A Quiz Over Your Knowledge of Riots!

Do you remember that riot in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love?”

The one that lasted for three days, where crowds burned more than thirty buildings to the ground, including two churches? And four people died?

It was the one where the poor people in the urban areas felt they were being systematically discriminated against. So they rioted.

Over the Bible.

Yep, I’m talking about that event in American history that we all learned about in high school history class: The 1844 Philadelphia Bible Riots.

As my students might ask, “That was a thing?”

Yes. The Philadelphia Bible Riots were a “thing.”

(The riots are also known as the “Nativist Riots of 1844” but some people called them “The Philadelphia Bible Riots.”  That’s the term I prefer, because that’s just the kind of guy I am.)

The situation? The Philadelphia school board had passed a policy allowing Catholic students in public schools to take their religious instruction from Catholic leaders. In response a mob marched into a Irish neighborhood and approached a fire station operated primarily by Irish Catholics. Somebody fired a shot and the riot was on.

So, you see, I was not giving you the whole story. They did not really riot over the Bible. They really rioted over a school board policy.

As if that makes more sense.

And this was caused by....the Bible?  Well, not exactly.

And this was caused by….the Bible? Not exactly.

Why burn down thirty buildings over a school board policy?  How can a committee meeting lead to four deaths?

Yes, we still do not have the whole story.

Here, then is my main point about riots: there is always a backstory. We may read about an event that sparks a riot, but the spark is not the cause of the riot. The causes lie in patterns, systems and actions that have been in place for years beforehand. That’s the backstory.

Let me briefly explain the backstory to the Philadelphia Bible Riots. (The whole story is more complicated, but this is a blog post, so you get a summary.  For a fee, or a good hamburger, I’ll give you more than a summary).

The backstory to the Philadelphia Bible Riots is that Irish immigrants, escaping poverty in Ireland, had been pouring into eastern cities for about a decade. They were poor. They were also more likely to commit crimes, fall into domestic abuse and abuse alcohol than the wider population.  And they faced prejudice and systematic discrimination.

You may have heard the old phrase, “No Irish Need Apply.” This was that era. Because many native-born Americans viewed the Irish as dirty, disruptive, violent, drunkards, the Irish often had a hard time getting decent jobs. Like many immigrants down through history, they took the jobs that other Americans did not want: digging canals, building sewers, cleaning streets and hauling manure.

For most non-Irish Americans, it was just fine that the Irish took these undesirable jobs. But what if the Irish immigrants started to work their way into higher level jobs? And what if they agreed to take these better jobs for less pay?

In fact, that is exactly the Iris immigrants would do. Employers knew this. Employers also knew a good thing when they saw it. If they could hire two dozen Irish immigrants for semi-skilled work for less pay than the non-Irish, they’d fire two dozen semi-skilled non-Irish workers and hire the Irish. As a result, job competition led a lot of working class non-Irish Americans to resent the influx of Irish immigrants.

Then -- as now -- community leaders called for a peaceful approach to the conflict.  This broadside came from Catholic bishop, Francis Patrick.

Then — as now — community leaders called for a peaceful approach to the conflict. This broadside came from Catholic bishop, Francis Patrick.

Remember also that this was an era before unemployment compensation, food stamps, insurance or pensions. There were no safety nets. So if you did not have a job, you faced starvation. The stakes were high. Many would be willing to turn to violence against those who threatened job opportunities.

But there is more. The Irish were also Catholic. Many Protestants at this time (who dominated the nation, numerically and culturally) thought of the U.S. as a Christian nation.  But in their minds a Christian nation meant a Protestant nation.  Catholicism was seen as anti-democratic and a barrier to progress. Many Protestants believed if a conflict arose between the pope and the Constitution, Catholics would blindly follow the pope. (Protestants never thought to ask what they themselves would do if a conflict ever arose between the Bible and the Constitution. Would they “blindly” follow the Bible?)

