family life education“ or sex education in our public schools currently. I also don’t think it’s worthwhile to make today’s parents seem like they are over reacting or have nothing to complain about. There are too few people willing to stick their necks out as it is, to address these issues. And far too many people of faith sitting on the sidelines of these important discussions and battles. We need an involved citizenry. Desperately. That does not just include voting, it also includes working fervently for change.As Catholics we should care about all children and their education, simply because we care about and love them. Politics is a dirty and nasty business. The people we vote for may well let us down. One of my very favorite activists is a lady in Fairfax County who goes to every school board meeting here and praise the rosary. She asks that people come with her, but if nobody comes she still goes by herself, rain or shine.I love her dedication and the simplicity of her Approach and have no doubt it’s efficacy.

    • “I’m not sure it’s helpful to compare dead Catholics in one era to the school bear board protesters of today, as if there is a competition about which is worse.”

      It’s not about competition, but about context.

  7. Admittedly since reading, writing on CWR I’ve received a second education when I thought I exhausted what is relevant and reached a reasonable finis. Bishop John Hughes NY [a matter of personal pride] the centerpiece of Shannon’s article unknown to me is a genius. Both moral and relevant in 1840 and today. “A common morality would provide the basis for social stability once provided by an established church” (Shannon on Hughes). As the Irish would say, brilliant. As do I. Would that we had bishops like him today.

  8. “When faced with the secularism of his own day, Hughes himself said as much. He was content to distinguish his common morality from that of his opponents by a vague, general friendliness toward religion. Dorothy Day once observed that American Catholics are far too quick to settle for the lesser evil. I would add that this habit has fostered another, more troubling habit: confusing a lesser evil with a positive good. Based on political ads, the parents who oppose critical race theory would seem to be okay with the status quo of sex education in public schools, which, with some regional variations and occasional bouts of “abstinence only,” amounts to instruction in contraception. Compared with this “business as usual,” critical race theory is moral small potatoes.”

    There is no “lesser evil” when it comes to truth. It should be obvious that Bishop Hughes’s approach has failed. In any state – but especially a democracy – it isn’t good enough that a person isn’t a hostile atheist. The court that decided the EVIL Roe v. Wade decision didn’t include a single Catholic on it, but I am fairly certain there weren’t any atheists either.

    The obvious solution for education is that the state ought to fund religious schools with very little – if any – strings attached. However, this assumes the doubtful justice of mandatory public education.

    Given that mandatory public education was probably initiated by socialists, I don’t believe that it is good.

    CRT is a fair insignificant “hot button” issue. It should be noted that this is probably intentional. When was abstinence ever treated as important in any TV media?

    And, of course, everything has to be “made palatable.” Any media which said that fornication is a path to Hell would be in big trouble for a number of reasons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*