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Chrstianity and Violence: Bible Wars

One sad bit of American history which few if any manage to learn about are the "Bible Wars" between Catholics and Protestants in the latter half of the 19th century. This is especially unfortunate because is remarkably resembles some of the issues which face us today with regards to having religion in public school.

In the early decades of American history, Catholics were relatively rare. They did not begin to take up residence here in large numbers until the 1830's and 1840's and then with the great waves of immigration which followed the Civil War. Although they were often better off here than in Europe - their priests were not generally hunted down and imprisoned - other forms of discrimination nevertheless existed.

It is worth noting that one of the groups which the KKK originally organized against was Roman Catholics. Many people in America feared a "papist" conspiracy to overthrow American democracy. Although much of this was pure prejudice, it is worth keeping in mind that the Vatican made strong and explicit condemnations against liberalism, religious plurality and the like.

Democratic suspicion of the aims of the Catholic church were not entirely unjustified, although that certainly did not warrant discrimination against Catholic individuals. Even today, there is widespread suspicion and even hatred of Catholicism among fundamentalist Protestants - something which would surprise many Catholics who have become used to religious freedom.

One area where Catholics experienced the worst discrimination was in the public school system, where all children were supposed to be treated equally. In America's public schools of the time, prayers and bible readings were common. This is exactly the sort of situation which many fundamentalist evangelicals wish to recreate today. Unfortunately for religious minorities, the prayers were Protestant and the readings were from the King James Version - a Protestant version of the bible, not the official Catholic Douay version.

Although it is part of Protestant theology that believers should be able to interpret scriptures as their consciences dictate, this is not true of the Roman Catholic Church. For Catholics, scriptures are supposed to be read in the light of church tradition as mediated by priests and church leaders. Thus, reading a bible in public schools "without comment" is essentially a Protestant practice - and although it might not be seen so strongly today, the difference was much more pronounced 100 years ago.

Catholic children were not granted the privilege of leaving the room or even just sitting quietly while the other children engaged in their religious practices and read their Bibles. Although this would have entailed treating them as second-class citizens, at least it would have amounted to some grudging acknowledgement that their concerns were valid. Instead, they were forced to participate actively against their consciences.

Dissent was not permitted - one example comes from poor Tom Wall, a student in Boston in 1859. The 11-year-old boy refused to obey an order to read the Ten Commandments from a Protestant bible, and so the teacher beat him until he gave in. Although the teacher was taken to court, all charges were dismissed. This was the "equality" which Catholics could expect in America's Protestant-dominated court systems.

Gradually, priests and other church leader began to vocalize their concerns regarding the education Catholic children were receiving. They recognized that the First Amendment should have created a situation whereby the government would not be permitted to promote Protestantism in favor of Catholicism. It is important to keep in mind that the parents were not even asking that all religious practices be ended in schools - all they wanted was that their children be permitted to read from their own Bible and opt out of Protestant prayers.

Sometimes, their wishes were respected - the superintendent of public schools in New York City decided that prayers could no longer be mandatory. Sadly, Catholics were rarely so well received. The bishop in New York City was forced to post armed guards outside of Catholic churches to stop vandalism. In other cities, the violence was worse. When Philadelphia's board of education voted in 1843 to allow Catholic children to be excused from religious exercises and Bible readings, Protestants rioted. Catholic churches and the homes of Catholic families were burned. Thirteen people were mercilessly killed.

This was the worst incident, although smaller incidents broke out across the country as the years progressed. In 1854, a missionary priest in Maine was tarred and feathered for daring to urge a parishioner to fight a local school board regulation forcing all students to read the King James Bible. Eventually, the violence in communities all over the country was a principle cause behind the creation of the Catholic school system.

Because they could not achieve equality in government-funded schools, they were forced to create their own. It is amazing that contemporary conservative Catholics have forgotten their own history and are today calling for a return of prayers, bible reading and other forms of religious observance to America's public schools. Have they bothered to think about this for even a moment?

More Book Battles

Similar violence occurred well into the late 20th century. In 1974, West Virginia residents battled over the adoption of new school books. The books up for a vote were denounced as "irreligious", "immoral and indecent" and even as having "the most vulgar, vile and filthy words in print" - although reporters were unable to find what the critics were talking about.

The books were adopted by a majority of the board, but this sparked an incredible wave of less-than-civil unrest. Religious leaders urged that all "true Christians" keep their children at home rather than send them to school. Mobs surrounded the schools and blocked bus garages. Teachers and parents who didn't join the boycott were threatened.

Coal miners - about 3,500 - went on strike in sympathy for the good Christian parents, and the mob violence escalated to the point the some people began carrying pistols out of fear of personal safety. Both school buses and regular city buses were stopped completely, leaving some 11,000 poor people without any transportation. Court injunctions against the protestors didn't help, so the superintendent had to close all the schools because he couldn't guarantee the safety of the children from the Christians.

Reporters of course were attracted to the story in droves, but at their own peril - a cameraman was beaten by a mob of fundamentalists at a rally. Eventually the schools were reopened with increased security, but without the protests stopping. Pro-boycott ministers prayed to God that the board members who dared to vote for the books be killed. After that, a Molotov cocktail was thrown against a grade school. Five shots hit a school bus.

Another grade school was damaged by a dynamite blast, and a bigger explosion damaged the school district's central office. Eventually, Minister Marvin Horan was indicted along with three of his followers for the bombings. It is fortunate that they were caught, because they had planned on wiring bombs to the gas tanks of cars of families who drove their children to school during the boycott.

This is the sort of protection against school violence which American Christianity offers us, I guess. For some reason, it doesn't inspire a sense of safety and peace in me.

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