A distinctive California story

In this blog entry, William Issel author of Church and State in the City and For Both Cross and Flag,  discusses how his books make a significant contribution to the California exceptionalism narrative.

Church and State in the City: Catholics and Politics in 20th Century San Francisco tells the story of a unique Catholic community’s century-long work to shape the language and the outcome of debates over how to define the common good in an internationally famous city in an exceptional state, California – the Golden State.  Named by Spaniards after a mythical Queen Califia who ruled over a tribe of fierce Amazon warriors, the Ohlone people described it as a place where “you dance on the edge of the world.”  James Duval Phelan, the San Franciscan who served as city mayor and later as U.S. Senator once put into words what millions of the state’s residents and visitors have felt about the place.  “If I owned both Heaven and California,” Phelan said, “I would rent out Heaven and live in California.”

Issel_Church and State_smMy book about San Francisco tells a distinctly California story, and it is part of a tradition of writing showing how California has possessed exceptional qualities since the Gold Rush of  1849.  The English aristocrat James Bryce wrote in 1888 that “more than any other part of the Union, [California] is a country by itself.”  It is perhaps not surprising that the story of Catholics and politics in San Francisco history would be distinct from, rather than a copy of, the patterns we associate with East Coast and Midwest big cities.  On New Year’s Day 1938, John J. Mitty, the Archbishop of San Francisco, departed from the Catholic Church line and commissioned an outspoken editorial that criticized official anti-Semitism in Germany and Nazi attacks on Jews as contrary to the principles and traditions of – “The West Coast.”  Out here, “We are really a different people.  We do not need to follow as the East leads.”  And in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, Mitty organized a nationwide radio broadcast from Catholic University in Washington D.C. that condemned the Nazi depredations. Eleven years later, journalist and critic Carey McWilliams called the state “The Great Exception.”  “California” he wrote, “is not another state: it is a revolution within the states.”  McWilliams had a point, but he would have been more accurate had he written that California “is not just another state.”

Perhaps a more useful way to think about California and its “peculiarities” as the largest and arguably most important of the Western states, would be to say that California is not just another state, it is the United States but more so.  Ever since that day in January 1848 when Marshall picked those pieces of gold out of the raceway of John Sutter’s sawmill, the diverse people of California have often been the first to embrace, and frequently in a more exaggerated fashion, the social, cultural, political, and economic innovations that eventually caught on “Back East”, “Down South”, or in “the Midwest.”

Because Church and State in the City is the first book to tell the story of the city’s distinctive history of church and state relations, it makes a significant contribution to the California exceptionalism narrative. The book details the many innovations in political activism that San Francisco Catholics created as they cooperated with, competed with, and sometimes accommodated to a variety of other San Francisco interest groups in the political give and take that marked the city’s history from the 1890s to the 1980s.  This is done through mini-biographies of Church leaders and lay men and women whose relationships with business, labor, other interest groups, and city government, influenced politics and policy-making for nearly a century.  Readers will come away with a more evidence-based and more nuanced understanding of the policy-making process in such areas as education, civil rights, housing, transportation, redevelopment, and the rights of black, Asian American, Latino, and LGBTQ residents.

For Both Cross Flag sm compChurch and State in the City also sheds new light, also by including detailed profiles about the most important transnational challengers of both capitalism and Catholicism during the twentieth century – socialist men and women, especially members of the Communist Party. One chapter details the ways in which women reformers from the Left, Right, and Center contributed to shaping politics and policy in the City from the 1890s to the 1980s.  The book brings to life the ways that contests to define the public interest took on a distinctive character in San Francisco because of the particular way that struggles over power, privilege, and prestige involving capitalists, Catholics, secular liberals, and socialists and communists were fought out, in the context of national and international events, from the 1890s to the end of the 1970s.

Church and State in the City makes a significant contribution to the scholarship that is currently “putting religion back” into American history, and it is the first to demonstrate the importance of the Catholic versus Communist/Socialist rivalry in a major American city for nearly a century, from 1890 to 1980. The book also demonstrates how European rivalries played out in a major American city and how both women and men were active on both sides of the Catholic Church versus Communist Party rivalry, from the Bolshevik Revolution to the last decade of the Cold War.

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