John McGreevy begins his book with an emblematic story. The year is 1859; the place, Boston. The public schools, dominated by the Protestant elite who also write the law, start each day with obligatory reading of the King James Bible and recitation of the Ten Commandments. Glorious as the King James version is, it is not taught as literature but, with the commandments, is intended to build moral fiber in the students, a great many of whom are Catholic. It disturbs twenty-first-century assumptions to imagine Catholics opposing school prayer, but the church doesn’t subscribe to the Protestant Bible, or to private Bible reading in general, and was even more hostile to it in the nineteenth century. Nor are Catholic and Protestant versions of the Ten Commandments the same, the latter proscribing “graven images,” an affront to the whole Catholic rococo of crucifixes and icons, Virgin shrines, reliquaries and sacred art.
Returning to our story, one day a 10-year-old Catholic boy at the Eliot School, Thomas Whall, is instructed to recite the commandments. He refuses. Days of urgent meetings follow, but the school committee decides it will not compromise. Again the boy is asked to read the commandments and again refuses, upon which an assistant to the principal declares, “Here’s a boy that refuses to repeat the Ten Commandments, and I will whip him till he yields if it takes the whole forenoon.” A half-hour later the child’s hands are ripped and bleeding from the blows of a rattan stick; by one account he faints during the torture. All boys unwilling to recite the commandments are ordered out of the school; hundreds leave. Because they had been urged in church to resist Protestant conformity, to “recite their own Catholic prayers” and “not to be ashamed,” they are seen in some quarters as mindless slaves to priestcraft. The most important Republican Party newspaper in Boston (Republicans were the liberals then) editorializes: “We are unalterably, sternly opposed to the encroachments of political and social Romanism, as well as to its wretched superstition, intolerance, bigotry and mean despotism.” When Whall and his father sue the assistant for excessive force, the court vindicates school authority, ruling that the child’s disobedience threatened the stability of the school, hence the foundation of the state.
A neat illustration of the shifting nature of morality–today the principal would be locked up for child abuse–the story is important for the way it complicates generalized definitions of Catholic and liberal worldviews. It is McGreevy’s intention to elucidate the dialectical relationship between Catholic communalism and liberal individualism in the development of standard-issue notions of freedom in America. He traces the route by which church agitation for state funding of its schools, coupled with its opposition to de facto Protestantism in public schools, led to the elimination of organized prayer in the latter. He analyzes the work of Catholic thinkers who drafted some of the first minimum-wage laws, articulated concepts of social welfarism, gave succor to early trade unionism–in effect, defined liberal reformism–and of those who made the backlash against sexual freedom, the church’s latter-day mission.
Fascinating as that all is, ultimately McGreevy does something more valuable: prompting a meditation on power, and its shadow, marginality; on freedom, and its inevitable price, unfreedom; on faith, particularly the kind dressed up as secular rationalism. In the end, neither church power nor state power comes out smelling sweet, a lesson of especial import for liberals accustomed to challenging only one set of assumptions in church-state contests.