Book review: Making Catholic America

Author: Ella Hadacek

Making Catholic America: Religious Nationalism in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era  ·  William S. Cossen (Cornell University Press, 2023)  ·  Review by Ella Hadacek


Cossen Bookcover Web

Who are the religious outsiders in the United States? Scholars of American religious history have tended to tacitly accept the 19th-century Protestant view of themselves as the normative American citizen and have cast Catholics in the role of the outcasts in the religious landscape. However, a close examination of the more liberal, American-born branch of the Church—often termed the Americanist wing of the Church by scholars—reveals how Catholics cultivated their own brand of anti-Protestant nationalism after the Civil War. Making Catholic America: Religious Nationalism in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era by William S. Cossen looks at the period from the point of view of Catholics, identifying a “Protestant Question” analogous to the more commonly studied “Catholic Question.” He reveals that just as antebellum Protestants argued for the necessity of a non-sectarian Protestantism to create virtuous citizens, Catholics after the war turned that rhetoric against them to contend that Protestantism had failed the nation and Catholicism was the faith best suited to form American citizens.

Driving against scholarship in the vein of William B. Kurtz’s Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America, Cossen contends that the Americanists “rejected ghettoization in the political and nation-building realms” and “viewed their church as a strongly American institution and conversely saw the United States as an authentically Catholic country” (112). Combining archival research with a close examination of print sources like the widely read Americanist periodical the Catholic World, Cossen investigates the racial, religious, and nation-building theories of what he terms the “Heckerite position” because of its connection to the writings of the Paulist Fathers founder and noted convert Isaac Hecker. By looking at how Hecker and those in his intellectual lineage gave American-born Catholics the tools to argue “Catholicism was the defender, guarantor, and clearest expression of American nationalism,” Cossen frames Catholics as central creators of American nationalism rather than ostracized outsiders (92). As such, Heckerites sometimes “blurred the lines between Catholicism and non-Catholic nativism” and “contributed to Progressive theories of scientific racism” (112). While this rhetorical move allowed American-born Catholics to assume positions of power in a predominantly Protestant society, it also divided them from Catholics who did not fit the Anglo standard of whiteness.

Across five chronological chapters, Cossen expertly demonstrates the significance of his Americanist Catholic subjects and the persistence of their rhetoric. While they numerically made up a much smaller portion of the Church than the Ultramontane immigrant Catholics, Cossen establishes that they had “an outsized effect on shaping public policy” and their positions even found expression within the more conservative branch of the Church (7). While the Ultramontane prelates might have won the theological battle, Cossen argues that they often and unknowingly “replicated liberals’ assumptions about the nature of the American nation,” which suggests the “pervasive power” of Americanist Catholic nationalism even among those who would have opposed its origins (7). Rejecting Thomas T. McAvoy’s widely accepted periodization of Americanism, Cossen also argues for the endurance of these ideals long after Pope Leo XIII denounced in 1899 the cultural liberalism he saw in the Americanist branch. Cossen’s chapters track Americanist Catholic involvement in westward expansion during Reconstruction, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, U.S. colonization of the Philippines, immigration regulation, and their response to the resurgence of anti-Catholicism in the 20th century. Taken together, these chapters establish that even as Americanism as a defined part of the Church faded into the background, their Catholic American nationalist ideas persisted into the Cold War, creating an intellectual precedent for the creation of what historian Kevin Schultz has termed a Tri-Faith America.

The first chapter narrows in on Catholic pro-colonization attitudes within the context of U.S. federal expansion westward during Reconstruction. Facilitated by Ulysses Grant’s decision to allow religious denominations to receive federal funding for Indigenous schools, Catholics used the history of French and Spanish colonial activity in the American West to justify their prior claim on the “welfare of Native Americans’ lives and souls” (22). Despite receiving more funding for reservation schools than any other denomination, Catholics flipped anti-Catholic rhetoric surrounding Catholic power in public schools to accuse Protestants of trying to gain control of the reservations and government offices. The experience of lobbying for federal funds simultaneously allowed them to compete with Protestants for Indigenous souls and solidify their role in the nation. While Cossen neglects to discuss residential schools in light of the mass graves found in Canada and the United States, he does emphasize the racism that tinged evangelistic efforts. He relates how American Catholics kept Indigenous children from their families and gave them a subpar education because these Catholics assumed they could not be full citizens. Cossen also connects the rhetoric used to justify Catholic mistreatment of Indigenous peoples to American Catholic participation in the colonization of the Philippines. By joining in the subjection of a group on their own soil, Cossen contends they took part “in a rehearsal for US extraterritorial expansion and colonization” (48).

Chapter two shifts away from westward expansion to examine Catholics at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Cossen reads the Columbian Exposition, more commonly referred to as the World’s Fair, through the lens of empire, explaining that it presented imperialism, colonialism, and the advance of capitalism to upwardly mobile white Americans in a palatable way while also providing a venue for “theories and imagery of white racial superiority” (12). The World’s Fair not only offered a public stage for men like Chicagoan and lay Catholic William James Onahan to lay claim to a role in America’s founding by noting the prominent Catholics who were descendants of the Plymouth Pilgrims, but it also provided a venue for Catholic laywomen to conceptualize a public role. Cossen relates how Alice Timmons Toomy, a delegate of the Congress of Catholic Women, viewed the event as proof that “Catholic women had a leading role to play in shaping their religious community’s spiritual, social, and political agendas” and as an opportunity to create a plan for how an “army of lay women” could participate more in the work of the Church (58). While convincing on its own, this chapter, which Cossen calls a “thematic interlude,” contributes the least to his overall argument (12).

