OPINION: A Cobb school official’s Catholic bashing and a long history in Georgia

It’s astonishing when a long forgotten notion crawls from the primordial ooze to make you shake your head here in Anno Domini 2022.

Case in point is David Banks, the resident crank on Cobb County’s school board, who has become renowned for eye-popping statements. His most recent declaration brings us back a century or two when Catholics were derided as a foreign, backwards-thinking lot.

Now, Banks’ utterances didn’t match the vitriol of, say, the late Rev. Ian Paisley, the Unionist agitator from Northern Ireland who liked to refer to the Pope as the “whore of Rome.”

No, Banks went garden-variety 1910 to castigate the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church cannot be Christian. More paganism in its beliefs. If Roman Catholics read the Bible,” Banks wrote, “they would realize the false doctrines. Only Jesus Christ is the head of the church.”

Banks’ statements are retrograde, and formerly common, arguments accusing The Church of idolatry, heresy and popery. The latter is the idea that Catholics have almost a heavenly allegiance to the Pope. But he’s mistaken. The Holy Father is upper management, a string of 265 earthly pontiffs leading the faith since St. Peter took the reins.

Full disclosure: I’m a Catholic, with 12 years of Catholic schooling, same as my four kids. I also admit that I’ve probably darkened a church doorway perhaps a dozen times in the past five years.

The recent issue surfaced Nov. 1, fittingly on All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation meaning you’re supposed to (obligated, actually) to go to Mass. That’s when the Marietta Daily Journal ran a story headlined, “Cobb school board’s Banks denigrates Catholicism.”

Credit: Sean Gallup

Credit: Sean Gallup

Banks’ Facebook comment was in response to a post by a former Cobb GOP leader noting the 505th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his “95 Theses” to a church door in Germany.

It is not known what Banks was thinking, if anything, when he clicked to post on Facebook. He did not respond to calls or texts.

Banks, a Republican, has been on Cobb’s school board 14 years. In recent years, he’s been a controversy-generating machine, talking about “the China virus,” pushing anti-vax info, calling a constituent a mask Nazi (must have been a “Seinfeld” fan) and sharing long-disproven statements that “95% of warrants for murder in Los Angeles are for illegal aliens.”

His Facebook posts the past few months have left behind the normal family and school-related fodder and have verged into abortion, guns and Trump. There’s an election going on, so I get his zealousness on those issues. But the Catholic thing came right out of left field.

Some of his party faithful were slapping their foreheads when Banks made the comments because Cobb County school board Chairman David Chastain, a Republican, was up for reelection Tuesday. And the GOP’s 4-3 dominance was in the offing.

Banks was responding to a Facebook post by former Cobb GOP chairman Jason Shepherd, who was offended by the comments — he grew up in a family both Jewish and Catholic. But Shepherd told my colleague Ty Tagami that he still likes Banks: “He may be the politically incorrect uncle at Thanksgiving dinner but he’s also the uncle that remembers your birthday and gives you $50.”

Anti-Catholicism took root in the 16th Century and traveled to the New World. In fact, it’s in Georgia’s foundation. In 1733, James Oglethorpe landed in what is now Savannah and founded the colony of Georgia, which promptly forbade the practice of Catholicism, the religion of the rival Spaniards.

In the 1800s, large segments of Americans, both in the North and the South, were wary of Catholicism because it was the religion of many of the foreigners landing upon the shores.

In the early 1900s, Georgia populist Thomas Watson made a political name for himself by bashing Blacks, Jews and Catholics. “All of our big cities are governed and corrupted by a combination of barkeepers and Catholic hierarchy,” he wrote in his widely distributed magazine.

The Ku Klux Klan then took up where Watson left off. As I said, it wasn’t just the South. In 1924, the Klan burned a cross on the lawn of St. Barnabas Church in my Chicago neighborhood.

Anti-papist fervor continually waned as Catholics gained political power and had its last gasp in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected the first Catholic president.

After that, evangelical Christians started making alliances with conservative Catholics on culture war issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, said Daniel Williams, a professor at The University of West Georgia.

Williams, who has studied the intersection of politics and religion, said students in his classes are surprised to hear about the centuries of anti-Catholic bias.

I can see why: The president, the speaker of the house and five of the six U.S. Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade are Catholics.

“For most Americans today under the age of 65, it’s difficult to remember when there was widespread suspicions of Catholics,” Williams said.

Sometimes it takes a throwback like Banks to remind them how it was.