Jonathan Mayhew on the Specter of Catholic "Tyranny"

Jonathan Mayhew (1720-66), was a Puritan clergyman whose arguments for religious and political liberty were harbingers of arguments made in the Revolutionary War. In his "Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission," he defends revolting against religious and political tyranny-and Catholics are presented as the central case. The sermon, preached on the hundredth anniversary of the execution of Charles I, lamented the fact that the anniversary was treated as an occasion for fasting and humiliation--Mayhew would rather have celebrated it as a day of thanksgiving, since he viewed Charles as a tyrant sympathetic to Catholicism who disgracefully attempted to curb both religious and political liberties of his subjects.Here's a passage from the preface:Civil tyranny is usually small in its beginning, like "the drop of a bucket," till at length, like a mighty torrent, or the raging waves of the sea, it bears down all before it, and deluges whole countries and empires. Thus it is as to ecclesiastical tyranny also-,--the most cruel, intolerable, and impious, of any. From small beginnings, "it exalts itself above all that is called GOD "and that is worshiped." People have no security against being unmercifully priest-ridden, but by keeping all imperious BISHOPS and other CLERGYMEN who love to "lord it over God's heritage," from getting their foot into the stirrup at all. Let them be once fairly mounted, and their "beasts, the laiety," may prance and flounce about to no purpose: And they will, at length, be so jaded and hack'd by these reverend jockies, that they will not even have spirits enough to complain, that their backs are galled, or like, Balaam's ass, to "rebuke the madness "of the prophet."(Jonathan Mayhew, A Discourse Concerning Unlimted Submission (Boston: Fowle and Gookin, 1750), preface.)Would someone like Mayhew look at, say, Archbishop Chaput and Cardinal George and their attempt to rally Catholics to particular political purposes by exercising their religious authority and say "You know what. . . I told you so"? Would he have shivered in fear at the presence of six Catholics on the Supreme Court--and not a single Protestant?I think he would. But does what Mayhew and his cohort would have thought matter? And what would we say to him in response?And how does what we say to him affect how we ourselves consider the emerging place of Muslims in our community today? Can we imagine a future, two hundred fifty years from now, where six Muslims sit on the US Supreme Court--and not a single Christian, Catholic or otherwise? And in what sense does what we think matter? That world is likely to be as different from ours as ours is from Mayhew's.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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