In the 19th century, American politics and social life were rife with Nativist sentiment, including strong anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant leanings. The predominantly protestant government opposed "sectarian" (code word for "Catholic") schools, because of fears that such schools would not integrate their mostly German and Irish Catholic population.
Political leader Horace Mann, who also happened to be a Presbyterian minister, set about establishing public, government-run schools in the 1840s that would focus on a more protestantized curriculum: The school day would begin with Protestant prayers and hymns, and primary and secondary students would be required to do regular reading of the King James Bible as well as use McGuffey Readers, textbooks interspersed with anti-Catholic slurs like "papist" and "popery." The original Reader even included the false statement: "The account of his [Martin Luther's] death filled the Roman Catholic party with excessive as well as indecent joy."
Catholic teachers at such schools who refused to participate in reading the King James Bible were dismissed, while Catholic students were harassed and persecuted. A number of Catholics, led by Bp. Francis Kendrick, fought for reform in government-run schools, but faced strong public opposition in the form of protestant sermons and anti-Catholic tracts and posters denouncing Catholicism.
Tensions exploded on May 3, 1844, when a riot broke out in Philadelphia and nativists destroyed dozens of homes of Irish Catholic immigrants and burned Catholic churches and schools to the ground. Such riots had, in fact, taken place in various pockets across the nation since the 1830s, although the 1844 incident was considered the most severe.
In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant made a public speech proposing a constitutional amendment that would deny federal funding to "sectarian schools" while promoting "good common school education" based on a more secularized, protestantized curriculum. It was against this backdrop of nativist sentiment that politician James Blaine proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting funds to Catholic institutions:
No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.
It passed overwhelmingly in the House by 180 votes to seven, but failed by four votes in the Senate.
Even so, numerous states went on to adopt "Blaine amendments" in their state constitutions. Today 37 state constitutions still have Blaine amendments, which are being used more broadly to deny federal funds not just to Catholic schools, but to schools of any religious affiliation. But their roots trace back to anti-Catholic bigotry, a hallmark of much political discourse in early America.
Watch the panelists discuss the animus against the Faith in America and how it's resurfacing today in The Download—American Anti-Catholicism.