I have recently started to read Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln’s early years. It is a wonderful literary account of how one of our greatest presidents became the man he was. Yet it is more than an account of the man, but also about the times in which he lived and the customs of the people that he met in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.
While reading this biography, I was surprised by how many times religious affiliation was mentioned by Sandburg. He notes, for instance, that Mary Tood Lincolyn was Covenanter, while Lincoln himself was of Quaker, Methodist, and Episcopalian stock. These days, biographer don’t really pay much attention to these details. For the most part, they tend to write about the psychology of the man and what made him the person he was.
Yet it is important for us to remember that religion was a big deal in pioneer America. Most of the Americans living in the thirteen colonies had come to escape religious persecution at home. The Puritans who came on the Mayflower as well as the Catholics that settled in Baltimore are but two examples of religious groups that came to America for this specific reason. Indeed, our country was built on certain principles that one can find in the Bible as well as in the theology of the denominations that have called this place home.
Religion too had a role to play in the pecking order of our country. Catholics, in general, were looked down upon because they represented the evils of “popery” and other biases that had been ingrained in the minds of their Protestant brethren since the time of the Reformation. Indeed, Catholics were frequently persecuted for the faith despite the fact that many of them died in the service of their country in the Revolutionary War. To be a Catholic in America during those days was to be a pariah and yet the Church flourished here against all possible odds.
Many people forget that those denominations that rose to prominence in America are those that were most closely connected to the Church of England. The Episcopalians as well as other groups produced prominent politicians throughout the years. So have the Baptists and other Protestant denominations. The Catholics were slow in coming to the political arena, but once they came their voice was firmly heard. Even though our Catholic politicians may not share in the beliefs of Holy Mother Church on all important life issues, Americans can be proud of Alfred E. Smith and John F. Kennedy.
We must also remember that our country has been founded on the tenets of religious liberty. Although the right to freedom of religion is often questioned and cases on this issue are heard every year in the Supreme Court, the Church would not have flourished the way that it has unless it had been for this important amendment in the Bill of Rights. Indeed, freedom of religion is a right that was revolutionary in 1787 because Great Britain had a state religion (Anglicanism) in which Catholics were still persecuted.
Sometimes, we tend to forget about the pioneers that have made Catholicism what it has been and what it still is in America. Our parishes would not be where they are had it not been for the sacrifices of those early pioneers and their descendants. Therefore, we must be thankful and should always pray for the good of our country and its leaders no matter how awful the politics is.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Joseph, pray for us!