From Cahokia to Newport, from Santa Fe to Chicago, cities have long exerted an important influence over the development of American religion; in turn, religion has shaped the life of America’s cities. Early visions of a New Jerusalem quickly gave way to a crowded spiritual marketplace full of faiths competing for the attention of a heterogeneous mass of urban consumers, although the dream of an idealized spiritual city never completely disappeared. Pluralism fostered toleration and freedom of religious choice, but also catalyzed competition and antagonism, sometimes resulting in violence. Struggles over political authority between established and dissenting churches gave way after the American Revolution to a contest over the right to exert moral authority through reform. Secularization, the companion of modernization and urbanization, did not toll the death knell for urban religion, but instead, provided the materials with which the religious engaged the city. Negative discursive constructions of the city proffered by a handful of religious reformers have long cast a shadow over the actual urban experience of most men and women. Historians continue to uncover the rich and innovative ways in which urban religion enabled individuals to understand, navigate, and contribute to the city around them.
Kyle B. Roberts
The Catholic Church has been a presence in the United States since the arrival of French and Spanish missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish established a number of missions in what is now the western part of the United States; the most important French colony was New Orleans. Although they were a minority in the thirteen British colonies prior to the American Revolution, Catholics found ways to participate in communal forms of worship when no priest was available to celebrate Mass. John Carroll was appointed superior of the Mission of the United States of America in 1785. Four years later, Carroll was elected the first bishop in the United States; his diocese encompassed the entire country. The Catholic population of the United States began to grow during the first half of the 19th century primarily due to Irish and German immigration. Protestant America was often critical of the newcomers, believing one could not be a good Catholic and a good American at the same time. By 1850, Roman Catholicism was the largest denomination in the United States. The number of Catholics arriving in the United States declined during the Civil War but began to increase after the cessation of hostilities. Catholic immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were primarily from southern and Eastern Europe, and they were not often welcomed by a church that was dominated by Irish and Irish American leaders. At the same time that the church was expanding its network of parishes, schools, and hospitals to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the new immigrants, other Catholics were determining how their church could speak to issues of social and economic justice. Dorothy Day, Father Charles Coughlin, and Monsignor John A. Ryan are three examples of practicing Catholics who believed that the principles of Catholicism could help to solve problems related to international relations, poverty, nuclear weapons, and the struggle between labor and capital. In addition to changes resulting from suburbanization, the Second Vatican Council transformed Catholicism in the United States. Catholics experienced other changes as a decrease in the number of men and women entering religious life led to fewer priests and sisters staffing parochial schools and parishes. In the early decades of the 21st century, the church in the United States was trying to recover from the sexual abuse crisis. Visiting America in 2015, Pope Francis reminded Catholics of the important teachings of the church regarding poverty, justice, and climate change. It remains to be seen what impact his papacy will have on the future of Catholicism in the United States.
