The 19th century Kulturkampf (literally Culture War or Culture Struggle) of Germany is an important event to consider for 21st century America because of what it was – the transformation of hostility towards Catholicism into an attempt by the government to control and limit the Church. I believe it is important to be aware of what happened then because, unlike other historical events, this one can be duplicated.
This is not an "Obama = Hitler" article. I don't approve of that meme. Obama is Obama. Hitler is Hitler. Hitler's rise to power and subsequent actions depended on attitudes and political conditions not found in America. Hitler was an extreme German nationalist who believed in a strong Germanic volk at the expense of other peoples and nations. Obama appears to believe that his policies will benefit all people, but "right wingers" are trying to block his policies.
In contrast, the current Kulturkampf is an event which began before Obama, and may continue after he has left office. Obama is certainly taking part in the Kulturkampf, but it does not depend on him.
What Was the Kulturkampf?
The Kulturkampf arose in 19th century Germany from an attitude from different factions of society which believed Catholicism was harmful to a strong Germany. Specifically it was a combination of the nationalist state, nominal Catholics and certain hostile Protestants. This hostility began at a time when the Catholic Church in Germany was awakening the morals of German Catholics. The factions in question made accusations of the Church interfering in politics and of intolerance – of trying to impose their values on others. They were accused of being enemies of progress.
Basically, it was assumed that Catholicism was in opposition to what was "right." Therefore, for the good of the people, Catholicism had to be opposed.
The attacks began with trying to change public opinion to assume that the Catholic teachings were unnatural. Isolated scandals were portrayed as the norm for the Church. The clergy was treated as predatory, controlling and heartless to the concerns of the people. It was argued that the Church had no right to teach as she did and needed to change.
Once the state became involved we began to see attempts through law to target the Church. It was argued certain Catholic institutions were not protected under the concept of the freedom of religion. Gradually, attempts were made to remove Church control from their properties, instituting fines against Catholics that did not comply with demands of the State and fines against churches which spoke out against the wrongdoing of the state from the pulpit.
Eventually it got to the point where the state demanded the right to choose who would fill Church positions, often preventing these positions from being filled. Bishops and priests were jailed for refusing to comply.
Essentially, the Kulturkampf was an attempt to silence the Church and limit her when her activities did not serve the state.
Similarities to Today are Striking
Now of course there are some differences between today and then. Today, faithful Protestants are standing with the Church against the government, recognizing the government and not the Church is the threat. The state has not (yet?) attempted to control who can become a priest or bishop or jailed clergy for opposing them. The state is not motivated by nationalism, but by a belief that Christian morality is a restriction of "rights."
But for the most part, the similarities between 19th century Germany and 21st century America are undeniable. Political factions, nominal Catholics and Protestants, and the state itself is attempting to dictate to the Church whether her institutions can follow Church teaching in the realm of sexual morality. The Church is deemed backwards and contrary to American values of freedom by refusing to compromise on issues like the HHS mandate, abortion and "gay marriage."
It is claimed that the Catholic hospitals and universities are not protected by the freedom of religion because they serve more than Catholics.
Scandals are portrayed as being universal within the Church, when they are not.
Ultimately, the portrayal is that Catholics who are faithful to the Church are dangerous right wingers who need to be isolated.
What Are We to Do?
Catholics today do need to be aware of the fact that groups hostile to us are trying to use the law to infringe on our religious freedoms. What we will need to do is to explain and defend the faith and demonstrate to people of good will that this is not merely a "Catholic Issue." It is an issue of freedom which harms everyone if the government is not opposed.
We will have to show both the issue of religious freedom and demonstrate why the Catholic moral teachings are right. The former is necessary to alert people to the dangers of a government violating the Constitution unchallenged. The latter is necessary to explain to people why contraception and abortion are not issues of "rights" but of reducing people to things.
We also need to be responsible voters. Ultimately the supporters of the German Kulturkampf suffered reverses in elections and some of the most hostile to the Church were voted out. We can't say, "Well this politician is bad on religious freedom, but I like his stand on taxes, so I'll vote for him anyway." We have to realize that the greatest threats must be dealt with first.
As the US Bishops said in 1998:
Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas. Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the human person at all stages of life. But being 'right' in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. If we understand the human person as the "temple of the Holy Spirit" -- the living house of God -- then these latter issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation.
(Living the Gospel of Life #23. Italics original. Underline added for emphasis)
Yes, there are many issues the Church teaches about. However, as the Bishops wisely pointed out. when the fundamental values are attacked, those attackers who support the secondary values are suspect.
Catholics and Non-Catholics of good faith need to recognize that we cannot be complacent. When faced with a government overtly hostile to our moral teachings and seeking to demand of us that we disobey our Church, we must oppose that government as part of our correcting the person in error.