The Relationship between Politics and Religion

Politics and religion intersected frequently during the Civil War. Early in the war, Secretary of State William H. Seward approached Catholic Archbishop John Hughes and sought Hughes's assistance in advocating the Union cause in Europe. As the first archbishop of New York, a city that possessed the largest Catholic population in the United States, Hughes not only held a strong influence among the Catholics of the city and with the American Catholic hierarchy, but also had been keeping papal officials abreast of the growing conflict in the United States. Although Hughes, and most Catholics, did not support abolitionism, a movement he believed needed ''a strait jacket and the humane protection of a lunatic asylum,'' he remained a stalwart supporter of the Union cause (Blied 1945, 32). He made sure the American flag was displayed from the city's cathedral and supported the draft. Hughes accepted Seward's request and set sail for Europe, making stops in France and in Rome in late 1861 and early 1862. In his discussions with ambassadors, as well as government and church officials in France, Hughes touched upon a variety of issues, including slavery, tariffs, and the blockade. His aim was political—bend European opinion in favor of the Union and gain assurance that the pope would not recognize the Confederacy diplomatically. When he finally arrived in Rome in May 1862, he spoke with papal officials and other clerics about the war. Hughes's diplomatic efforts in Europe, as a representative of the Catholic Church in the United States, were potentially beneficial for two parties. On the one hand, the federal government wanted to gain the support of foreign opinion, whether with of Great Britain, France, or the papacy, and to keep foreign opinion from favoring the Confederacy. On the other hand, Hughes believed that his selection by Seward paid a compliment to American Catholics and their ability to actively support the nation.

As illustrated by Hughes's advocacy of the Union during the war both at home and abroad, and the activity of American Catholics in the war, the Civil War served as a period of transition in the relationship between American Catholics and the nation. In the antebellum period, Irish and German Catholics migrated to the United States, primarily to the North, and did so in significant numbers, enough to cause anxiety on the part of the Protestant majority. The 1830s through the 1850s witnessed many instances of prejudice toward Catholicism and Catholics in the United States. This prejudice was primarily rhetorical, but it also could erupt into violence. Nativists questioned the ability of immigrants to integrate fully into American society and feared the dual allegiance of Catholics to both their country and the papacy. With the rise of the Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, Irish Catholics, in particular, were wary of associating with a party that they saw as tainted with anti-Catholicism, abolitionism, and pro-Protestantism. The actions of Catholic soldiers, chaplains and religious women, and the hierarchy went far to displace apprehensions about the ability of Catholics to be both Catholic and American.

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