America’s tremendous diversities of faith, region, and ethnicity complicate efforts to generalize relationships between religious groups and the labor movement. Americans’ historic and widely shared commitment to Christianity masks deep divisions: between white Christians and black Christians, between Catholics and Protestants, between northern Protestants and southern Protestants, and between “modernist” Protestants (who view the Bible in metaphorical terms as a source of ethical guidance and emphasize social justice) and “fundamentalist” Protestants (who view the Bible literally and eschew social activism in favor of individual evangelizing). Work, class, and the role of the labor movement add extra dimensions to these complexities, which are multiplied when considering non-Christian traditions such as Judaism or the other world religious communities that have grown in the United States since the immigration reforms of 1965. Nevertheless, scholars accept a general narrative that delineates key periods, themes, and players over the course of the twentieth century. From the turn of the 19th century until the 1930s, the relationship between religion and labor was shaped by the centrality of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the labor movement, the development of a “social gospel” among northern mainline Protestants, and the massive immigration from southern and eastern Europe that brought millions of Catholic and Jewish workers into the United States before it largely ended in the 1920s. These developments were sometimes in tension. The AFL favored craft unionism and placed a premium on organizing skilled male workers; it therefore left out many of the unskilled new arrivals (as well as African Americans and most women). Consequently, the shape of “religion and labor” formed primarily around the dynamic between the AFL and Protestant social reformers, without much regard to the large masses of unorganized Catholic, Jewish, and African American workers. These dynamics shifted in the Great Depression. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), begun as a committee within the AFL in 1934, sought the organization of entire industries—skilled and unskilled alike, and ethnic Catholics and Jews became unionized in large numbers. Even traditional racial barriers in the labor movement began crumbling in some industries. And, the labor movement expanded its geographical ambition, pushing aggressively into the South. In turn, the religious voices associated with the labor movement broadened and deepened. Labor’s new alliances with Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and southern evangelicals helped to push the ranks of organized workers to historic highs in the 1950s. This coalition has faced divisive, even disastrous headwinds since the 1960s. The strength of anticommunism, especially within religious groups, caused some religious workers to retreat from the reformist ambitions of the labor movement and sparked a conservative religious movement deeply opposed to labor and liberalism. Race became an ever-hotter flashpoint. Although religiously affiliated civil rights reformers often forged alliances with unions, the backlash and resistance to civil rights among portions of the white working class undermined the efficacy of labor unions as sources of social cohesion. Perhaps most profoundly, the economy as a whole transformed from an urban-industrial to a post-urban service model. Organized labor has floundered in the wake of these changes, and the concomitant resurgence of a traditionalist, individualistic, and therapeutic religious culture has offered the remains of the labor movement little to partner with.
The Latino/Latina or Hispanic Catholic presence spans the colonial era, the period of U.S. expansion during the 19th century, and the waves of new immigrants in the 20th and 21st centuries. A long-standing element of Latino Catholic history, the struggle for justice both in church and society, became even more prominent during the 20th century. While Catholics in the thirteen British colonies were a minority in a Protestant land, in Hispanic settlements from Florida to California, Catholicism was the established religion under Spain and, in the Southwest, under Mexico after it won independence in 1821. Spanish subjects founded numerous missions intended to Christianize and Hispanicize native populations. They also established parishes, military chaplaincies, and private chapels to serve the religious needs of Hispanic settlers. From the standpoints of original settlement, societal influence, and institutional presence, the origins of Catholicism in what is now the United States were decidedly Hispanic. The first large group of Hispanic Catholics incorporated into U.S. territories was Mexicans in the Southwest, who, as a common adage puts it, did not cross the border but had the border cross them during U.S. territorial expansion. When military defeat led Mexico’s president to cede nearly half his nation’s territory to the United States in 1848, Mexicans underwent the disestablishment of their Catholic religion along with widespread loss of their lands, economic well-being, political clout, and cultural hegemony. Many continued their traditional expressions of faith, which enabled them to defend their sense of dignity, to collectively respond to the effects of conquest, and to express their own ethnic legitimation. Nascent 19th-century Latino immigration to the United States quickened over the course of the 20th century, expanding the diversification of national-origin groups among Latinos in the United States. Mexican immigration increased substantially after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and has continued into the 21st century. Significant numbers of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, and Central Americans have also come, along with some South Americans. Each group of Latino newcomers has fostered ministries and church structures that served the needs of their compatriots. Latino Catholic activist efforts range from local initiatives such as establishing Spanish-language masses and prayer groups to broader endeavors such as the recent National Hispanic Pastoral Encuentros of the 1970s and 1980s, major events that enabled Hispanic leaders to articulate their ministerial needs and demands to Catholic bishops and the wider church. Latino Catholics have also been active in social causes such as the plight of farmworkers, immigration, and faith-based community organizing.
