Texas Declaration an Anti-Catholic Manifesto? Probably Not

There have been a number of comments regarding the Texas Declaration of Independence, a copy of which I sent out last week, having a decidedly anti-Catholic and anti-clerical tone, given its denunciation of “the combined despotism of the sword and the priesthood” as one of the reasons for separation from Mexico.

Anti-clericalism, which was not unknown in Western nations from the time of the Reformation on, especially during the late 18th and 19th Centuries. This phenomenon was the reaction against the Roman Catholic hierarchy – the Pope, bishops, and abbots – for their perceived, and in many cases real complicity in providing support for oppressive regimes in Europe. Anti-clericalism took upon a particularly virulent and violent character during the French Revolution. The First Estate of the estates-general, after all, was the higher clergy who allied themselves with the Second Estate nobility, and against the Third Estates, which was the rest of the people. Those “lords spiritual” in France and elsewhere in Europe had behaved more like the current Islamic ayatollahs than as pastors to the faithful, throughout much of history. While anti-clericalism came about as a result of the Reformation it was not wholly Protestant. Many Catholics, otherwise devout, might have been so considered, particularly in France.

The Anglo-American settlers in Texas, brought in by the empresarios like Stephen F Austin and others, were overwhelmingly Protestant. The original grants from the Spanish viceroy, and later the Mexican authorities, contemplated that the Anglo settlers brought in to Texas, primarily to establish a buffer between the sparse Mexican population in Coahuila y Texas the Indians, would either be Roman Catholic or would convert. Spain, of course, had long been militantly Catholic (the monarch since the 16th century had been styled “His Most Catholic Majesty”), and the newly independent Mexico was officially Roman Catholic. While neither the Catholic Mexicans nor the Protestant settlers gave much thought to theology, each group was thoroughly acculturated by their respective Mediterranean/Catholic and Nordic/Protestant heritages.

As may be recalled, the Reformation in Europe was as much a political event and struggle as a religious/theological one. Much like the schism between the Orthodox and the Roman churches in the 11th century, a theological basis for a split was necessary to justify the political one. Unlike the earlier schism, however, which was purported to be over the obscure filioque issue in the Creed, which nobody outside the rarefied academic atmosphere of theologians then, or even now, understood, or even really cared, the Protestant theology of Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others was something that the average parishioner could relate to. . On the other hand, the Protestant theology of Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others was something that the average parishioner could relate to. One of the Reformation’s principal tenets was what Luther termed the “priesthood of all believers” – a doctrine that shook the very core of the political order of Europe as it emerged from the Middle Ages. European Christendom was not quite a theocracy. Other than in the Papal States and a few independent bishoprics, mainly in Germany, the Pope and the rest of the hierarchy did not actually rule. But in nearly all cases, rulers looked to the church to provide them with legitimacy. The Divine Right of Kings meant, among other things, Church and state were unified. All too often, this unity was used as a tool of oppression. Ayn Rand termed this phenomenon as the alliance of Attila and the Witch Doctor (see her essay in For the New Intellectual), and described its contours and effects as existed in nearly all pre-modern societies.

The Reformation divided Europe into Protestant and Catholic camps, and a number of bloody religious wars ensued. Some of these were internal conflicts, like within the Holy Roman Empire (which actually, in Voltaire’s words, was none of those), France, and Britain. In Spain, Protestantism, along with Judaism and Islam, was ruthlessly suppressed, and its adherents were driven out of the country or killed, usually by being burned alive. Spain took up the cause of political Catholicism, and one of its principal aims was to return errant England to the ancient Faith. A real threat to the English nation, it was ultimately thwarted by the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

In the meantime, Spain had conquered and colonized the more or less southern half of the Western Hemisphere. The character of the colonization was primarily extractive, few outside the aristocracy and military came as settlers to make a permanent home. Not many entire families of what we might call the middle class, such as the English Mayflower emigrants, came to start subsistence farms and supporting villages and towns. The Spanish crown continued to rule through an appointed viceroy. Governance was centralized and authoritarian. The transplanted aristocracy – creoles, or criollos – justified their colonization as bringing Christ to the heathen. They accomplished this through the mission system which, though generally benevolent, was used as a vehicle for acquiring the labor necessary for silver mining as well as the haciendas, analogous to the Southern plantations, but even more akin to feudal fiefs. Peonage, not slavery, was the labor system in New Spain. The Catholic use of images and ritual worship was not unfamiliar to the indigenous people, and facilitated conversion. The missionaries taught Christianity and maintained Spanish presence throughout the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which became independent Mexico in the early 1820s, and included Texas. Side note: The first insurgency in the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain in 1810 was led by Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo, known in Mexico as the Father of the Nation. Hidalgo was excommunicated as a heretic by the Church, and was executed by a firing squad, for his revolutionary activities.

England, having settled its religious conflict in favor of Protestant theology, but retaining some of the hierarchical structure and ritual of the Roman Church, came late to the colonization of the Americas. As it turned out, the British colonists were mainly Protestants seeking freedom from the established Church of England, who came to set up autonomous, self-reliant colonies. The British colonies were devoid of centralization, and for more than a century and a half, the British government pretty much left the North American colonists to themselves. When it began to take a more proactive role, it provoked the Revolution. While most of the English settlers in the early colonial days were from the landed gentry and commercial classes, in the early 18th Century, a wave of immigration from the Presbyterian north English borderlands and Ulster in Northern Ireland – the “Scots-Irish” – arrived to settle in the back country and frontier lands. (See David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989)). This group of people had a particularly virulent contempt for authority, whether secular or religious, and maintained a simple religious faith based on a literal Bible. Their heritage was one fearful of Catholicism, and regarded its hierarchy – the “priesthood” – as an oppressive oligarchy. That fear was not without basis, and was kept alive by the lore of English Queen “Bloody” Mary, the French St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and the Spanish Inquisition. The Scots-Irish heritage was particularly strong in Tennessee and the rest of the Trans-Appalachian South, which is whence a good many, if not most, of the early English speaking settlers came to Texas.

This set up what Samuel Huntington has termed a fault line between civilizations (See The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of the World Order (1996)). Huntington’s thesis is that a civilization is defined primarily by its religion and language, and the other cultural aspects of the civilization flow from those two aspects. English speaking Protestants establishing a colony in the lands governs by Spanish Catholics was fraught with consequences potentially dire.

The Anglo-Texans could have lived under the Mexican Constitution of 1824, which set up a federal system much like the United States and left a great deal autonomy with the states, such as Coahuila y Texas. That constitution was abrogated in 1835 and the federal system was replaced by a centralized government from Mexico City. The resistance to the new system began as a demand by both Anglo Texans and Tejanos for the restoration of the constitution. Recall that the flag flown over the Alamo was the Mexican red, white, and green tricolor with “1824″ in the center. The determination of Santa Anna to crush this resistance precipitated the movement for complete independence for Texas.

Thus, the “priesthood” referred to in the Texas Declaration of Independence was the church hierarchy of theocratic Mexico, which the Anglo Texans feared would deprive them of the freedom to live as Protestant Christians in their new homeland, to which they had been invited. It does not appear to have been a general denunciation of Catholicism as a theological institution of religious faith, but as a political one, which had been in service of oppressive regimes in Spain, and then, Mexico.

For more reading on this topic, you might consider T. R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans (various editions), especially chapters in Part II; Fehrenbach, Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico (1993).

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