The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War

The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War

by Anthony Burke Smith
     
 

When John Kennedy ran for president, some Americans thought a Catholic couldn't—or shouldn't—win the White House. Credit Bing Crosby, among others, that he did.

For much of American history, Catholics' perceived allegiance to an international church centered in Rome excluded them from full membership in society, a prejudice as strong as those against

Overview

When John Kennedy ran for president, some Americans thought a Catholic couldn't—or shouldn't—win the White House. Credit Bing Crosby, among others, that he did.

For much of American history, Catholics' perceived allegiance to an international church centered in Rome excluded them from full membership in society, a prejudice as strong as those against blacks and Jews. Now Anthony Burke Smith shows how the intersection of the mass media and the visually rich culture of Catholicism changed that Protestant perception and, in the process, changed American culture.

Smith examines depictions of and by Catholics in American popular culture during the critical period between the Great Depression and the height of the Cold War. He surveys the popular films, television, and photojournalism of the era that reimagined Catholicism as an important, even attractive, element of American life to reveal the deeply political and social meanings of the Catholic presence in popular culture.

Hollywood played a big part in this midcentury Catholicization of the American imagination, and Smith showcases the talents of Catholics who made major contributions to cinema. Leo McCarey's Oscar-winning film Going My Way, starring the soothing (and Catholic) Bing Crosby, turned the Catholic parish into a vehicle for American dreams, while Pat O'Brien and Spencer Tracy portrayed heroic priests who championed the underclass in some of the era's biggest hits. And even while a filmmaker like John Ford rarely focused on clerics and the Church, Smith reveals how his films gave a distinctly ethnic Catholic accent to his cinematic depictions of American community.

Smith also looks at the efforts of Henry Luce's influential Life magazine to harness Catholicism to a postwar vision of middle-class prosperity and cultural consensus. And he considers the unexpected success of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's prime-time television show Life is Worth Living in the 1950s, which offered a Catholic message that spoke to the anxieties of Cold War audiences.

Revealing images of orthodox belief whose sharpest edges had been softened to suggest tolerance and goodwill, Smith shows how such representations overturned stereotypes of Catholics as un-American. Spanning a time when hot and cold wars challenged Americans' traditional assumptions about national identity and purpose, his book conveys the visual style, moral confidence, and international character of Catholicism that gave it the cultural authority to represent America.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This is a meticulously researched consideration of the evolution of American attitudes toward Catholicism during crucially transformative decades of the 20th century. Catholicism had been characteristically viewed with suspicion by the country's dominant Protestant culture, which considered Catholics as being subject to a foreign leader in Rome and thus marginalized Catholic populations. Smith (religious studies, Univ. of Dayton) shows just how these prejudices began to disappear during the Depression and had nearly ended by the height of the Cold War. Hollywood and popular American magazines led the way in this evolution. Smith has uniquely surveyed popular films—both those overtly portraying Catholics and those on other subjects, but with directors who brought their Catholic sensibility to their work—television programs, and photojournalism, showing how Catholicism became a constitutive force in the political and social fabric of American culture. The balanced analysis of Catholicism at the middle of the 20th century both demonstrates and critiques the influence of the modern media in moving a religious group from the margins in America into roles of international authority. VERDICT Recommended for general and more advanced readers interested in this aspect of 20th-century social and religious history and culture.—John Leonard Berg, Univ. of Wisconsin-Platteville Lib.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780700617166
Publisher:
University Press of Kansas
Publication date:
06/08/2010
Series:
CultureAmerica Series
Pages:
296
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.00(d)

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