by Tom Raabe
I grew up in a subculture where anti-Catholicism was assumed — it was in the air we conservative Lutherans breathed and the water we drank.
The time was the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the place was Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
How bad was it?
- Green Bay Packers fans I hung out with didn’t like Paul Hornung, the star of the team, because he had played college ball at Notre Dame.
- We were for Nixon in 1960, which was to us a no-brainer. We were all afraid of a puppeteer pope sitting behind the arras pulling John F. Kennedy’s strings in all matters domestic and international.
- Some of us wouldn’t eat fish at all on Friday, ostentatiously chowing down on beef, just out of spite.
- We heard lots of talk about the pope as antichrist, and terms like “papist” and “popery” sort of reflexively came out of our mouths.
What was the provenance of our anti-Catholicism? Yes, there were the doctrinal differences — differences dating back five hundred years to when our theological forebear, Martin Luther, split from the only religion in town, Catholicism. This division has always been integral to our identity. The Reformation is the event that locates us Lutherans in history, and keeping a safe distance from the entity we were then trying to reform (before they kicked us out) helps locate us theologically.
And these differences must not be understated: As long as we confess the pure Gospel of Christ, and His free gift of salvation through faith alone, we confess a real theological divergence from Rome. Where tension with our Catholic neighbors has this at its root, it is well-founded.
But this was not the cause of the Friday fish fasts. At least in my community, there was simple jealousy as well. Everybody in Milwaukee in those years, it seemed, was either Lutheran or Catholic — and many, many more identified as the latter. There were enough Catholic high schools in southeastern Wisconsin to constitute an athletic conference of about a dozen schools. Friday fish fries were huge commercial events, with restaurants and bars competing energetically for the Friday evening walk-up, proclaiming loudly their specialties and prices. Lutheran pastors walking around town wearing their clerical collars were regularly addressed as “Father.”
The Catholics had huge churches, which conducted multiple masses every Sunday. City traffic cops were stationed outside these churches on Sunday morning to manage the parking-lot flow. Lutheran churches did not warrant such civic attention, and it ticked us off. It was a big dog–little dog scenario. They were the big dog striding majestically about the neighborhood. We were the little dog, the yapper, jumping around, nipping at its paws, barking frantically, trying to get noticed. We Lutherans told Catholic jokes; I don’t recall any of my Catholic friends or acquaintances telling Lutheran jokes.
But now, in twenty-first-century America, anti-Catholicism has gone mainstream.
Look at the way certain politicians go after judicial nominees who are devout Catholics. When Judge Amy Coney Barrett came up for Senate confirmation to a federal appeals court, she was grilled on her religious views. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) seemed worried that she might be an orthodox Catholic, and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) cast about for eloquence with a now-famously weird comment, to wit: “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s a concern.”
Other judicial nominees have been grilled for their membership in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization with a 137-year history. Senators were especially concerned that Brian C. Buescher, an Omaha-based lawyer nominated by President Trump to sit on a federal district court in Nebraska, might agree with the Knights’ views on abortion and same-sex marriage, which the Knights, along with virtually all of politically conservative Christianity, are against.
And, in a case of piling on, certain progressive lawyers and judges continue to twist the knife on the Little Sisters of the Poor. (Or, perhaps more aptly, they keep pulling the knife out and sticking it in again, over and over.) After the Trump administration honored the “conscience rights” of the Little Sisters, allowing them to opt out of contraceptive coverage demands in their health-care plans, the attorneys general of California and Pennsylvania challenged their religious exception in court, and a judge blocked the Trump proviso from taking effect in 13 states and the District of Columbia.
In Eureka, California, a Catholic hospital is being sued by the ACLU for refusing to allow a surgeon to perform a transgender operation there. And there always seems to be new news about Catholic adoption agencies forced out of business because they won’t violate their conscience by assigning kids to same-sex couples. These events don’t seem to be slowing down in frequency, and the degree of animosity directed at Catholics these days is (rightly, I think) forcing us to reconsider some of our old prejudices.
What is being mounted here is, after all, not merely an attack on Catholic beliefs. It is a broadside against historic Christianity in all its forms. It is a salvo against the freedom of believers to express their beliefs in the public square. Neutralizing the biggest dog in the fight might be militant secularists’ first objective, but it won’t be their last — they’ll come after the little dogs later.
America has changed dramatically since the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, in the years after World War II, it was a halcyon time for religion in this country. Christianity was assumed in society; it was the default setting. Christians were denominationally focused; fights largely occurred within the faith. Now, the threat comes not only from within but also from without, from secularists and zealots determined to belittle Christianity and, if it were possible, bring about its downfall.
The times we live in call for a different mentality and a different strategy. They call for Christians of all stripes to band together to fight an enemy that seeks to curtail our influence in society and even — it’s hard to avoid this conclusion — completely silence our voice in the civic sphere.
Conservative Lutherans will still have occasion to recall our significant theological differences with Catholicism. Compromise on theological issues is not an option, no matter the consequences. But as our common enemies grow in strength and hostility, we must also stand firm with Catholics on the ground that we share. As allies in the culture wars, we can and ought to stand, where we can, with our Catholic brothers and sisters. They are integral to the fight for public morality in America. In fact, if the Church of Rome ever caves on abortion or same-sex marriage, or if it is ever silenced on issues that are important to us and with which we agree, it will get a lot lonelier — and quieter — at the pro-life marches and pro-family rallies.
Maybe it’s time we conservative Lutherans stop thinking of the big dog in the neighborhood as our enemy and start seeing it as — in some battles — our friend and ally.
Tom Raabe is a member of Christ Church–Lutheran in Phoenix.