Irish-American Religion

Religion of Americans of Irish descent, General Social Survey 2000-2012 Graph by RNS. Source: General Social Survey 2000-2012


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In the American imagination, to be Irish is to be Catholic. The data, however, is clear: most Irish-Americans are not Catholic, and Irish-Americans make up a minority of Catholics in America. Nearly half of Irish-Americans are Protestant; a third are Catholic. The proportions are more equal (roughly 40 percent each) between those that were raised Catholic or Protestant.

Many Irish-Americans, particularly in the South, are evangelicals. In fact, Michael P. Carroll, a dean at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, reports that Irish-Americans make up a larger share of evangelicals in the South (20 percent) than their share of Catholicism elsewhere (16 percent). That’s right—a Southern Baptist is more likely to be Irish than is a Catholic.

The link between being Irish and being Catholic remains strong in the American imagination. To be really Irish is to be Catholic. To give one trivial example, the University of Notre Dame football team was called ‘Fighting Irish’ because ‘Fighting Irish’ was used interchangeably with the school’s other early nickname, ‘Fighting Catholics’. The school, which is officially named L’Université de Notre Dame du Lac, was founded by French priests, not Irish, but the name Fighting Irish stuck.

This conflation of Irish and Catholic identities is, in part, bigotry. The Irish immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s were a threat to Protestant America. Earlier immigrants from Ireland who were Protestant were viewed as not truly Irish. They were ‘Scotch-Irish’, which meant that they were really of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ stock, not the ‘savage’ Irish race. Carroll points out, however, that these so-called Scotch-Irish were fully Irish, just ones with loose ties to the Presbyterian church. Many left the Presbyterian church and became Methodist or Baptist. There were also many Catholics in pre-Famine America who converted to Protestantism.

Carroll concludes that being Irish in America has two different meanings today. For Catholics, the link between being Catholic and being Irish is now entrenched, with Irish Catholics often viewed as being devout. “Claiming an Irish identity can function for Catholic Americans as a way of presenting themselves to others as a good Catholic,” Carroll said.

For Protestants, however, being Irish is a link back to ‘Scotch-Irish’ roots that go back to the 1700′s. It is an ethnicity associated with individualism, evangelicalism, and determination. “Claiming an Irish identity today is a way for Protestant Americans to associate themselves with the values of the American Revolution, or, if you will, is a way of using ethnicity to be American,” Carroll concluded.

For both Protestants and Catholics, being Irish is something to be proud of. This is one reason why so many Americans claim to be Irish, even if only part of their ancestry is Irish.  According to the General Social Survey, roughly one-in-eight Americans say that their primary ancestry is Irish. This Irish diaspora in America is large. According to the General Social Survey, 12 percent of Americans or over 36 million people claim to have an Irish ancestry. This is six times more than the current population of the Emerald Isle (there are 4.6 million people in the Republic of Ireland and another 1.8 million in Northern Ireland). This large number of Irish in America is far more than would be expected to occur from the four million Irish immigrants. Sociologists Michael Hout and Joshua Goldstein found that one reason is preference. Put simply: Americans like to think of themselves as being Irish, even if what it means to be Irish is not the same for everyone.

Question wording from the General Social Survey:

  • From what countries or part of the world did your ancestors come?
  • What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?
  • In what religion were you raised?

Categories: Beliefs, Politics

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Tobin Grant

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

3 Comments

  1. Daniel MacIntyre

    Hello Tobin Grant.

    I read this blog with interest. It has changed my perspective. I’m a Scot and have spent my entire life in Scotland to date. My personal interest is that I have some family who were and are Irish (of the Catholic faith). I also have some other Scots family who emigrated to North America (Ontario, Canada to be precise) and an English relative who emigrated to North America initially and then emigrated to Scotland. So emigrant/immigrant identities are of interest to me.

    Thanks for your blog.

    My only comment relates to the section where you mention the so called ‘Scotch-Irish’ presbyterians/prodestants who arrived in America before the famine emigrants were not really considered fully Irish, but Anglo-Saxon in origin as opposed to native “savage” Irish “race”.

    My immediate reaction to this is: “what is Anglo-Saxon in the modern historical era? I thought Anglo Saxon was a culture and people in the dark ages until the medieval period?”

    And secondly, assuming “Anglo Saxon” is employed to mean “proto-English” or “having their origin in England”, how could Ulster folk who were planted there from Scotland, be considered “Anglo – Saxon”? Surely, Scots/Scotch/Scottish/Scotch-Irish/Scots-Irish ought to be understood as being Scottish in origin? That is, the dark age and medieval Scottish people / culture who first became a power in Dalriada (modern day Argyll), the same people who forged what is now Scotland into a nation (as now understood)?

    Does “Anglo Saxon” relate to language or to the oldest known ethnic origin of a group of people? The languages of Scotland – before the 20th century rise of the standarised English of the elites of south east England – were the Gaelic and Scots languages. The Gaelic dominated first, then Scots. Scottish Gaelic is at the Scottish end of a language continuum with the Irish Gaelic (Manx Gaelic is somewhere on there too). Scots is on a language continuum with modern standard English, sharing a linguistic ancestor with it in Old English or Anglic. It then took a dofferent path with different levels of influence from Norse/Danish, Flemish/Dutch, Gaelic, French. Scots was the state language of the Scots Royal Court until James IV also became the King of the English in 1603. Scots was the first northern European language into which Virgil’s Aeneid was translated.

    Archeaology and toponymy shows that only the south east of Scotland (East Lothian, Tweeddale, Liddesdale, Berwickshire, Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire) was settled significantly by these Anglic speaking communities from Northumbria, in modern day northern England. The language they spoke eventually cross fertilised with the afore mentioned languages in the merchant burghs of Scotland up and down
    the east coast of Scotland and over into Ayrshire, Dumfriesshire, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire to create the Scots language.

    So only some of the speakers of the Scots language had their ancestral origins in the Anglic Northumbrian settlers of south east Scotland.

    So how could the presbyterians planted in Ulster in the 17th century, some of whose offspring ended up in 18th and 19th century colonial America, be labelled “Anglo-Saxon”?

    Why would 19th century thinkers revive a medieval identity label applied to a people in proto-England to describe a people who arrived in America via Ulster via south western Scotland?

    Especially as many had names which were found in Scotland, not England. Names like McClelland, Clelland, Hamilton, Campbell, Beattie?

    Archeaology and toponymy demonstrates that the culture of this Anglo(Saxon) population of medieval Scotland was a minority element limited to settling in south eastern Scotland and southern Dumfrieshire. In fact, after the Wars of Independence to thwart English imperial aggression, these “Inglis” or “Old English”/”Anglic”) speakers renamed their own language “Scots”, adopting the name of the Gaelic language which had once been called “Scottish”, except in Gaelic itself where it is called Gàidhlig – a bit like Irish/Gaelige.

    I realise that you are merely explaining antiquated, bigoted, and biased 19th century illinformed views of how language, politics and religion interacted with and influenced perceived ethnicity (however defined).

    But, again, how could a so called Scotch-Irish American with a name like Alexander McClelland or James Campbell or Patrick Hamilton be considered to have an “Anglo-Saxon” origin?

    Is this an example of prodestant Scots/Scotch-Irish willingly associating themselves with Englishness, denying the full complexity of the historical origins of the Scots nation, for political and sectarian reasons?

    “Scottish” used be synonymous with “Irish”. Scotia Major was Ireland, Scotia Minor was Scotland.

    The rewriting or Scottish history and the manipulation of it to construct new identities for political reasons is fascinating!

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