How the heirs of the KKK stole a Pope’s infallibly to divide and conquer America

Harry Welty

JFK addresses anti-Catholic preachers in 1960, Google:“The Kennedy Speech that Stoked the Rise of the Christian Right”

My Dad expressed a little all-American anti-Catholicism when he opposed spending tax dollars on their parochial schools. Of course, this was in service to the Constitution’s “Establishment clause.” 

I limit my objections to public spending for religious instruction and Betsy DeVos’ s well-heeled private schools. Old time Catholics know they didn’t get a dime of public spending so it wasn’t a big problem until southern Christians built all white academies to avoid integration. Letting black kids in their schools offended their God. The tax-phobic South promptly flooded these schools with tax dollars.  

My Dad thought the doctrine that a Pope was infallible was ridiculous. Similar thinking led to bloody religious wars and the protestants who made up most of the British colonies. Fortunately for Catholics, England set up a couple American colonies to get rid of them. In North America they couldn’t threaten Henry the 8th’s divorce friendly church alternative. Maryland was their refuge.  

By the time of the American Revolution many religiously unsupervised Colonial leaders had become open minded Deists. Their chief concern was red coated occupying armies not the Pope. They saw little point in alienating any allies Popish or otherwise. When the patriots drew up a Constitution they were so open minded they inserted a clause forbidding the establishment of a state religion.  

A half-century later as starving dogs dug up hasty graves during the Irish potato famine, Trumpy Americans got downright nasty. They started the Know Nothing Party to keep America “American.” It was so fierce that earlier Irish immigrants descended from Scottish protestants felt they had to distinguish themselves from the papists emptying out Ireland. They called themselves “Scotch Irish” so no American would confuse them with the wretched Catholics.

My Mother’s Robb family were proud to call themselves Scotch Irish. They arrived in New York Harbor on the Day South Carolina bombarded Ft. Sumter. It turned out there were even deeper divisions than mere religion in their new American home. Suddenly a half dozen protestant denominations split in two along the Mason-Dixon line. My Presbyterians didn’t patch up their differences up until 1983.  

The Robbs felt they had been ill treated by the Catholics before departing Ireland. They liked liberal minded Abe Lincoln who fought to prevent the South from imposing slavery north of the Mason Dixon line.

In time my great grandfather Thomas would go even farther and call himself a “Black Republican,” This was in response to the southern taunt that northerners were “n_ _ _  lovers.” 

I often heard the taunt growing up.   The Irish Catholics found themselves pitted against even more persecuted black Americans. Both populations lived in early city slums. However bad the Catholic persecution was the blacks had it worse. Even free blacks in the North risked being kidnapped and sold into re-enslavement. Putting food on family tables caused vicious riots between the have-nots. “No Irish need apply” was a common sign advertising jobs. Pitting people against each other is a good way to keep wages low.  

Lucky and ambitious Irish, like the Kennedy family, never forgot their resentments. Family patriarch, Joseph P Kennedy, was determined to have a son elected as the nation’s first Catholic President. His dream was almost quashed when his oldest son died in WW II.

The legacy and challenge would fall to second son Jack in 1960. He would be backed by his Father’s Hollywood riches. It wouldn’t be easy.  

In 1928, New York State’s popular but very Catholic Governor Al Smith won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. He campaigned from the Midwest to the Pacific in states where the KKK had spent a decade spreading its hatred of Catholicism. This is today’s Red America. The hostility he encountered stunned the ebullient Smith.  

It took KKK sex scandals and a world war that threw Jews, Catholics and Protestants together under arms to blunt the Klan. It didn’t hurt that Jack Kennedy was a war hero and Hollywood handsome. Nonetheless, he was still widely suspected of putting the Pope ahead of the nation. The Pope was infallible. The nation was not. Kennedy went into the lion’s den to address these fears at a gathering of 300 Southern preachers in Texas just before the election. Afterwards many were still convinced that the Pope would be running America if JFK got elected.  

I staked out my pro-choice stance in high school at a time when pregnant women were being maimed, made barren and dying in the thousands from illegal abortions. The “infallible” Catholic doctrine that conception created a soul more important than the life of its mother was unworthy. I pitied Catholics who had to go along with such drivel.  

And many Catholics did what the Southern Baptists always feared they would do. They let the Pope tell them how to vote. Ironically, this was a godsend for the Confederates. White Southern Baptists soon out pro-lifed Catholics and  joined the GOP leading to a political tsunami. Just as slavery had  divided protestant churches now abortion divided the Catholic church. It was still one church with one Pope but its congregations dwindled. The damage done to the Democratic Party paid big dividends to the out numbered white south. As it had been before the Civil Was the South was once again directing the nation”s agenda.  

Still protected by the Electoral College today’s South no longer has to worry about majorities as their legislators gerrymander, reimpose voting restrictions and flood their candidate’s campaigns with secret money once deemed criminal while they pack courts with anti abortion jurists who turn a blind eye to vote suppression.  

There was a time when I saw a silver lining in the alliance between white Southerners and the Catholic church. I thought it was putting an end to the evil of anti-Catholicism.  It didn’t occur to me that this might put our Democracy at risk.  

Despite his prejudices my Dad also believed that Catholics got one thing right - confession. But the South had its limits. Abortion was one thing but they didn’t cotton to confession. Witness the GOP’s blindness to January 6th.  

Harry Welty shoots his mouth off at