Destiny and Destination
In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Stephen Douglas called Abraham Lincoln two-faced. Lincoln turned to his audience, asking, “I leave it to you, my friends.
If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”
But Lincoln was far less tongue-in-cheek about a two-faced reality in his day: “All men are created equal—except Negroes, foreigners, and Catholics.” That’s what the Declaration would read, according to Lincoln, if the Know-Nothing Party had been in control in 1776. The party was called that because members addressed inquiries about the nature of their organization with, “We know nothing.” They disdained a foreign-born presence in the United States, and their animosity was especially aimed at Catholics, many of whom were German and Irish immigrants. At their peak in 1856, the Know-Nothings had elected more than a hundred congressmen, eight governors, and several mayors, including Joseph Barker in Pittsburgh.
Barker was an illiterate street preacher whose antiestablishment and anti-Catholic rhetoric drew immense crowds. In 1849, he was confined to the county jail after being charged with obstructing city streets, using indecent language, and inciting a riot. Barker’s supporters viewed him as a martyr for their cause. He became their write-in mayoral candidate and won the election.
Thus, while some people get time off for good behavior in prison, Barker was rewarded with high political office for the deeds that imprisoned him. Moreover, in what sounds like an oddity from Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the sheriff permitted the mayor-elect to leave jail and get inaugurated. The same judge who sentenced Barker also administered his oath of office.
Contemporary Americans who are accustomed to the reality of imprisoned politicians may find a more astonishing postscript to the Barker affair—
Joseph Barker’s great-great-grandson is a devout Catholic. Believe it or not!
In the 1940s, author Evelyn Waugh, a Catholic, suggested that Christianity is always in decline somewhere, but he believed Providence was “schooling and strengthening” Americans “for the historic destiny long borne by Europe.” Since Waugh’s prediction, it is arguable whether Christianity in America has already matured and is itself presently in decline. But of this much we are certain: Immigrant European Catholics ironically helped America arrive at its point of maturity! If Providence passed the torch from Europe to America, it was the Catholicism of European immigrants that helped fan our flame!
And it may very well be immigrant Catholics who will again contribute largely to the vitality of the faith in this country in the future. Despite the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the Know-Nothings 150 years ago or the anti-immigrant discourse of today, America remains a nation of immigrants and a land of opportunity for those who are schooled and strengthened by Providence to believe, more than not!