Christopher D. Cantwell
Home to more than half the U.S. population by 1920, cities played an important role in the development of American religion throughout the 20th century. At the same time, the beliefs and practices of religious communities also shaped the contours of America’s urban landscape. Much as in the preceding three centuries, the economic development of America’s cities and the social diversity of urban populations animated this interplay. But the explosive, unregulated expansion that defined urban growth after the Civil War was met with an equally dramatic disinvestment from urban spaces throughout the second half of the 20th century. The domestic and European migrations that previously fueled urban growth also changed throughout the century, shifting from Europe and the rural Midwest to the deep South, Africa, Asia, and Latin America after World War II. These newcomers not only brought new faiths to America’s cities but also contributed to the innovation of several new, distinctly urban religious movements. Urban development and diversity on one level promoted toleration and cooperation as religious leaders forged numerous ecumenical and, eventually, interfaith bonds to combat urban problems. But it also led to tension and conflict as religious communities busied themselves with carving out spaces of their own through tight-knit urban enclaves or new suburban locales. Contemporary American cities are some of the most religiously diverse communities in the world. Historians continue to uncover how religious communities not only have lived in but also have shaped the modern city.
Catherine A. Brekus
Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.
Mark S. Massa S. J.
Historian John Higham once referred to anti-Catholicism as “by far the oldest, and the most powerful of anti-foreign traditions” in North American intellectual and cultural history. But Higham’s famous observation actually elided three different types of anti-Catholic nativism that have enjoyed a long and quite vibrant life in North America: a cultural distrust of Catholics, based on an understanding of North American public culture rooted in a profoundly British and Protestant ordering of human society; an intellectual distrust of Catholics, based on a set of epistemological and philosophical ideas first elucidated in the English (Lockean) and Scottish (“Common Sense Realist”) Enlightenments and the British Whig tradition of political thought; and a nativist distrust of Catholics as deviant members of American society, a perception central to the Protestant mainstream’s duty of “boundary maintenance” (to utilize Emile Durkheim’s reading of how “outsiders” help “insiders” maintain social control). An examination of the long history of anti-Catholicism in the United States can be divided into three parts: first, an overview of the types of anti-Catholic animus utilizing the typology adumbrated above; second, a narrative history of the most important anti-Catholic events in U.S. culture (e.g., Harvard’s Dudleian Lectures, the Suffolk Resolves, the burning of the Charlestown convent, Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures); and finally, a discussion of American Catholic efforts to address the animus.
The US Catholic Church was for most of its history—and, in many places, still is—a working-class church. The choice for worship by successive waves of immigrants, from the Irish to the Polish to the Mexican, the Church, once it had created an institutional presence, welcomed “these strangers in a strange land.” These immigrants play a major role in creating and sustaining parishes that served both as a soul-sustaining refuge and, in many cases, a way station to the outside world. James Cardinal Gibbons, having learned from the central role that Irish workers played in the Knights of Labor and protests against the excommunication of the radical New York priest, Edward McGlynn, persuaded the Vatican to take a relatively liberal stance toward the “social question” in the United States. Rerum Novarum, the 1891 papal encyclical, condemned socialism and competitive capitalism, but more significantly asserted the “natural” right of workers to form unions as well as to have a living wage. It was within this religious legitimation of unionism that Irish Catholics came to prominence in the American Federation of Labor, that Monsignor John A. Ryan created a US Catholic social justice intellectual tradition, and that US bishops adopted the 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction. The Catholic labor moment came when the Church, led by the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department, midwestern bishops, and labor priests, not only supported the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but consistently pushed the New Deal to implement the 1919 program. Philip Murray, the CIO’s Catholic president, led the expulsion of the Communist-led unions when the Communist Party, in the Wallace campaign, threatened both the country and everything the CIO had built. On the one hand, this Catholic labor moment dissolved in an overdetermined mixture of complacency, capitalist growth, and anti-Communism. On the other, a direct line can be traced from California’s labor priests to the Spanish Mission Band to Cesar Chavez and the formation of the United Farm Workers. It took time for the official Church to support the farm workers, but once that happened, it was all in: the support the Church, at all levels, gave them far exceeded anything it had done previously to implement Rerum Novarum.