Random Readings from 2020: no.2 The Gordon Riots

Western book stack

Before this riotous year, I was unaware of the Gordon Riots of London:

By the late spring of 1780 the reform movement was already disintegrating. The final discouragement came with the terrible Gordon Riots of June 1780. Sir George Savile and the Rockingham whigs had carried in 1778 a Roman Catholic Relief Act. Religious intolerance was easily whipped up by agitators in the eighteenth century, and in 1779 a Protestant Association was formed with the half-witted Lord George Gordon as President. On June 2nd, 1780, a huge crowd of 60,000 people gathered in St George’s Fiends, Southwark, to present a monster petition against the Catholic Relief Act. The petition was presented to Parliament, and some of the crowd went off to burn Roman Catholic chapels. During the next few days there was more violence, the prisons were attacked and the prisoners freed. The house of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, was destroyed, together with his precious library. Next day, “Black Wednesday” saw the climax of the violence and destruction. An attack on the Bank of England was repulsed with heavy casualties. By the 9th the military were in full control. Four hundred and fifty people were arrested and twenty-five people were hanged. Gordon was tried for high treason, but acquitted after a brilliant defence by his counsel, Thomas Erskine.

What did it all mean? There is no evidence that it was planned by the Protestant Association, or the Opposition, or indeed by anyone. Religious feeling against Roman Catholics was strong; there was much social unrest in London, and there was an obvious absence of any adequate police force. There was widespread disillusionment at the war failures, heavy taxation and trade recession. All these factors seem sufficient to explain the Gordon Riots.

The results were far-reaching. The riots went far to destroy the reform movement. The rift between the whigs and the radicals widened. The governing classes became deeply suspicious of popular movements. Professor Butterfield comments:

The memory of these days had a great part in that fear of popular demonstrations which seized upon both the ministry and the governing classes of England at the time of the French Revolution.

(R. W. Harris, A Short History of 18th Century England: 1689–1793, (New York: Mentor Books, 1963) pp. 200-01.)

The Religious Diplomacy of Joseph P. Kennedy

Graves at Glasnevin Cemetery - Dublin, Ireland

The Religious Diplomacy of Joseph P. Kennedy

Religion is opinions and actions, determined and restricted with stipulations and prescribed for a community by their first ruler, who seeks to obtain through their practicing it a specific purpose with respect to them or by means of them.

––Al-Farabi (872–951 AD), The Book of Religion[1]

Al Smith’s presidential loss in 1928 and Jack Kennedy’s Houston speech in 1960 concerning religion and government have both been run through the ringer aplenty. There are shelfs and stacks of books that compare and contrast (and exhaust) those two events, and I’m honestly not very interested in reading more about them.

But after reading Robert Dalleck’s A Life Unfinished: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 (2001), I was struck that the most interesting character was Kennedy’s father Joseph Patrick Kennedy.

So soon enough I began reading David Nasaw’s The Patriarch: the Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (2012), and soon enough, I came upon these two quite remarkable passages:

Opposing or remaining neutral to Jack’s candidacy, as the church leaders now appeared to be doing, was, Kennedy believed, a betrayal not only of him, his son, and his family, but of the millions of American Catholics who stood to benefit from the election of one of their own to the presidency of the United States. For perhaps the first time in his life, certainly for the first time since the death of Joe Jr., Joseph P. Kennedy was forced to reconsider, to reevaluate, the ties that bound him to his church. “My relationship with the Church will never be the same,” he confessed to Galeazzi in an April 17 letter,” and certainly, never the same with the hierarchy. But that will not make any difference to them, I am sure, and I can assure you that it will not make any difference to me. For the last few years which I have left, I will indulge myself at least in continuing to believe that friends are friends when you need them. Please do not be upset yourself about my attitude. I would not want anything to annoy you.” [2]


[Billy] Graham, on arriving at the Palm Beach house in mid-January, was greeted by the president-elect. “My father’s out by the pool. He wants to talk to you.” At poolside, the two shook hands, then Kennedy, Graham recalled in his autobiography, “came straight to the point: ‘Do you know why you’re here?’ ” Kennedy told the evangelist (and Nixon supporter) that he and Father Cavanaugh had been in Stuttgart, Germany, when Graham lectured through an interpreter to an audience of sixty thousand. “When we visited the pope three days later, we told him about it. He said he wished he had a dozen such evangelists in our church. When Jack was elected, I told him that one of the first things he should do was to get acquainted with you. I told him you could be a great asset to the country, helping heal the division over the religious problem in the campaign.’” [3]

So what’s happening to Joseph Patrick Kennedy (1888–1969) in these two instances? If we apply Al-farabi’s formulation to these two instances, the first thing to consider is what we interpret Al-farabi to mean by “first ruler.” A literal interpretation would mean George Washington, and one could elaborate and discuss Washington’s deism and any sense of “civil religion” stemming from that which might’ve later been prescribed to the country’s citizenry. A contextual interpretation would mean John Kennedy, and one could elaborate and discuss Jack’s Catholicism and any sense of “civil religion.”