In the third chapter, Cossen returns westward to look at U.S. colonization of the Philippines. He argues the colonial effort provided new ground for Catholics and Protestants to battle for power and facilitated the emergence of a cohort of Catholic leaders—most conspicuously those associated with the Catholic World and shaped by Hecker’s union of Catholicism and Americanism—who sold imperialism to hesitant American Catholics. Cossen contends that while white Catholics denounced the mistreatment of friars, they also supported colonization to express “solidarity” with white Protestants with whom they shared the goal of “civilizing” an “inferior race” (73). Cossen’s treatment of the Philippines adds significantly to previous scholarship by shifting the focus to prominent Catholic leaders who used Anglo-Americanism to lay claim to leadership roles in the empire. By centering Catholic actors in colonization rather than portraying them as the tools of non-Catholic agents of empire as they appear in Katherine Moran’s The Imperial Church: Catholic Founding Fathers and United States Empire, Cossen provides the Catholic side of the story and complements Moran’s exploration of cooperation between Catholics and Protestants.

This section also convincingly underscores the ways in which supporting colonialism augmented Americanist influence with the federal government. Theodore Roosevelt’s vocal approbation of the Americanist Church provides some of the most compelling examples of this relationship. In 1900, John Ireland, the archbishop of Saint Paul, publicly shared his decision to vote for the McKinley-Roosevelt presidential ticket. After Roosevelt assumed the presidency, Ireland and Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore cultivated a relationship with the new president. Roosevelt returned the favor by praising the Americanists and facilitating American Catholic presence in the Philippines. While president, Roosevelt privately shared that he wanted to see Ireland made a cardinal, and he more publicly shared that opinion during his brief retirement from politics after his second term as president. When he read the list of new cardinals in 1911, he declared, “I think that Ireland or some representative of the Ireland school should have been appointed” (88). Under the Taft administration, Americanist Catholics’ close ties with government figures continued with Taft inviting Ireland to assist in appointing teachers to the Philippines.

Cossen’s final two chapters return to the continental United States to look at immigration regulation and rising anti-Catholicism. Cossen explores how, in the context of waves of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, American-born Catholics aligned with non-Catholics on racial theories and whiteness to reinforce their own position in society, thereby becoming “gatekeepers both for their country and for their church” (94). By siding with Protestants against their coreligionists, Heckerite Catholics had a dual goal: to ensure they maintained their public position in an “often-hostile” nation and their dominance over the non-Irish and non-German immigrants whose immigration “threatened to remake American Catholicism” (95) Adopting racial essentialism, the Catholic World published editorials that described Italian immigrants as “totally devoid of what may be termed the sense of respectability” and lacking the “manly qualities” necessary to claim whiteness (107). Cossen argues that this kind of rhetoric erected barriers within the Catholic Church and complicated the process of assimilation.

The final chapter explores how despite their best efforts to align with non-Catholic white Americans, Catholics still found themselves on the receiving end of prejudice. They responded to attacks on Catholic schools and attempted to restrict anti-Catholic magazines like The Menace by framing themselves as the model Americans and Protestants as the disloyal transgressors. In the context of the Oregon restriction on private schools and the First Red Scare, American bishops used parochial schools to reaffirm Catholic loyalty to the American nation by framing the school as the ideal place to “train citizens in ‘the use of freedom for the advancement of morality and religion’” (119). Likewise, Catholics responded to a report by the U.S. commissioner of education that failed to rank any Catholic colleges by appealing to President Taft and asking him to rectify the situation. Finally, this chapter reevaluates Al Smith’s presidential campaign by revealing how divisions among Catholics—particularly a reluctance to vote for him among Heckerite Catholics who supported Prohibition—contributed to his loss. Each of these varied examples serves to demonstrate that even in the face of rising anti-Catholicism, American Catholics refused to surrender their role in U.S. public life and continued to appeal to state power for inclusion.

Across Making Catholic America, Cossen reads Americanist Catholic actions through the lens of confidence, suggesting that Catholics of the time would have rejected the idea that they needed to accept Protestant norms to be part of the nation. While this is certainly one way to analyze these instances, the examples found throughout the book do not always support the idea that American-born Catholics felt no pressure to adapt to Protestant norms in order to secure their place in American society. For example, Cossen interprets the connections that Catholics like William James Onahan, Richard H. Clarke, and Isaac Hecker drew between Catholics and the New England Puritans as incidents of confidence. While an inventive rather than a reactionary move, these Catholics’ decision to embrace the memory of a religious group that emerged to purify the Church of England from Catholicism might also reflect deep insecurities about their position in society and their grasp on the power they hoped to wield. Cossen succeeds at demonstrating that Catholics absorbed Protestant ideas and reframed them to include them in the national story, but the emotions behind their stance—whether it be confidence or insecurity—remain open to different interpretations.

Despite these minor criticisms, Making Catholic America undoubtedly succeeds at demonstrating the power and significance of Americanist Catholics and the persistence of their Catholic nationalism over a longer time period than scholars have previously allowed. This intervention provides a much-needed justification for studying a numerical minority with an outsized influence on the path of American Catholicism moving into the 20th century. Other scholars who also study American-born Catholics will thank Cossen for how he uncovers Catholics as actors rather than passive victims of Protestant aggression. He shows how Heckerite Catholics participated in public life and abetted the burgeoning American empire in the West and the Philippines. He also reveals the troubling legacy of Catholics in this ideological vein, who asserted their belonging at the expense of Indigenous, Filipino, and Southern and Eastern European fellow Catholics who got pushed to the side by racial rhetoric and the dialogue of civilization. Anyone who studies American religion in the long 19th century—particularly scholars of Christian nationalism or white Catholics—should read Making Catholic America and consider how Cossen’s intervention interacts with their own scholarship.

Ella Hadacek is a doctoral student in history at the University of Notre Dame. This review essay appears in the fall 2023 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.