Evan Haefeli is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University. This interview is based on his new book, Against Popery: Britain, Empire, and Anti-Catholicism (University of Virginia Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Against Popery?
EH: I was inspired to put this book together after working for years on the history of religious tolerance in early America. I came across so much more anti-Catholicism than tolerance that it became clear we needed a book to draw our attention to its significance and pervasiveness. Early American anti-popery was so deeply rooted in the British tradition that you cannot understand the one without the other. Moreover, it is such a big topic that no single person can account for the whole, so I recruited an interdisciplinary group of people from (and working on) both sides of the Atlantic.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Against Popery?
EH: The two sentence argument of the book: Anti-popery was a Protestant prejudice against Roman Catholics but also an unstable ideology of liberty. Its rejection of the political and religious example of the pope favored Protestant cultural hegemony across the Anglo-American world until the mid-eighteenth century, when efforts to enhance imperial authority provoked anti-papists in America to start a revolution that, ironically, increased liberty for Roman Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic.
JF: Why do we need to read Against Popery?
EH: You should read this book because we need to incorporate anti-popery as an essential key for understanding early America and the British Empire. It is already recognized as an important issue in early modern English history, but it was truly inseparable from the religion, popular culture, political ideals, ethnic relations, racism, gender expectations, patriotism, intellectual habits, and art of all corners of what I call the British-American world. The book is also an argument for changing the way we approach the histories of early America, Britain, Ireland, and the first British Empire. Currently, those are separate fields of study based on different national histories, but certainly for the period before 1783 they must be understood as an integrated whole. How it then fell apart remains a problem in need of explanation. Anti-popery was fundamental to understanding both what held the British-American world together and then broke it apart.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
EH: I was drawn to study American history at the end of college, when I discovered how little we knew about the Native American experience and how fascinatingly complex early America was. I was inspired to go to graduate school to expand our knowledge of Native America and develop an inclusive approach to American history that can account for, and be accountable to, its diversity — the coexistence as well as the conflicts that bind us all together.
JF: What is your next project?
EH: I have a lot of work coming down the pipeline. In February I have a book coming out on the origins of early American religious pluralism with the University of Chicago Press. It traces the establishment of the remarkably diverse range of colonies created, from Massachusetts and Maryland to Rhode Island and more, to the religious politics of early modern England to argue that what we got by the time the foundation of the modern Church of England was laid in 1662 was the unintentional result of conflicting impulses. There was no plan to make colonial English America a religious refuge or lay a foundation of religious pluralism, but that is exactly what happened, hence the books title Accidental Pluralism. Now I am writing about the even more important period after 1660, when the really diverse colonies that deliberately authorized religious toleration, like New York, Pennsylvania, and Carolina, were created. Their origins lie in the very different religious politics of Restoration England, hence my tentative title Pluralism with a Purpose. I have also begun writing a history of the Iroquois Confederacy and how it made peace with its many Indigenous enemies in colonial America, transforming the diplomacy of the eastern woodlands. Then, of course, I will have much more to say about the role of anti-popery in early America, which I am currently developing in several different articles along with a study of the religious politics of colonial Virginia.
Overall, these works are part of a bigger effort to change our understanding of religious, political, and constitutional history of the colonies, the empire, and the early United States to show that we did not easily come by the values we cherish, like religious freedom, nor can we rely on them to persist as somehow intrinsically American qualities. Their origins were fragile, conflicted, and not inevitable, just like the origins of America itself.
JF: Thanks, Evan!