Anti-Catholicism in Arkansas

How Politicians, the Press, the Klan, and Religious Leaders Imagined an Enemy, 1910-1960

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Kenneth C. Barnes
  • Fayetteville, AR: 
    University of Arkansas Press
    , November
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Donald Trump centered his successful presidential campaign on one of the most tried-and-true strategies in American electoral history—casting immigrants as dangerous to all that is good and right about the nation. He cited acts of terrorism in calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and accused the Mexican government of “forcing their most unwanted people into the United States.” These unwanted Mexicans—“bad hombres” he later called them—included “criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” Although Trump expressed his hostility toward one group in terms of religion and the other in terms of ethnicity, his rhetoric seems to come from a desire to privilege a certain type of American. So Kenneth Barnes’s recent historical exploration of nativism and religious intolerance—Anti-Catholicism in Arkansas—is a welcomed addition at this troubled moment.

Like scholars before him, Barnes is interested in sorting out the complex origins of religious intolerance, its intersections with nativism and other forms of prejudice, and the ways that it waxes and wanes. But he also approaches these issues from a personal perspective. His teenage brother’s conversion to Catholicism in 1960s Arkansas, and the family drama that ensued, sparked his interest. As he explains, “This book allows me to explore the origins of my parents’ prejudices against Roman Catholicism” (ix). His conclusion runs counter to the-still-very-relevant John Higham, who saw anti-Catholicism as mostly an expression of a larger hostility toward lower-class ethnic groups. For Barnes—and he is not alone here—anti-Catholicism was “essentially about a religion” (4). That is, Catholics were persecuted not because they were ethnic minorities or immigrants but rather, because they were Catholic. Barnes attributes the waning of anti-Catholicism, not to rising tolerance and pluralism as much as the inability of anti-Catholics to substantiate their sensational claims, and the power of countervailing forces—such as Great War patriotism or allegiance to the Democratic Party.

Arkansas is an especially fruitful place to study anti-Catholicism. The relatively small number of Catholics in the state throughout the early twentieth century meant that the vast majority of Arkansans probably had little, if any, personal contact with Catholics. But the strength of the anti-Catholicism was usually inversely correlated to the relative size of the Roman Catholic population. Barnes is at his best when documenting anti-Catholicism’s growth in 1910s Arkansas, locating its origins among the mostly Protestant preachers and churchmen in rural areas who hit the lecture circuit and published newspapers, using lurid tales of clerical debauchery to excite the populace. Barnes notes that anti-Catholicism was especially strong among those Protestants—Baptists, Missionary Baptists, and later, Church of Christ—who were most wary of threats to congregational autonomy. Barnes sees anti-Catholicism peaking in Arkansas around 1915, when the state legislature enacted the nation’s first convent inspection law, and investigators began searching Catholic institutions for evidence of priestly crimes. The failure to locate such abuse, along with the increasing likelihood of war with Germany, took much of the wind out of anti-Catholicism’s sails.

But the rise of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the state revitalized anti-Catholicism after the war. Like elsewhere, the 1920s Klan emphasized political action in its Arkansas campaigns against liquor, trade unions, Jews, blacks, and, most importantly, Catholics. Indeed, Barnes sees anti-Catholicism as the Klan’s primary concern in Arkansas, with many of those who led the fight for convent inspection becoming Klan lecturers. In an especially insightful section, Barnes details the creation of the American Krusaders, a Klan auxiliary for Protestant men ineligible for proper membership given their foreign birth. With its national headquarters in Little Rock, the Krusaders lobbied alongside the Klan for the Immigration Act of 1924, which used a quota system that disadvantaged those coming from predominantly Catholic countries. Barnes sees the Klan’s willingness to work with these Protestant immigrants as evidence that “the Klan anti-immigration position was primarily an expression of anti-Catholicism” (110).

By the late 1920s, anti-Catholicism was again on the wane in Arkansas, a result of a national sex scandal, evidence of financial corruption at the state level, and efforts of powerful Democrats—especially Arkansas’s Joe T. Robinson—to mend rifts within the party. New York governor Al Smith’s 1924 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination unleashed a torrent of anti-Catholicism, especially in the South, that nearly crippled the party. Smith—a Catholic of Irish and Italian heritage—did not receive the nomination that year but made it clear that he would try again in 1928. To neutralize anti-Catholic forces in the party, Robinson—the Democrat’s leader in the US Senate—began speaking out against the forces of religious intolerance, especially Alabama senator Tom Heflin. For Robinson’s willingness to defend Smith’s Catholicism, he got the vice presidential nomination and helped ensure that Arkansas cast its electoral votes for the slate headed by the New York Catholic. Although it would remain vibrant within certain religious circles, anti-Catholicism lost its steam as a popular movement in Arkansas after 1928.

Anti-Catholicism in Arkansas is fascinating, provocative, and compelling. Barnes makes especially insightful use of the debates among preachers and priests over the convent inspection law, the Klan, and Robinson’s vice presidential bid. This strength, though, is also a weakness. These sources, of course, center on religion, so the story they tell emphasizes religion. But to sustain his larger argument that anti-Catholicism was “essentially about a religion,” Barnes needs to expand his evidentiary base and dismiss alternative explanations. For instance, the United Mine Workers in the Arkansas River Valley expelled members who joined the Klan, causing the Klansmen to lose their jobs due to closed-shop arrangements. The union officers did not understand the Klan’s anti-Catholicism to be about religion, but rather as part of a broader effort to destroy unions by dividing workers along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. By focusing tightly on the religious debates, Barnes sometimes misses alternative explanations that need to be accounted for.

Barnes is especially good at reminding us that those most remote from religious minorities are usually their fiercest critics, and that the waxing and waning of religious bigotry tells us less about those being persecuted than it does about the anxieties of the persecutors. In Trump’s America, these lessons need to be repeated and repeated. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Pierce is associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kenneth C. Barnes is professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Who Killed John Clayton?: Political Violence and the Emergence of the New South and Journey of Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s.


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