When I think about the relationship between Catholicism and “law and order,” I think about Vietnam. I think about the United States’ early intervention there in the 1950s, before “Vietnam” became a household word for most Americans. I think about three documents from my research on American religion and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—a 1954 meeting of President Eisenhower’s National Security Council, a 1959 CIA memo, and a bestselling novel. These documents might help us understand why the CIA—and the US state more generally—strategically deployed Catholicism in its imperial actions abroad, and how those actions reverberated at home.
The first document is a memo, recording a 1954 meeting of President Eisenhower’s National Security Council. The meeting’s goal was to figure out what to do about French Indochina (and specifically what is known today as Vietnam). The French Empire was trying to govern Vietnam amidst a Communist insurgency, and it was going poorly. The question Eisenhower and his team were wrestling with was this: how do you generate law and order where there is none? How do you build a national identity where one did not previously exist (or where you don’t like what existed previously)? Eisenhower, for his part, thought the answer was in religion. Learning that most Vietnamese were Buddhist, Eisenhower asked whether it would be possible to “find a good Buddhist leader to whip up some real fervor,” but his team thought not since, as one explained, “unhappily, Buddha was a pacifist rather than a fighter.” The official records of the State Department note that, at this moment, laughter erupted in the room. The joke, such as it was, was that the American government “knew” that Buddhists were non-violent, and so they could not be counted on to fight for their country. While the Buddhists might not work, there was a sizable Catholic minority that could be used instead. The president was interested, and said he wanted to raise up a “Joan of Arc” to religiously unite Vietnam, and told his team to make sure “the Catholics be enlisted.” The message was clear: Catholics would listen. Catholics would fight. Catholics would bring law and order.
The question I would like to briefly consider here, the question that links these three documents, is this: when the problem for the US government was about how to achieve law and order, why were Catholics the solution?
For that, I want to turn to my second document—a 1959 CIA memo offering an extended interpretation of the 19th century papal encyclical, Testem benevolentiae, on the Americanist controversy. It was one of the first (but hardly the last) times that I found myself thinking, “What possible use could the CIA have for this…?” The answer, it turned out, was that the CIA reinterpreted the Americanist controversy as evidence that American Catholics had long understood the correct fusion of religion and politics in the United States. There’s a lot to say about this document—I’m not confident it would get a passing grade in a US Catholic history class today—but I’m particularly interested in how the memo tried to normalize Catholics in American history by arguing that Catholics loved authority. They respected it and they heeded it. In the CIA’s telling, Catholics loved America so much that the Pope wrote to check in on them. Catholics loved God so much that they replied to the Pope to let him know they were in lockstep with the Church. In this view, Catholics knew how to navigate competing authorities in the voting booth and the confessional. For the CIA, this made Catholics model Americans.
And so, with that in mind, let’s return to Vietnam for our third and final document. This one is not an official government document like the other two, but it is no less a product of US government effort. When President Eisenhower decided that American policy in South Vietnam should be to enlist Catholics, he turned to the CIA to make it happen. There’s a much larger story here, of course, but one of the CIA’s tasks was to build American support for South Vietnam as a sympathetically “Catholic” country. One major part of this effort was a domestic propaganda campaign waged through a best-selling novel called Deliver Us From Evil, written by a US Navy sailor (and Catholic) named Tom Dooley. Dooley served in South Vietnam and, to make a long and fascinating story short, was assisted by the CIA in producing this novel which purported to describe his time there. The message of the book was simple: the Americans (who were good) were in Vietnam to fight the Communists (who were bad) because the Communists were determined to persecute Vietnamese Catholics who only wanted to worship God. To drive the point home, the novel relayed incredibly grisly scenes of Catholic persecution: Vietnamese Catholic priests with their tongues cut out, tortured with actual crowns of thorns; Vietnamese school children caught by the Communists as they listened to the Catechism, and punished by having chopsticks jammed into their ears. The book is steeped in racism and Orientalism, aimed squarely at an American audience for whom chopsticks might be one of the few things they could reliably associate with “Asia.” These stories went (the 1950s equivalent of) viral, and the novel became a bestseller. The question that the book asked was straightforward: would American readers have the courage to stand up for these persecuted fellow Christians? Would American readers, able to worship freely at home thanks to American law and order, do their part to extend this law and order to Southeast Asia?
Getting White Americans, Catholic and otherwise, to answer this question in the affirmative was not a given in the mid-1950s, especially when the country in question was a non-White, majority Buddhist country. The novel goes to great lengths to first show that foreign Catholics are essentially Christian and pro-American and that American Catholics are fully American, because they are fully Catholic. By framing the Vietnam conflict as essentially about the religious freedom of Catholics, the novel’s focus on religious freedom cleverly subverted traditional anti-Catholic critiques. The focal point of American anti-Catholicism had long been Catholics’ curious relationship to the American state. Theological questions—while important in some respects—mask the way in which anti-Catholicism drew its force from concerns about the subversive nature of the Catholic in liberal democratic states. At a time of still relatively widespread anti-Catholicism, then, the genius of the novel was to focus on the Americanness of Catholics and, crucially, their loyalty to the American state through their commitment to the law and order that secured US religious freedom. The book marked the explicitly Catholic as fully American, because American Catholicism was subsumed under the authority of the American state. And so, the book suggests, Americans—Catholic and otherwise—would of course support U.S. efforts to achieve a proper global order, both at home and abroad.
I think about this legacy when I study and teach about US religion and law today. It’s not just ideas about US religion, of course: anyone who has taught a “world religions” class, and fielded questions about “who is the Hindu pope?” or “where is the Muslim Vatican?” knows firsthand the ways that Catholic ideas, structures, and influences have shaped the American imagination of world religions, and of normative religion in general.
Many studies of religion and law privilege a peculiarly Protestant notion of “religion” and trace how it has been managed by the modern state. This approach has yielded significant insights. But while Catholics were managed, to be sure, they also played important roles in the managing itself. In my work, for example, I was surprised to find that the early CIA used Catholicism as the default model for understanding religion. And so, what would it look like to flip the script, and see Catholics as both managed and managing? How would it change how we understand US religion and law today? What different stories could we tell about the efforts needed to maintain “good” law and order? These particular ideas about Catholicism became popular at a crucial time in the history of American empire, and they intersected in profound ways with American ideas about law, order, and race. In the relationship between Catholicism and U.S. law, questions about law and order are never too far away. These three documents speak to the larger question of what gets to be normative—and why—in studies of American Catholicism and American religion.