Catholic Looks at American Culture in the Antebellum Era and the Mid-Twentieth Century: Two New Books

Paul Harvey

Just a brief note on two new books that will be of interest to some readers here, both important pieces of scholarship on the Catholic relationship with American politics and culture.

First, a review from Choice, just below, on Catholics and slavery:

Wallace, W. Jason
. Catholics, slaveholders, and the dilemma of American evangelicalism, 1835-1860. Notre Dame, 2010. 200p index afp ISBN 026804421x pbk, $30.00; ISBN9780268044213 pbk, $30.00. Reviewed in 2011jul CHOICE.
Over the past 40 years, scholars have produced a cornucopia of quality scholarship detailing the importance of religion in the antebellum era and how particular religious ideas shaped competing visions of the American Republic, creating the context for and animating the Civil War. Wallace's fine volume elucidates the challenge Catholicism brought to that discourse. Its traditional theology challenged the individualism in the hermeneutics of northern and southern Protestants. Increasing German and Irish Catholic immigration threatened the English domination of the US. In five crisp chapters, Wallace (history, Samford Univ.) outlines how Catholicism debated the hegemonic discourse of Protestant-based acquisitive capitalism, articulated a traditional accommodation to slavery as a product of human sin, and asserted its own historic and ongoing contribution to the discussion of social morality and the proper sources of the Christian life. In their attempts to explain, Catholic leaders offered a powerful critique of nationalism and religion rooted solely in the authority of individual believers under the Constitution and Scripture, an intellectual impeachment given credence by the outbreak of Civil War. Catholicism offered an alternative vision rooted in tradition, realism, and theology. Summing Up:Recommended. All levels/libraries. -- E. R. Crowther, Adams State College

Next up, a book just received which appears to be a landmark study: Anthony Burke Smith, The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War, hot off the press from the University Press of Kansas. I've only had the chance to skim through parts, but it looks fascinating, and later this summer Emily will give us a more substantive discussion of the book up here.

A brief bit from the book's webpage:

For much of American history, Catholics’ perceived allegiance to an international church centered in Rome excluded them from full membership in society. Now Anthony Burke Smith shows how the intersection of the mass media and the visually rich culture of Catholicism changed that Protestant perception and, in the process, changed American culture.

Smith examines depictions of and by Catholics in American popular culture during the critical period between the Great Depression and the height of the Cold War. He surveys the popular films, television, and photojournalism of the era that reimagined Catholicism as an important, even attractive, element of American life to reveal the deeply political and social meanings of the Catholic presence in popular culture.

Smith shows that Hollywood played a big part in this midcentury Catholicization of the American imagination. Leo McCarey’s Oscar-winning film Going My Way, starring the soothing (and Catholic) Bing Crosby, turned the Catholic parish into a vehicle for American dreams, while Pat O’Brien and Spencer Tracy portrayed heroic priests who championed the underclass in some of the era’s biggest hits. And even while a filmmaker like John Ford rarely focused on clerics and the Church, Smith reveals how his films gave a distinctly ethnic Catholic accent to his cinematic depictions of American community.

Smith also looks at the efforts of Henry Luce’s influential Life magazine to harness Catholicism to a postwar vision of middle-class prosperity and cultural consensus. And he considers the unexpected success of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s prime-time television show Life is Worth Living in the 1950s, which offered a Catholic message that spoke to the anxieties of Cold War audiences.

Revealing images of orthodox belief whose sharpest edges had been softened to suggest tolerance and goodwill, Smith shows how such representations overturned stereotypes of Catholics as un-American. Spanning a time when hot and cold wars challenged Americans’ traditional assumptions about national identity and purpose, his book conveys the visual style, moral confidence, and international character of Catholicism that gave it the cultural authority to represent America.

In short, the book appears to be a cultural history accompaniment to Kevin Schultz's Tri-Faith America, reviewed at the blog here previously by Chris Beneke. The book features extensive discussions of Catholic representations in the movies, going far beyond the usual "Legion of Decency" emphasis that most books about Catholics and the movies cover. There are also chapters on Catholics in Life magazine, on Fulton Sheen and Catholics in television, and on "John Ford's Irish American Century."


Tom Van Dyke said…
And he considers the unexpected success of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s prime-time television show Life is Worth Living in the 1950s, which offered a Catholic message that spoke to the anxieties of Cold War audiences.

Oh, that's not right. Fulton Sheen spoke of much more than the Cold War. One of his most stunning lectures was on Freud, Jung, and Mortimer Adler. I saw it sometime in the last few years. On the Protestant Channel. {one of 'em.}
Art Remillard said…
Here's another, which I expect will receive plenty of attention on this blog. Tom Tweed's, America's Church: The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation's CapitolFrom OUP...

The National Shrine in Washington, DC has been deeply loved, blithely ignored, and passionately criticized. It has been praised as a "dazzling jewel" and dismissed as a "towering Byzantine beach ball." In this intriguing and inventive book, Thomas Tweed shows that the Shrine is also an illuminating site from which to tell the story of twentieth-century Catholicism. He organizes his narrative around six themes that characterize U.S. Catholicism, and he ties these themes to the Shrine's material culture--to images, artifacts, or devotional spaces. Thus he begins with the Basilica's foundation stone, weaving it into a discussion of "brick and mortar" Catholicism, the drive to build institutions. To highlight the Church's inclination to appeal to women, he looks at fund-raising for the Mary Memorial Altar, and he focuses on the Filipino oratory to Our Lady of Antipolo to illustrate the Church's outreach to immigrants. Throughout, he employs painstaking detective work to shine a light on the many facets of American Catholicism reflected in the shrine.
Paul Harvey said…
Art, Kathy is going to be posting about Tom Tweed's book down the road, so we can look forward to that.
esclark said…
Thanks for the heads-up on the Wallace and Smith books.

I am really excited about Tweed's new book. I've been reading up on Catholicism a lot lately for comprehensive exam preparation, and so it'll be interesting to see how Tweed's book narrates Catholicism in the 20th century compared to others. At last year's AAR, he talked about his approach to his archival sources and the eventual writing during the panel on Crossing & Dwelling. I'm looking forward to seeing how those decisions reflect in the text.
pjhayesphd said…
On the Catholic Studies hit parade for this summer, may I add my own humble contribution, just released from the University of Notre Dame Press? It's entitled A Catholic Brain Trust: The History of the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, 1945-1965. More here:
Anonymous said…
I am especially looking forward to checking out Wallace's book. For several years, I've not quite found a solid book on Catholics and slavery, for which I could use (at least partially, if it was a good book) for my class, Christianity and Slavery in America. I'm always looking for new material for that class, which I've taught each year for the past several years. Hope this one will be useful.

Curtis J. Evans

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