Now that Cardinal Francis George has compared the gay rights movement to the Ku Klux Klan because its parade route passes a church, it’s important to understand the Klan he’s talking about and put into context how he's using his position in the church to try and bully a politician.
George's comments attempted to illustrate a time in American history when the Catholic church was feared by American voters weary of the power the Pope might wield in shaping the country.
George's statements were ill-advised and drew the wrong sort of attention to the topic he was discussing -- much the same way politicians often fly off the handle when they compare (insert opponent) to Hitler and the Nazis.
But Cardinal George was not talking about the Klan of the 1860s, whose hooded riders terrorized blacks and carpetbaggers during Reconstruction. Nor is it the Klan of the 1960s, which murdered Freedom Riders who marched for civil rights.
Cardinal George was hearkening to the Klan of the 1920s, which was part of the same Nativist hysteria that led to Prohibition and a 40-year ban on immigration. That Klan was just as racist as the other Klans, but its motivating fear was that Catholic voters with roots in Ireland, Italy and Poland would take over the American government, and give the keys to the White House to Pope Pius XI. (You must understand, Pius XI described himself as a man with “no love for Democracy”; he supported Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain.)
Unlike the other Klans, this Klan was popular in the Northern states, which had more Catholics than the South. The Klan carried a great amount of influence in Indiana during this era.
In 1928, the Democratic Party multiplied the Klan’s paranoia by nominating a Catholic, New York Gov. Al Smith, for president. Anti-Smith cartoons showed the pope at the head of the Cabinet table, surrounded by bishops. “We now face the darkest hour in American history,” a Klan leader wrote his followers in a mailing. “In a convention ruled by political Romanism, anti-Christ has won.”
Herbert Hoover, a Quaker from Iowa, crushed Smith in the Electoral College, 444-87. When John F. Kennedy ran for president 32 years later, he had to swear to a group of Protestant ministers that he believed in an America “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source.”
It is not clear, however, that George believes in such an America. Earlier this month, he scolded Gov. Pat Quinn for his advocacy of gay rights and abortion rights, suggesting such positions are inconsistent with Quinn’s Catholic faith.
“It’s what he had said, particularly around the civil unions bill, that it was his faith that was prompting him to do this,” George told Fox News Chicago. “And he’s done that on several occasions. It’s also disquieting that he would say, ‘There’s a law and therefore everybody obeys it.’ What if the law’s immoral? I mean, every government has always said that: ‘You must obey the law!’ And people of faith have often said, ‘Well, we will, up to a point.’”
The cardinal is trying to have it both ways. He’s using his religious office to influence a Catholic officeholder, and he’s suggesting that Catholic teachings trump the laws of Illinois. Yet at the same time, he's accusing this group who disagrees with him of anti-Catholic bigotry.
The Catholic Church now occupies a very different position in American politics than it did in the 1920s. We’ve had a Catholic president. The most influential pope of modern times, John Paul II, was a champion of Democracy, helping to undermine the Communist government in his native Poland. Only the most extreme Protestant fundamentalists would suggest the Pope is the anti-Christ. The gay community would certainly argue that bigotry practiced by the Catholic Church is a more powerful force than bigotry practiced against the Catholic Church.
The fact that we have a Catholic governor, with whom the Catholic archbishop can meet privately for two hours, is proof that the church has nothing to fear from the Klan, or any other anti-Catholic movement.
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