In the first instance, Kennedy has lost tremendous faith in the administrators of American Catholicism following the election of his son to the presidency.

In the second, we see that, despite that loss of faith, Kennedy still wants what (he sees) as best for American Catholicism, and the best he could see for that Catholicism in 1960 was for it to attempt to reconcile, understand, and begin a dialogue with American Protestantism.

Nearly sixty years later, it is easy to say––particularly with the rise and fall of the Religious Right––that that reconciliation was never absolute. There seem to be more significant divisions within the American Protestantism of 2017 and within the American Catholicism of 2017 than the divisions between the two.


[1] Alfarabi, The Political Writings, Translated by Charles E. Butterworth. (Cornell UP, Ithaca, NY), “Book of Religion” p. 93, § 1.

[2] Nasaw, David. The Patriarch: the Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2012) 724.

[3] Nasaw 757.

Six Things to Read for the Weekend


Six Things to Read for the Weekend

Here are six things to read for the weekend:

Caterpillar’s HQ Move to Chicago Shows America’s Double Divide,” by Aaron M. Renn at NewGeography.com, February 3, 2017:

[The] two major divides in the American economy.

The first is between cities positioned advantageously vs. disadvantageously. Chicago is the former (along with Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, etc). Peoria, along with most sub-million metro areas with an industrial heritage, is the latter. It’s simply difficult to keep higher end jobs in these cities. This robs of them of not just some high wage positions, but also significant talent firepower that could be invested in civic betterment.

The second is between those who are prospering with high skills, and those who are not. Chicago has a serious murder problem that’s been making global headlines for two years. It also has a huge financial problem on its hands, especially in the school district.

Who are Those Refugees Australia Doesn’t Want?” by Shoshana Bryen at The Gatestone Institute of International Policy Council, February 3, 2017:

The United States and Australia both had reasons not to admit the migrants closest to their borders, but trading Central Americans who wanted to come to the U.S. for Muslims who wanted to reach Australian shores would allow Turnbull to keep a campaign promise and Obama to divert attention from the massive breach of America’s southern border.

Diversity, leaky roofs and aging priests: Inside the changing U.S. Catholic Church,” by Leah Libresco at AmericanMagazine.org, February 1, 2017:

The simplest takeaway is that the Catholic Church in America is strained by the task of caring for such a large, mobile population. For instance, the distribution of American Catholics has shifted dramatically to the South and the West, and these two regions now hold nearly half of all Catholics—up from only about a third in 1985.

Leaving Islam in North America,” by Hrishikesh Joshi at National Review, February 3, 2017:

Given the challenges associated with leaving the religion, Sarah Haider regrets that people like her do not receive more support from the left, as she detailed in a 2015 address given to the American Humanist Association:

I always expected feeling unwelcome from Muslim audiences, but I did not anticipate an equal amount of hostility from my allies on the left. For example, when I first published a piece fact-checking Reza Aslan, who is a prominent Muslim scholar, on his dismissal of female genital mutilation as only an African problem, not a Muslim one, I got many responses from people unhappy with what I wrote, almost all of whom questioned my motives rather than addressing my claims. To my surprise, most of my critics were not Muslims. Rather they identified as liberals and sometimes even atheists. Some darkly alluded to my “agenda” and others claimed that as a former Muslim, there was no way I could be trusted with fair criticism. Now remember, I published a fact-check. It seems to me that it would be easy to verify my claims, fact-check the fact-check, so to speak. But instead, Muslims and some people on the left preferred . . . to throw around suspicions about my character and my intentions.

Ursula Le Guin rebuts charge that science fiction is ‘alternative fact,'” by Danuta Kean at The Guardian, February 3, 2017:

The 87-year-old author, whose bestselling novels include The Earthsea Chronicles and The Left Hand of Darkness, called out the phrase alternative facts as a disguise for lies that “are seldom completely harmless, and often very dangerous”. She added, in what appeared to be a direct reference to the new president, that peddlers of alternative facts were liars, whom most people consider “contemptible”.

James Joyce: Right About the Church?” by Melinda Selmys, First Things, June 25, 2013:

The natural Christian response to Joyce is defensiveness or dismissiveness, possibly peppered with ad hominem attacks against the author. Joyce, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. Raised in a Catholic culture, his knowledge of Christianity was not lacking. His work frequently references obscure theology and ancient Church councils, and he was a shrewd and insightful observer of human psychology.