This is hardly the first time Republicans have accused Democrats of anti-Christian bigotry. Yet the portrayal of Christians as persecuted conveniently ignores the fact that Christians are the majority, not only in the United States, but also among those holding positions of power. Eighty-eight percent of Congress identifies as Christian, in comparison with 71 percent of all American adults. Christians similarly have a comfortable majority on the Supreme Court (six of eight sitting justices), and all 45 U.S. presidents have been Christian.
Nor does the composition of the Democratic Party leadership support this narrative, since 78.4 percent of congressional Democrats identify as Christian. The idea that Democrats might be especially biased against Barrett as a Roman Catholic seems particularly unwarranted, as Catholics are better represented among congressional Democrats than Republicans (35 percent compared with 26 percent). Presidential nominee Joe Biden is also Catholic, as are Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Obama-nominated Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
The Barrett confirmation fight highlights how conservative claims of pervasive anti-Christian bigotry and persecution coexist uncomfortably with the reality of Christian power. This is far from a new phenomenon. In Europe, between the 12th and 15th centuries, the Christian ruling majority wielded their power to reinforce religious hierarchies and police violations of faith — all while claiming that they suffered persecution at the hands of Jews. Imagined narratives of Christian persecution resulted in very real persecution — including judicial murder — against Jews.
Christian dominance and religious hierarchies in pre-modern Europe were often not particularly subtle. The precise constellation of anti-Jewish laws differed both over time and across kingdoms, but they typically sought to penalize or prevent expressions of either Jewish power or the resurgence of the Jewish faith. Jews could not proselytize to Christians or even accept converts, while Christians could not legally convert to Judaism. Additionally, Jews could not occupy positions of formal power over Christians, including public office, nor could they own Christian enslaved people or hire Christian servants; and Jewish men could not have sex with or marry Christian women.
Early versions of these laws had been promulgated by Roman emperors in the 4th century. As Western Europe fragmented into numerous kingdoms, not all rulers adopted such legislation, but anti-Jewish laws became increasingly common from the 13th century onward in much of Western Europe. The Siete Partidas — composed in Castile under the guidance of King Alfonso X in the 13th century and made law in the 14th century — incorporated all of these anti-Jewish policies. Such laws reflected concern that due to the fact that Jews and Christians — and in a few places, Muslims — lived in shared or adjoining neighborhoods, their regular social and economic interactions threatened to blur boundaries and undermine hierarchies.
The public art on the exterior of cathedrals — seen daily by both Jews and Christians — further highlighted the inferior status of Jews. One popular grouping juxtaposed Ecclesia — a female personification of the church — with Synagoga — a female personification of Judaism. At Strasbourg Cathedral, Ecclesia stands proudly erect, crowned and firmly holding a staff and chalice. She exudes confidence and power. Synagoga, in contrast, is slumped in a posture of defeat, holding a broken staff and on the verge of dropping the two tablets of the law — a common symbol of Judaism when the statues were created in the 13th century. Her crown has been replaced with a blindfold — she has lost her status due to her blindness to the truth of Christianity.
Together, the two figures serve to contrast empowered Christianity with a weak and dethroned Judaism.
Real medieval Jews were not quite so abject and downtrodden, feeling at home and secure in most medieval cities. Jewish polemics even vigorously mocked and insulted Christian theology and practice in an effort to prevent conversions to Christianity.
Yet Jewish comfort, resistance and the relative rarity of massacres and forced conversions should not detract from the fact that Jews confronted near-daily examples of casual anti-Judaism.
Despite this reality, however, Christian rhetoric regularly portrayed Christians as the unfortunate victims of Jewish persecution. One false trope portrayed Jews as so consumed by greed that they victimized innocent Christians by cheating them out of their rightful wealth. This idea circulated widely despite money-lending not being a specifically Jewish profession — many Jews practiced other trades and some Christians also loaned money at interest. Furthermore debt contracts and court records suggest that, far from being rapacious, Jewish creditors often had cordial relationships with Christian clients, regularly renegotiating payment terms to accommodate debtors.
False or not, however, these claims fueled real persecution — against Jews. At the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, one regulation claimed that restricting Christians from collecting interest fueled the “knavery of the Jews” leading them to “exhaust the wealth of Christians.” In response, the Council called for Christians to cease doing business with Jews involved in lending at interest. The Pope did not have jurisdiction over Jews, but some (though not all) rulers turned such edicts into public policy. King Louis IX of France (r. 1226-1270) — later canonized and still venerated as a Catholic saint — banned lending at interest and seized the goods of Jewish moneylenders. Some French Jews were impoverished as a result of the confiscation of their property and the criminalization of their profession.
Medieval Christians also blamed Jews — not the Romans — for the crucifixion of Jesus, and argued that every subsequent generation of Jews also bore responsibility for this act. Even worse, beginning in 1144, they claimed that Jews sought to recreate this sin through attacks on Christian boys, who resembled Jesus in both their childlike purity and in their maleness. At the French city of Blois in 1171, over 30 Jewish men, women and children were executed, mostly by burning at the stake over charges that they had committed such ritual murders.
Starting in the 13th century, ritual murder accusations were at times linked with the blood libel, the claim that Jews then used the children’s blood for ritual purposes. In 1475, the Jews of Trent were accused of having murdered a boy named Simon; confessions obtained under torture related that they also drained his blood, dried it and then sprinkled it on wine and matzoh in the celebration of Passover. Numerous Jews were subjected to judicial torture, and 15 were burned at the stake.
Accusations of host desecration — that Jews illicitly obtained and then stabbed consecrated wafers, supposedly therefore acknowledging them as the body of Jesus — also had dire consequences; Jews were slaughtered in Brussels in 1370 in punishment for their alleged involvement in stabbing a consecrated host, which had then miraculously bled.
All of these false tropes led to the torture and slaughter of Jews. The idea of Christians as persecuted conveniently ignored the fact that they belonged to not only the majority faith, but also, crucially, to the ruling faith. Christians wielded such claims to further undermine the safety and security of the vulnerable Jewish minority, all the while passing laws that limited Jewish rights and consigning Jews to lesser status in society.
Christian power today looks very different: Laws in the United States do not formally create religious hierarchies of the type considered normal in medieval Europe — in fact the Constitution bans such practices. Yet the influence of the Christian majority nevertheless pervades society. Christians are the only religious group that can count on the formal recognition of their holiday celebrations and who can successfully pass legislation explicitly motivated by their faith for example. Christianity remains the default religious identity.
Given this reality, Christian persecution claims from medieval Europe present a reminder for the 21st century: Claims of persecution against the Christian majority can have real implications for vulnerable Americans who are the targets of real, not imagined bigotry.