For their part, Irish immigrants were desperate to escape poverty in Ireland. Like your ancestors (if you are an American but are not completely Native American or African American) they came to the United States for opportunity. They were willing to take lower wages because that economic opportunity was better than what they had in Ireland. And most Irish were loyal Catholics. This meant they felt deeply the Protestant charge that they did not fit into America, despite its rhetoric of freedom. They held to the Catholic teaching that the Bible could only be properly interpreted by church authorities. Many were not happy to send their children to a school where the teachers would, in essence, teach a Protestant view of Christianity.

Neither the working-class non-Irish nor the Irish immigrants felt like those in power were really listening to their concerns.  Working class non-Irish felt threatened by immigrant Irish, who felt threatened by working-class non-Irish.  All believed their rights were threatened.

For just a glimpse of the passion and sense that immigration was a threat, check out this broadside from Protestant Philadelphians right before the riot broke out:

“The Americna Republicans of the city and county of Philadelphia, who are determined to support the NATIVE AMERICANS in the Constitutional Rights of peaceably assembling to express their opinions on any question of Public Policy and to Sustain them against the assaults of Aliens and Foreigners are requested to assemble on THIS AFTERNOON, May 6th, 1844, at 4 o’clock, at the corner of Master and Second streets, Kensington, and to take the necessary steps to prevent a repetition of it. Natives, be punctual and resolved to sustain your rights as Americans, firmly but moderately.”

Is it possible to riot “firmly but moderately?”  Probably not.

So, you put all this together — cultural prejudices, intense job competition, perceived threats to American democracy, conflicts over the role of religion in the schools — and you have mixed together dry wood, oxygen and gasoline. That’s the backstory.

All it needed was a match. That was the school board decision.

This history can help us as we think about the riots of the past year. It is easy to focus in on the specific event — a police shooting — and think that this one incident is what caused the disturbances.

No. There have been hundreds of police shootings every year for years and they do not produce riots. An event like a police shooting is simply the match. The backstory is the wood, oxygen and gasoline piled up together.

The question for us, then, is this: how well do we understand the backstory of the recent riots?


Is Protestantism or Secularism (or something else) the Best Path to Equal Pay for Equal Work for Women around the World?

You should care about this question if you are a Protestant.  Or if you are in human resources in a business.  Or if you teach 10th graders.  Or if you are from the Honduras.  Or if you are a woman.  Or if you are a man.

You can stop reading if you don’t fall into any of those categories.

WEFEvery year the World Economic Forum, a non-profit and non-partisan foundation based in Switzerland. issues what it calls the Global Gender Gap Report.   The study ranks 136 nations by the disparities between women and men in economics, politics, education and health.

Some nations don’t make it because there is not enough data for them.  My guess is that the nations that don’t make the list, like North Korea, would probably be towards the bottom.  (Of course, maybe North Korea is secretly promoting women throughout its society to ranks of equality.  Maybe Kim Jong-un executed his uncle this week in order to put his aunt into a top position of power……Hmm. Yeah, we should go with the first hypothesis).

The World Economic Forum mainly reports the data. It doesn’t attempt to explain the deep-seated forces that explain why some nations are ranked high and others are low.  It does not even mention religion anywhere in the report, as far as I can see.  But that doesn’t prevent me from bringing religion in to attempt to explain matters.  My thought:  Protestantism matters.

Curious?  Here are nations that have done the best at closing the gender gap, (though no nation has achieved full gender equality):

  1. Iceland
  2. Finland
  3. Norway
  4. Sweden     (ah, those Scandinavians)
  5. Philippines  (what?)
  6. Ireland
  7. New Zealand
  8. Denmark
  9. Switzerland
  10. Nicaragua  (what?)

And the bottom ten:

  • 127.  Saudi Arabia    (you are not surprised)
  • 128.  Mali
  • 129.  Morocco
  • 130.  Iran
  • 131.  Ivory Coast
  • 132.  Mauritania
  • 133.  Syria
  • 134.  Chad
  • 135.  Pakistan
  • 136.  Yemen

In case you are curious, the United States come in at # 23, just behind Burundi.  (What?)

An obvious observation:  Islam is not good for gender equality.

