The post-civil rights era in United States history marked a punitive turn in American political discourse and policing practices. It saw the expansion of the carceral state and the emergence of mass incarceration as a defining feature of American life. It witnessed the collapse of the New Deal order and the triumph of neoliberal conservativism.
“Law and order” is a key rhetorical device in this constellation of ideas, institutions, and stories. But it can be hard to pin down precisely what that term means and where it comes from. Different scholars have described “law and order,” variously, as a cynical stratagem used by political elites to build a winning coalition of Republican voters; a unifying principle for both liberal and conservative policies in the wars on crime and drugs; an emblem of white backlash to racial justice on a grassroots level; and even as an understandable response to a crime wave that swept the country in the 1970s.
Wherever we enter a conversation about “law and order,” though, we find white Catholics. Ordinary white Catholic mothers and fathers deployed the term as they massively resisted school integration. White Catholic intellectuals established it as a central tenet in twentieth-century conservatism. White Catholic police helped make up “the thin blue line” empowered to enforce it. And so, I want to invite us to consider what white Catholics reveal about this thing called “law and order” and what, in turn, it teaches us about white Catholicism. What new questions and sources emerge when we approach “law and order” and Catholicism from this angle? How might Catholics studies deepen our understanding of our present political order? This question is especially important, I’d argue, given how white evangelicalism often operates as a prime mover in these historiographies.
I’ve argued elsewhere that historians should approach instances of white Catholic violence and racism as signal events in US Catholic history. Whether we are talking about angry letters to archbishops or nice white Catholic parents throwing bricks at school buses, I think scholars can and should talk about a religio-racial formation we can name white Catholicism. For many many white people, the hallmarks of a “good Catholic”—years spent in parochial schools, Masses made each week, rosaries prayed each day—were tangled up together with objections to “forced integration” and diatribes against the supposed moral threats posed by “the colored race.” Here I follow in the footsteps of a number of scholars, especially M. Shawn Copeland and Judith Weisenfeld, who have shown that “religion” and “race” are bound up and inseparable from one another. Religion is a racialized category. Things we typically categorize as religious are racialized in the midst of their living.
In this context, “law and order obedience” was a distinguishing feature of twentieth-century white Catholicism. Mothers and fathers railed against clergy who participated in civil rights marches. To highlight just one among many examples of this, in June 1965 Mr. H.A. Hamilton wrote a mother superior of the Daughters of Charity to say that “as a Catholic father attempting to raise his children in a proper and fitting manner,” he resented the conduct of women religious engaged in civil rights efforts. “How are we parents to explain to our children that law and order are necessary to our way of life?”[i]
It is worth pausing here to consider what “law and order” is, such that it was necessary to “our way of life”? It strikes me that, historically speaking, “law and order” does not exist as a thing to be characterized so much as an idea invoked when people feel threatened. For this reason, it is important for us to name the threat that provokes calls for “law and order.” In doing so, we reveal precisely what kind of society “law and order” is called upon to protect. So, let’s say the quiet part loud. For white Catholics writing angry letters in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Black freedom struggles posed a threat to the segregated racial order whereby a host of institutions, including the police, reinforced white rule. When H.A. Hamilton asked, rhetorically, whether we are “to raise a generation of children with no respect for law,” he echoed segregationists who framed the John Lewis-es and Fannie Lou Hamers of the world as agitators, rabble-rousers, and lawbreakers.[ii] The fact that the status quo was white supremacist was left unsaid, of course. But this, too, was crucial. It allowed Hamilton and others to call for state violence while protecting their own purported innocence.
William F. Buckley, on the other hand, loved to say the quiet part loud. For the unacquainted, Buckley was a white Catholic polemicist who, among other ventures, founded The National Review with his white Catholic brother-in-law. He was, by all accounts, one of the pillars of modern conservatism. On April 4, 1965 (just a few months before H.A. Hamilton wrote his letters), Buckley addressed six thousand Catholic New York City police officers at an annual Holy Name Society Communion breakfast. There, he painted a portrait of “civilized society” as split down the middle with law-abiding citizens on one side and both the law-breakers and criminal-sympathizers on the other. In his view, police protect the former from the latter.
“Civilized society,” as Buckley termed it, was under siege by the civil rights movement. “Order and values are disintegrating,” he argued. It was no surprise to him (or to the police who laughed and applauded throughout his address) to find both police and the Catholic Church “singled out for the brunt of organized hatred.” (311-314). Police and Church here represented two bastions of law and order; two of the few institutions left to safeguard civilization from savagery. Without deploying the phrase itself, Buckley’s address could be read as an apologia for “the thin blue line”—the idea that police are the only people preventing present society from looking like a scene out of The Walking Dead. “Law and order,” in this view, can be read as the way of life maintained by “the thin blue line.”
Lest we mistake this callback to a police Communion breakfast as somehow obscure or extraneous, Buckley was one of many white Catholic conservatives who built the political bedrock for the militarization of the police and the explosion of the carceral state in the post-civil rights era. Others included Joseph McCarthy, Paul Weyrich, Phillis Schlafly, Pat Buchanan, Antonin Scalia as well as Lee Atwater and Newt Gingrich, both of whom were converts. Even the officer credited with popularizing the metaphor of “the thin blue line,” the notorious and long-serving LAPD Chief William H. Parker, was a white Catholic.
I’m not suggesting a kind of Catholic exceptionalist version of history, whereby Catholicism becomes the root cause of all our problems. But what I will say, more modestly, is that white Catholic calls for the restoration of “order” and celebration of law enforcement—then and now—should be considered crucial sources for understanding what it meant and means to be Catholic, whether we’re talking about parents, pundits, politicians, or the police themselves. By the same token, the very Catholicness of those people may help us better understand the origins of and affinity for “law and order” discourse.
Where might this sort of inquiry lead us? Perhaps back to early-twentieth-century US Catholic support for fascism, such as Peter D’Agostino describes in his book Rome in America (2004), or, back further still to nineteenth-century ultramontanism that emphasized obedience to ecclesial authority over the purported “freedoms” of the modern secular state. At the same time, it might also offer new sources for research into contemporary Catholic life, such as, say, popular police tattoos of St. Michael the Archangel or the various merchandising around the skull-symbol of the Punisher, a canonically Catholic comic book character who has become an emblem of the Blue Lives Matter movement and policing more broadly. It would allow us to explore how, as Robert Orsi puts it, “the ethos of U.S. political conservatism” owes much to the white Catholic inheritance of “pain, rage, sacrifice, and violence” (38).
[i] H.A. Hamilton to Daughters of Charity (June 14, 1965), “Race Mail,” EXEC/C0670/18#5.
[ii] H.A. Hamilton to Bishop Cletus O’Donnell (June 14, 1965), “Race Mail,” EXEC/C0670/18#5.