It would be easy now to pile on the Catholic Church—especially its hierarchy. The Vatican’s recent “repudiation” of the Doctrine of Discovery has been followed by the Maryland Attorney General’s announcement of “staggering sexual abuse” by church officials in his state. The Associated Press reported that “More than 150 Catholic priests and others associated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore sexually abused over 600 children and often escaped accountability.” The documented abuse occurred over a span of 80 years, and was accompanied by decades of coverups. More money was spent on treatment and rehabilitation of perpetrators than on that of victims. And the Attorney General said that similar studies were addressing abuse in other dioceses.
This follows on the now two-decade old Boston Globe disclosure of abuse in the Boston Archdiocese—and a 2015 movie, “Spotlight,” based on the Globe investigations and stories.
And it follows on Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland’s study of boarding school abuses and commitment to visit every one of 38 or 39 US boarding school graveyards her study discovered to visit survivors and descendants of survivors. It followed on revelations of similar abuses and unmarked gravesites in Canada. For a more up-close examination of how sexual abuse of Native students happened, read the book “Indian Horse,” by Canadian Ojibwe writer Richard Wagamase, or watch the movie of the same name.
It would be easy to continue the “pile on”—I know I can find other instances, big and small, of Catholic sins. But—before doing that, we might take a look at Protestant sins against the Indigenous tribes of North America. It was Anglo-Protestants who perpetrated the first massacre of Natives in North America:
“The Mystic massacre – also known as the Pequot massacre – took place on May 26, 1637, during the Pequot War, when Connecticut colonizers under Captain John Mason and their Narrangansett and Mohegan allies set fire to the Peqout Fort near the Mystic River. They shot anyone who tried to escape the wooden palisade fortress and murdered most of the village. There were between 400 and 700 Pequot civilians killed during the massacre.” (Wikipedia)
But, rather than tally up the Anglo-Protestant encroachments on Native grounds over the next two centuries, we can jump ahead to about 1830 and Indian Removal.
Although President Jackson was a Presbyterian, like the Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and most Baptists who dominated the region, he rejected Calvinism, emphasized the virtue of common people, and advocated personal spirituality, salvation through faith in Christ, and individual interpretation of the Bible. Jackson repeatedly insisted that God controlled military battles, illness and death, natural disasters, and political developments. Jackson’s faith strongly affected how he viewed the events of his own life and his nation.
And Jackson was of course known as an Indian fighter, an Indian hater, and the man who presided over the removal of most Indians east of the Mississippi River to “Indian Territory” in what is now Oklahoma. Removal also involved thousands who died on the march to their new, supposedly secure homes.
Protestants, like their Catholic cousins, all participated in atrocities toward Native inhabitants. But the more I read history, the more that I see American exclusionism and exceptionalism as a Protestant program, often aimed at Catholics of European heritage as well as at indigenous peoples.
It all tumbled onto my screen with the recent books on the Whitman killings at Walla Walla. It was called the “Whitman Massacre” for decades, work of the Presbyterian missionary Henry Spalding. Spalding hated Catholics, and blamed the Whitman killings on Catholics urging the Cayuse into the deed (it had to do with Dr. Whitman’s failings as a healer, but that is another story.) Spalding painted Whitman as a Protestant martyr to Catholic and heathen causes in the God-given project of Anglo-Protestant Expansion to the West.
“Manifest Destiny” got a few political lines in our long-ago history books. Sarah Koenig, an academic historian who wrote Providence and the Invention of American History, calls this Protestant assault on Western lands “Providentialism.” God gave the Protestants, starting, as Native activist Sarah Augustine says in her new book on The Doctrine of Discovery, The Land is Not Empty, began with the Puritans, exclusive rights to the new lands in North America.
So we know less of the fur trade and its collaboration of Natives and French voyageurs that provided much wealth to early America—and intermarried and gave us the Metis, mixed blood Native-French who became largely Catholic. We know less of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, which gave the US the present-day states California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. It was an odd lot of Indigenous, mestizo Mexicans—and mostly Catholic! We followed Jefferson’s Ango-Protestant march across the continent in our history books.
President Biden is only our second Catholic president. When John Kennedy ran in 1960, the word in my Lutheran church and among many Protestants was that the Pope would be running America.
Not forgiving Catholic institutions and leaders their sins, but acknowledging that they were not alone—and time to focus on the Protestant run boarding schools, the Protestant role in slavery, and the narrative of exceptionalism and Protestant Providentialism that permeates our history and infects attitudes to this day.
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Image is of Missionary Henry Spalding (US Park Service)