A somewhat surprising observation:  economic prosperity does not seem to be a deciding factor.  One finds the Philippines, Nicaragua, Cuba, Lesotho (!), Burundi, and Ecuador all in the top 25.   Meanwhile, South Korea, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, all in the top third globally in terms of per capita income, are all in the bottom 25 in terms of the gender gap.   Wealthy Japan comes in at #105, right behind Cambodia and Burkina Faso.

So what is the biggest predictor of gender equality?

One could make a decent case for secularism.  The Scandinavian nations (which always seem to lead lists like this) are quite secular.  And you have that obvious Islamic problem at the bottom of the list.  Analysis that stopped here would support a claim that has been made quite regularly within western culture during the last two centuries:  public religion is a barrier to liberty.  The sooner we break free from religion, the way this thinking goes, the more free, equal and happy we will be.

But if you dig further, that argument does not work so well.  Based on this data, I would argue something quite different:  the long-term presence of Christianity, particularly Protestantism, is the biggest factor in promoting equality between men and women.  I’m thinking like a historian here, which means you have to take into account at least two centuries of development.  Profound cultural shifts, such as changes in attitudes, practices and structures related to gender, do not change with a decade or two of new political policies.  Over long periods of time, however, nothing closes the gender gap as well as Protestantism.  I don’t see a factor that is a better predictor.

Here is what the data says to me:  the equity between women and men in the Scandinavian nations is better explained by several centuries of Protestantism than by a few decades of secularism.

Why?  No Protestant nation ranked lower than #47 (Jamaica).  13 of the 15 nations that have been influenced by more than a century of Protestantism are in the top 23.

I was actually surprised to see the very modern nation of France ranked as low as it is (45), since France has led the way since 1789 in promoting liberty and equality.  It has also been an historic leader in secularism, attempting to break free from public religious influences.  However, it only ranks two places ahead of the lowest ranking nation deeply influenced by Protestantism, Jamaica (47).

Meanwhile, we have the following rather secular nations in the bottom half of the list:  China (69), Vietnam (73), Slovak Republic (74), Uruguay (77), Czech Republic (83), Japan (105), Albania (108), and South Korea (111).

Filipino Businesswomen:  We're #5

Filipino Businesswomen: We’re #5

We can also argue for the importance of Christianity, in general, upon gender equality if we compare nations by regions.  Christianity has been at work in the Philippines for several centuries.  It not only cracks the top 10, but far outpaces more modern and secular nations in East Asia, like China (69), Japan (105), and South Korea (111).  At #5, the Philippines also obliterates similar island nations of southeast Asia like Indonesia (95) and Malaysia (102).

In Latin America, the secular nation of Cuba ranks quite high at #15, (a good argument for secularism) behind only Nicaragua.  However, the very secular nation of Uruguay ranks at 77.

In post-communist eastern Europe, the quite religious nation of Poland (54) ranks well ahead of its secular cousins, the Slovak Republic (74), Czech Republic (83).   I was a bit surprised by this, since both the Czech and Slovak republics had liberal democratic traditions before they, like Poland, were taken over by communism after World War II.

Finally, 49 of top 68 nations were influenced by more than two centuries of Christianity.  Only 16 of the bottom 68 were deeply influenced by Christianity – and none of these were Protestant.

Because substantial growth of Christianity if Africa is quite recent, I do not include the sub-Saharan nations of Africa in my categories of Christian or secular nations – except for South Africa, which has had a significant Christian presence for two centuries.  But Africa seems to be the wild card in all of this.  It will be interesting to see what happens to both Christianity and gender equity in sub-Saharan Africa in the decades to come.

It is important to note that there are all sorts of factors that play into these rankings.  I’ve been generalizing quite a bit — cutting with a chain saw, if you will.  And one can raise some questions about the methodology of the World Economic Forum, though you’d have to propose an alternative.

At this point, though, if you were a woman who is interested in equal pay for equal work, or equal opportunities for education, or a shot at parliament, or equal health care, I think you would do best to be born in a nation deeply influenced by Protestantism.