Religion Today

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Immigration, Religion and the Supreme Court

July fourth provides a moment when Americans consider our nation's founding as well as how our ancestors came to this country, that is, about our personal "founding" as Americans. We celebrate our forebears' search for a better life, how they worked long hours to overcome hardships, and how they and their children became Americans.

That storyline often overlooks the fact that immigrants were usually unwelcome. Even when government policies invited people to come to America, migrants were frequently treated as outsiders. Newspapers, politicians and even average citizens often railed against large groups of newcomers who threatened the American way of life.

At different times, these negative attitudes have been directed at people of various nationalities: the Irish, Italians and Poles, the Scots and the Chinese, the Japanese and the Germans, and more recently the Hmong, the Hispanics and peoples from the Arab and Muslim world.

In the end, this unwelcoming attitude formed another difficulty to overcome. And for those whose families have been here several generations, their triumph over that particular adversity belongs to their July fourth story. This holiday, more than any other, celebrates our identity as Americans; it comprises a moment when we set apart our differences and celebrate "our" country, those who founded it, and those who have protected it.

The problem of immigration is not solely one of nationality and of the transition from belonging to the country of one's origins to membership in the new country. It is also one of religion. Immigrants often came with their own religious beliefs and practices. And unlike their national loyalties, immigrants and their children usually kept their religion rather than change it.

America's freedom of religion helped with that in the legal area, but not elsewhere. This country's discrimination against immigrants and their offspring makes that clear, especially following the waves of immigration before 1930. If we could not keep them out of our country, then the response was often that we could keep them out of our other institutions.

Religion made that exclusion possible. At the start of the 20th century, Catholic children were effectively excluded from public schools by Protestant insistence on using the King James Bible in them, which Catholics viewed as anti-Catholic. Major educational institutions, such as Yale and Princeton universities, enforced restrictions against admitting Jews into the 1950s and the 1960s. And many men's clubs, some even into the 1980s, did not allow Catholic or Jewish members.

These attitudes have changed over recent decades, and those changes have finally reached the Supreme Court, which for most of this nation's history was exclusively Protestant. If Elena Kagan is confirmed as a justice, as expected, then there will be no Protestants on the court. Instead, there will be six Catholics and three Jews.

There does not appear to be any major objection to this outcome. Instead, many editorial essays note this lack of controversy and see it as a sign of our nation's maturity. I agree in part.

There is another explanation. The Protestant political coalition has fallen apart. One side predominantly consists of evangelicals (and conservatives) while the other side stems from the mainline churches (and liberals). The split has largely come over social issues, especially abortion and homosexuality.

Instead of working together to bring in Protestant candidates, they can only agree on non-Protestant candidates, and for different reasons. To lay this out in over-simplified terms: Catholics are acceptable to the evangelical side because Catholicism in general holds similar social views. Catholics are OK for the mainline side because that side is more welcoming of differing views.

Similarly, the stereotype of Jews' politics is that they hold liberal views (even though many do not) which makes them acceptable on the mainline side. Jews tend to be less acceptable to the evangelical wing, but that faction's strong support of Israel usually mitigates that opposition.

Thus immigrants and their descendants move from being defined in terms of nationality to being defined in terms of religion. That redefinition may permit discrimination, but also provides a fit into our country's freedom of religion, which leads to greater acceptance. In the end, ultimate acceptance may come through political maneuvering.


  • Good assessment, Paul. It seems like everyone has to go through an undeclared initiation process in order to become assimilated. I don't think that's happening much anymore and therein lies the danger. Our melting pot is overwhelmed and, as a country, we're simply trying to survive. -L

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/10/2010  

  • Interesting piece, Paul.
    In the third paragraph, you neglect to mention the US refusal to give immigrant visas to Eastern European Jews, who were thought to carry the filth and disease of the ghettos with them.  And in the years before WWII, we still maintained our national opposition to allowing Jewish immigrants.  Only after the war, after we had carefully ignored the Holocaust we knew was going on, did we change our immigration policy -- and join the Allies in promoting Zionism towards Palestine.
    Also, we objected to the Irish because of their Catholosism as much as because of their ethnic nationality, correct?
    And I'm puzzled by your last paragraph -- not sure quite what you mean?
    Still your piece is timely in raising the issue that we have always made it hard for less than white, Protestant immigrants -- and now it's the turn of the Muslims to suffer the same suspicion...


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/10/2010  

  • In paragraph 3, you mentioned nationalities that came in legally and neglected to point out that the Hispanics come in illegally. That difference is a pretty significant one, as we are able to witness the loss of our country's sovereignty due to the lack of obedience to our Constitution by illegals.

    A country cannot survive with two languages, or with two religions. Jewish, Christian, and Catholic religions somewhat blend together, but Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., are in no way compatible either with each other or with Judeo-Christian or Catholic.

    Your 3 paragraphs about lack of Protestants on the Sup Ct now are good ones, altho I too would not agree with the "maturity" viewpoint.

    I disagree with Jews being unacceptable to the evangelicals. (And it seems obvious that if we support Israel, then what part of the Jewish heritage would we find unacceptable?) Considering the overt dislike of Jews by liberals, and the unequivocal acceptance of Jews by practicing evangelicals, I have yet to figure out why Jews vote liberal. Obama and Clinton's treatment toward Israel in recent months is despicable, albeit revealing. Obama's approval rate in Israel is 6%, probably less now after that last debacle.

    Last paragraph, I do not understand what you mean by ultimate acceptance may come thru political maneuvering.

    By Anonymous Lila, at 7/31/2010  

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