Addressing America’s Unresolved Questions

Addressing America’s Unresolved QuestionsA review of Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth Century America by John Gjerde, edited by S. Deborah Kang, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2012.

Part of the fascination of history is its ability to explain why things are the way they are. History goes beneath the surface of events and manages to unearth all sorts of controversies and movements that helped shape the present. However, it also serves to uncover festering and troubling issues that are as yet unresolved.


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Such is the merit of John Gjerde’s book, Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth Century America. It explains how the religious debate developed in America. It disputes the automatic assumption that Protestants and Catholics seamlessly merged without conflict. He outlines the major debates and issues of the time, some of which continue unresolved to this day.

It is often thought that the pluralist society established by the American Revolution suppressed the religious conflicts of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gjerde’s work shows how the traditional antagonism between Protestants and Catholics merely crossed the Atlantic and transplanted itself on American soil.

Talk of the “Romist” and “papist” threat proliferated in antebellum America as increasing numbers of Catholic immigrants entered the country and especially populated the Western frontier. Debates on the role of the Church and State, education and the role of the family raged as Catholics sought to preserve their faith and identity in a society that had adopted many of the hostile ideas of the Enlightenment.

Perhaps the most interesting insight of this highly objective work is the clash of worldviews that took place in American society. This was not only a theological clash but a profound sociological conflict. It came at a time of transformation when the Industrial Revolution was changing not only manufacturing, but also social structures and mentalities.

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One of the most fundamental differences between the Catholic and Protestant worldviews was on the nature of society. Gjerde shows how the Catholic embraced “an organic theory of state and society.” He relied upon structures of authority and complementary influences of intermediary societies like communities and schools. Society was seen as an organic whole with all social and charitable institutions contributing to the formation of the individual. Society was in this sense analogous to a human organism where all parts contributed to the whole and were interdependent.

The Protestant view “tended to conceive of the world differently and increasingly put a premium on the correct behavior of the individual.” It was a society denounced as individualistic and materialistic since it placed more value on the decisions of its members isolated from and independent of the others. Such a conception of society corresponded to what has been called a mechanistic view of society in line with the industrialization of the West. It involved the implanting of values deemed to be “republican” and “democratic.”

The clash of these fundamental differences provides the platform for Gjerde’s masterful exposition. The late history professor at Berkeley explores how all this played out in education, the structure of the family and social justice issues. Assistant history professor S. Deborah Kang, at California State University in San Marcos, edited and finished Gjerde’s manuscript upon his death, keeping with his original intent despite a few added politically correct overtones.

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These issues Gjerde discusses were not resolved by the forming of an American consensus on religious issues that later occurred. Rather, the discussion was merely eclipsed by what Robert Bellah called the “American civil religion” where everyone agreed to get along while following vague religious principles. With the polarization of American society and the breakdown of this civil religion, many of the unresolved issues about what kind of society is best suited for the nation are now returning to the fore. This makes Gjerde’s book all the more relevant, helpful and insightful for all those Americans looking for answers to these unresolved questions.

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