For that matter, if I were to talk about our “original sin” as racism, I’m not sure I’d start with white vs. black. I might be inclined toward talking about white vs. red. Europeans – especially, English – coming to North America began with various approaches to the Native Americans, but by King Philip’s War (1675-78), all the ingredients of all later white vs. red conflicts were established. It’s a story quite as depressing in its own way as the adoption of black slavery (primarily) in the southern colonies. And, of course, it begins earlier. The first permanent English settlement was Jamestown, founded in 1607. That founding set up an encounter with the Powhatan people, an encounter that went from hostile to friendly to hostility again, and ended with the dispossession of the Powhatans. This story was repeated many times in many ways over the next two hundred and fifty years. The first African slaves only reached these shores in 1619. So if our “original sin” is racism, then Native Americans and their continuing plight ought to figure more prominently in our national conversation than they do.
But actually, if we were to examine the prejudices and preoccupations of the English who founded the Thirteen Colonies and later, our nation, there would be another ugly conflict more fundamental to the American situation than race relations: Religion.
The English who founded what became The United States were locked in an existential war with other Europeans, even as they explored and settled this continent. The ideology born of that war became our national ideology. It colors everything about the Founding. In a word, the English explorers and settlers and Founders were Protestant, and the enemy – variously Spain, France, or the Pope – was Catholic. Anti-Catholic prejudice affected our diplomacy, our legal system, and our later public school system. Even after “Protestant” lost any real connection to a particular religious belief system (of the Founders, Jefferson was a Deist, Adams a Unitarian, and Franklin – well, whatever he was), the one thing it knew for sure was that the devil was Catholic. Public holidays in early America included some on which the Pope was burnt in effigy. Later, we had “Blaine amendments” to privilege public schools (led by Protestant thinkers) over Catholic parochial schools. When John F. Kennedy was elected President, a lot of people I knew were amazed; they didn’t think a Catholic could be elected president in their lifetimes. Even William F. Buckley at the height of his career at National Review described himself as “a member of a minority group.”
This has a bearing on the idea of “whiteness,” which the Awokened constantly reference. For them, it is obvious that all whites start with an idea of white supremacy over all other races. But race itself is a social construct, and “whiteness” hadn’t yet been fully constructed when the English began establishing colonies over here. Differences between English, Germans, French, Italians, Spaniards, and Dutch which seem trivial or arcane to us were glaringly obvious to the Europeans of those days. And the Protestant-Catholic theological/political divide loosely matched a cultural divide far older than the Reformation. For the Mediterranean countries were part of what we call the “wine and oil” culture, whereas northern Europe was in the “beer and butter” culture.
Previous to the Reformation, the cultural superiority of the European South was presumed. After all, it was the South where the Pope lived, who (the story ran) had sent missionaries to convert the Germanic barbarians of the North centuries before. Even after the Reformation, this presumption of cultural superiority was retained in Catholic countries. You can see it in the conflict between courtiers at the beginning of Amadeus, where German-speakers and Italian-speakers lobby the Emperor over which language an opera to be commissioned from Mozart should be sung in. Once the ideological lines were set by Reformation and Counter-Reformation, however, every possible social resource was marshalled to fight the enemy, including language and cuisine. The English sneered at “snail-eaters.” The Pope pilloried Luther as “a drunken German monk.” The French, whose people straddled the cultural divide, were nevertheless a Catholic country, and the culture of the court reflected the European South. The English sneered at French casseroles and ragouts, preferring for the next four hundred years plain butcher’s meat – roasted, boiled, or fried. The French replied by giving the English the dismissive nickname les rosbifs (“the roast beefs”).
Along with the cultural stereotypes, there arose ethnic ones. The Mediterranean peoples were described as “swarthy” and “sweaty,” and their sexual attitudes became not alluring (as they had been) but “coarse.” In the Nineteenth Century, debates on immigration centered on the undesirability of people from southern (and later, eastern) Europe gaining admission to the US. The Irish, a northern European people who were decidedly pro-Catholic (and anti-English) suffered under many of the same stereotypes, often being described as subhuman.
Well, we’ve come a long way. Catholics and Catholicism are now mainstream. I don’t know any who would today think of themselves as members of a minority group. Catholics are even one of the mainstays of the American conservative movement. Catholics form a majority of Supreme Court justices. This should give us hope that other old divisions can be healed.
Nevertheless, it should also give us pause. If religion is actually more fundamental to American thinking than race, then we begin to see the culture wars that convulse us today as a clash of religions – or of ideologies taking the place of religions. This distorts the actual practice of religion, of course, but it also explains why there is so little grace to be found in our public debates. People see Those Others not as political opponents but as heretics, to be kept down or burnt at the stake, or treated in whatever fashion necessary to advance the holy cause. People who disagree with you are not merely wrong, their very opinions constitute a clear and present danger to the peace of the nation. They must be made to conform. Some of our most “liberal,” “progressive” leaders talk in the language of the devot. Like Savonarola, they call for a public bonfire of vanities; and if any of their own side wavers for an instant, they burn him or her, even as Savonarola was burnt in the public square of Florence. And the mob always enjoys a good public execution.