Our Responses to Know-Nothingism: Old First E-pistle 07.19.19

Our Responses to Know-Nothingism: Old First E-pistle 07.19.19

If the past week is any measure, it appears that President Trump’s re-election campaign strategy revolves around polarizing the country along racial divides as well as branding the Democrats as both un-American and dangerous socialists. That worries me: the danger is in the damage that such racializing gamesmanship could wreak, damage that might not be easily repairable even if Trump loses the election. 

Trump targeted the four freshmen Congresswomen of color, using them to exacerbate racial tensions, particularly in his base of support, and to paint the whole Democratic Party as dangerously leftist and out of touch with our country. He wrote tweets about the Squad, and he focused on them in his speech at his North Carolina campaign rally. In typical Trump fashion, under pressure he then disavowed the rally’s “Send Her Back” chants about Rep. Ilhan Omar, before spending the days since walking back the disavowal and affirming the crowd that chanted. 

I guess some Republican leaders can recognize what’s wrong with his tactic, or at least they foresee future fallout at the ballot box. But in the video, Trump clearly did not act to halt the chant, despite his claim otherwise. And how can he disconnect from responsibility when his tweets to the same effect were the crowd’s inspiration?  

The administration’s handling of the border crisis likewise scapegoats and sacrifices brown people, presumably as much to whip up support (and turnout at the polls) from his block of voters as out of utter disregard for the Central Americans and their plight.. 

I fear Trump’s campaigning is more than election hyperbole. Worse than Bush’s Willy Horton dog-whistle. It is about deep-rooted, abiding and life-robbing failures plaguing this nation much longer than the next election (even if Trump is defeated). Perhaps it was always inevitable: a demagogue would come along and exploit all our unfinished business / unhealed wounds / the disease of American history? 

Don’t Trump’s actions threaten to light a fire that could burn down this house? Some will say I am overreacting, but he’s practically making rope out of most shameful strands of our political realities. Is that rope only to be used to keep Trump in the White House? Does it threaten also to be fashioned into a lynching noose?  

What will happen to and in our society if we have 16 months of bully pulpit pushing race- and religion-baiting coupled with some latter-day red scare? 

Are there responses that we as individuals and Old First as a church could undertake to be faithful in the face of such destructiveness and division occurring in our body politic? Is there a point at which the harm is so great and our faith so on the line that it actually becomes a confessional issue… a matter of whether or not we can still claim to be faithful and Christian and not act? 

There is a historical antecedent awfully close to home in the anti-catholic riots that racked Philly and the immediate adjoining towns (Kensington and Southwark, both now part of the city) in 1844. St. Augustine’s, not even a block north of us on 4th Street, was burned to the ground in those riots. 

The violence that year, at times, got closer to war — with 1000 militia men summoned and canons firing at crowds and at a Catholic Church down around 2nd and 3rd Street at Christian Street. St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Kensington was also burned, and countless other buildings were destroyed. How did such violence break out right in our neighborhood? By the 1840’s Philadelphia’s Irish Catholic immigrant population (and this was before the Potato Famine fueled a greater exodus to the U.S. a decade later) was growing rapidly. In 1838, half of St. Augustine’s church membership was Irish born, and only ⅙ of the parish at that time was born in the United States.  

The rising Irish Catholic immigrant population was making the white Protestant majority anxious. Was there culture to be overtaken by the Romanists? It is also possible that here in Philly, the Scotch Presbyterians finding themselves up against Irish Catholics rekindled long standing ethnic tensions brought to the United States. In response, nativist and anti-Catholic groups formed to limit the power and reach of the immigrant community. Anit-Catholic pamphlets were produced and anti-Catholic newspapers were published.  Anti-Catholic sermons were preached.

For more than a year before the violence broke out, the nativists had been spreading false rumors that the Catholics were trying to take the Bible out of the public schools. The Roman Catholic Bishop had asked two years earlier that Catholic students be allowed to use a Catholic translation of the Bible instead of the Protestant translation that was being used. The nativists misrepresented one of the Bishop’s statements and also that of a local Roman Catholic school principal to suggest Catholics wished to ban the Bible from schools entirely. 

Violence began on May 3, 1844, when the precursor of the nativist Know-Nothing Party organized a political rally in a Irish Catholic section of Kensington. Catholics, enraged and goaded on by the speakers, attacked the stage, and Irish Catholics began shooting at the nativists from the windows of their homes. Before the riot ended, two nativists (Protestants) were shot to death. The proto-Know-Nothings came back on the 6th, in larger numbers. Violence again happened, two more Protestants and a Catholic were killed. By the next day, the local farmers’ market, the fire house and 30 homes had been burned to the ground. 

On May 8, after St. Michael’s Church was burned in Kensington, a second nativist mob showed up on 4th Street in front of St Augustine’s Church. The city’s troops had stationed themselves near the church, and Mayor John Morin Scott pleaded with the rioters for calm. Despite Mayor Scott’s pleas, he was pelted with rocks, and the church was set afire. The church was destroyed, the crowd cheering when the cupola fell. The St. Augustine Academy, including many of its rare books, was also destroyed.

The rioting picked up again in July around St. Philip Neri Church in Southwark. The church had gotten rifles from the militia to defend itself. When the nativists heard that the church was armed, they gathered in front of the church. The militia brought a canon in response. The nativists countered by bringing  over 2 canons from the nearby docks along the Delaware. 

When it was all said and done, at least 14 people were killed, an estimated fifty people were injured, two hundred people were displaced from their homes, and damage totaled $150,000 (equivalent to over $4 million in today’s dollars). 

In our archives, we have sermons from the Rev. Dr. Joseph F. Berg, Old First’s pastor from 1837-1852, that illustrate the anti-Catholicism that he was preaching from our pulpit. As our archivist, Nancy D, says, “It would be naive to assume that Old Firsters didn’t participate in the riot that resulted in the destruction of St. Augustine’s and its parish school.” 

Remember, this is almost a decade before the Mercersberg Controversy when we, along with the other Philly Reformed congregations, refused the movement to see a connection between Protestantism and its antecedent Roman Catholicism, That’s when we added the “open bible” to the wall over our pulpit in the sanctuary — a sure sign that the Bible, not the Pope or even evolving church tradition, would be our only guide. 

What’s the Bible tell us to do in response to our President suggesting other citizens of this nation do not belong here? What’s our Bible suggest when our President claims that asylum seekers have no right to look for refuge among us? What’s faith call us to do in the face of the voices and violence of division that would deny and hurt people for another’s gain?

Alongside of the American myth of welcoming the poor and the immigrant, there is another, far uglier, nativist streak in our history. It runs through the founding institutions of slavery. And through the anti-Catholic riots of 1844, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Through the turning away of a boatload of Jewish children in 1938, and the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942…

We haven’t always got things right. Our foreparents in faith might have been on the side of exclusion. But now we have an opportunity to stand up for inclusion as a witness of our faith.

We are a Christian community that believes we are to recognize and treat as sacred the image of God in all people. Therefore welcoming that stranger is of God… for us, it’s finally about how we treat God. What do we do… what do we say, then, to the world around us when the powers and principalities are naming and dismissing all those who they would not have matter?  

See you in church,