Beyond Christians and Lions: Faiths and Conflicts in the Public Square
I recently published a biography of the United Sates’ first native-born saint, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, who lived from 1774 to 1821 and who at the age of thirty converted from her family’s Episcopalian faith to Catholicism. One might think that the biggest challenge when writing about a saint is that people insist on a hero. But most readers, including those who personally admire Seton, are in fact moved by her humanness. No, the real problem is that people want villains. They’re interested in Seton’s struggles against circumstance, against uncertainty, against the terror of feeling that the God to whom she’d dedicated her life had turned away. But they want actual bad guys. And in the case of Elizabeth Seton, everyone, whether they are readers who grew up going to Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg, Maryland, or fellow historians of the United States, knows who they want those bad guys to be: people who persecuted Seton for her Catholic faith. Honestly, I’ve more than once wished I could set the tale to this familiar music. But the evidence won’t play along.
Catholicism was indeed anathema to many in the early Anglo American world, thought to be a superstitious faith that left its members sapped of personal independence and burdened with politically suspect allegiances. But that mistrust coexisted in Seton’s native New York City with a fractious practical comity, and the early national period brought further expansion of Catholics’ formal and informal rights. Moreover, the merchant family into which Seton married did business and socialized with well-placed Catholics, even sending its scion, Elizabeth’s husband William, to Italy to live with a financially successful and fervently Catholic family. After Seton’s conversion, her family and friends financially supported her and socially accepted her, losing patience only when she secretly introduced young girls in the family to her new faith. Even then, most objected on the grounds not of prejudice, but of tolerance: Indignant that Seton justified her proselytizing on the basis of spiritual necessity, they excoriated Seton for believing that only Catholicism offered a safe path to redemption.
Why, then, the insistence on antipopery as not just a presence in the early republic (which it was) but as an all-pervasive, determinative factor in Seton’s life (which it was not)? One answer is easy: Seton told her own story in this way for about a decade. “I have passed thro’ a fire today in the number of people I accidentally encountered,” she once wrote, “every one smiled some with affection, some with civility—and when I get alone again I recollect with delight how ‘gently He clears my way’ and say with Blessed David ‘Tho’ I walk thro’ the Valley and Shadow of Death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.’”
That’s a twisty sentence: By its end, Seton has untold her own story, acknowledging that the persecution she feels is simply raised eyebrows. Nonetheless, Seton sincerely felt herself to be living a social martyrdom, and her interpretation (which, late in life, she set aside) infused admiring accounts written soon after her death. What began as a slight tinge of martyrdom deepened in subsequent decades, as the mid-nineteenth century saw a resurgence of anti-Catholicism, brought on by the demographic shock of large-scale immigration and fueled by steam-driven printing presses and partisan vigor. Two overlapping templates now reinforced this story of heroism and villainy: One was of Christian martyrdom, and the second of individual achievement in the face of prejudice. Christians and lions, meet the Catholics and the Know Nothings.
But why in 2019, does this story persist? The bright lines of a good story are always hard to shift, and they are particularly so when they mark out a civically useful moral. An individual confronting oppression because of who he or she is, is one of the few plotlines that both casual and academic readers follow willingly. And of all the historical misunderstandings in the world, this may seem like one we can live with. What’s the harm if a real problem, anti-Catholic sentiment, is exaggerated, and the thinking of a few secondary characters in Seton’s story, coarsened? We might even hope that accounts of social martyrdom will bind people together in acknowledgment of our shared capacity for suffering—perhaps even in acknowledgment of our shared capacity for injustice. Yet far more often the tales are brandished as counters to each other. The story of prejudice against Catholics—often narrowed into the story of prejudice against Irish Catholics—becomes a shield against the need to listen to stories of deeper and longer hardship, such as that endured by people of African descent. “We’ve suffered, too,” becomes a declaration not of empathy but of dismissal.
There’s a second cost to this insistence on seeing conflicts over religion as emerging from individual wrongdoing. It augments the tendency of contemporary discussions of religion in the public square to proceed along two parallel tracks. One exudes an optimism that, someday, religious faith will be refined of any rough edges that make it catch on the fabric of other people’s lives—a cosmopolitan vision. The second holds out the possibility that religious faith will one day be so widely and uniformly shared that law and society will seamlessly overlap—an evangelizing vision. Authentically told, stories such as Seton’s suggest that there will always be sincere disagreements that pit people of various faiths and of no faith against each other—how could there not be, unless one’s beliefs about the existence and nature of divinity meant nothing to our thoughts about how the world should work? Truly told stories also make clear that it is in conversations and silences, in moments of private compassion or vengeance, that those disagreements will usually be adjudicated. When Seton eventually set aside the template of martyrdom, she saw her “persecutors” as people who, like her, lived amidst competing directives: to live in harmony, to tell the truth; to get through the day, to save their souls. No heroes and few villains, instead a nation of mutual obligations impossible to parse.
 Catherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint (Ithaca, NY, 2018).
 Elizabeth Bayley Seton to Antonio Filicchi, Apr. 22, 1805, in Collected Writings of Elizabeth Bayley Seton (New York, 2000) 1: 357.
10 December 2019
About the Author
Catherine O’Donnell is associate professor of history at Arizona State University.