Review of Missionaries of Republicanism: A Religious History of the Mexican-American War by John C. Piheiro. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) 256 pages; $45.00.
Among the many regrettable trends in the academy today is that of reading history through decidedly secularist lens. By that I don't necessarily mean looking at the past with a hostile view of religion (save of the fluffy sort), though that can be part of the problem. What I have in mind is the tendency to look at events and social, political, and economic developments in a religious void.
This is the error that John C. Pinheiro, a widely-respected historian of the antebellum United States and professor of history and Director of Catholic Studies at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, Mich., addresses and masterfully overcomes in his new book on the Mexican-American War. This war, which resulted in one of the fastest and most expansive acquisitions of territory by the United States, tends to be overshadowed by other early American conflicts. Pinheiro's thesis is that much of the language and context of the Mexican-American War cannot be understood without appreciation of the manner in which the war came to be immersed in anti-Catholic rhetoric, and how Protestantism and Catholicism shaped the manner in which Americans understood their Mexican opponents and why they were fighting them.
During the Revolutionary War, Catholics in the North American colonies has been overwhelming on the side of the Revolutionary cause, not least because people such as Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence) saw the Revolution as a unique opportunity to secure religious liberty for themselves in an overwhelmingly Protestant society. By the 1810s, however, a number of events aligned themselves in ways, Pinheiro argues, which mean that "anti-Catholicism emerged as integral to Americans' understanding of how best to preserve their liberties in a more diverse country."
One factor was an increase in Catholic immigration to the United States. The second was the Second Great Awakening that swept through Protestant America. The third was the further expansion into the West by the United States in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase. Taken together, Pinheiro suggests, this produced a potent mixture of ideas that helped drive the growth of the United States throughout North America, but also a sense that certain religious groups—not just Catholics but also Mormons—represented a type of danger to the ordered liberty embodied by the still young American Republic.
This meant that, with regard to the Mexican- American war, the identity of the United States, according to Pinheiro, was one of "all those things that Mexico was not: free, Protestant, republican and prosperous." For many Americans, Protestantism was the equivalent of freedom, while Catholicism was seen as naturally inclined to despotism.
One of the many strengths of this book is that Pinheiro is very careful to define precisely what he means by phrases such as "anti-Catholic," "anti-Catholicism," "Evangelicals," and "nativism." He also separates out perennial Protestant-Catholic theological disputes from those arguments that were more properly concerned with the antebellum political world of 1830s and 1840s. Obviously there was some overlap, but Pinheiro is interested in elucidating how religious questions interplayed with the Mexican-American war. Without this context, he maintains, it is not possible to understand why Irish Catholic deserters (few of whom were American citizens) from the U.S. Army ended up forming a battalion (the San Patricos—dramatized in the 1999 film One Man's Hero) who would end up being captured by General Winfield Scott's army near Mexico City. But the war's religious dimension goes beyond this particular occurrence. For many Americans in the army, for instance, the invasion of Mexico was the first time most of them had encountered a mass (no pun intended) Catholic culture: an encounter that resulted in mostly negative reactions.
Having provided the general context, Pinheiro takes his readers through the background of anti-Catholicism in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s, the impact of the Texas Revolution of 1836, the religious dimension of elections held prior to the war, the role played by religion in recruiting soldiers, the manner in which the war played out in U.S. domestic politics, and the effect upon American soldiers of being in Mexico and among Mexican Catholics. Many American soldiers were, for instance, impressed by Mexican piety. Others were fascinated by Catholic liturgy, though this did not stop American soldiers from disobeying orders and using churches and shrines as stables, barracks, depots, and hospitals.
The last chapters consider the way that Protestant leaders (clergy and laity) in America thought about the war and the way it affected their view of politics and Catholics in the United States. Many Protestant leaders, for instance, enveloped the war in the rhetoric of displays of God's sovereignty, and saw it as a spur for Protestant missionary activities in America and Mexico alike. Other Protestant pastors, however, were initially opposed to the war because of commitments to peace, but found themselves swept away—and, in many cases, absorbed by—a type of millennialism that underscored an ascendancy of republicanism over decadent forms of political life and social organization.
For those interested in the interplay of politics and religion within the context of American history, Pinheiro's book sets a new standard for sophistication of analysis. His point is not to engage in reviving and refighting sectarian battles but rather to bring to light and contextualize religion's influence, for better and worse, upon the formation of American political culture. The fact that he writes in an accessible way, but without over-simplifying matters, means that the audience for this book goes far beyond the academy. For anyone interested in the religious history of the United States and the way this has impacted America's relations with its neighbors, this book would be a welcome addition to their library.
Samuel Gregg is Research Director of the Acton Institute.