Yesterday in my “American Religious History” course I delivered a lecture on immigration in the mid-19th to early 20th century. This, of course, is the era in which the demographics of the United States began to shift in some important ways. Beginning in the 1840s with the Potato Famine and other developments on the Continent, large numbers of Irish and Germans began to arrive. Many of these brought their Catholicism with them.
The foreign habits of these newcomers and their suspect religion concerned a largely Protestant America. From the 1840s through the 1850s an “America first” nativist party commonly known as the Know-Nothings rose to prominence. Fears grew of disruptive foreigners and a Catholic conspiracy to undermine American freedom through allegiance to the hierarchical systems of Rome. Some of the visual artifacts we have left from this time period testify to the virulence with which this perspective spread.
As an historian, one of my stated goals is to help students understand the past through the eyes of those they study–even when it is disagreeable. This era is no exception. Here, of course, persistent religious and theological issues dating from the Reformation formed the foundation for resistance and hatred. Add to this the basic human impulse towards the strange and mysterious ways of the “Other” and one gets a sense of why all this nativism made sense in American society. Fears of those who were deemed recalcitrant, anti-democratic, and disruptive elements in a forward-thinking society led many Americans to push back against the newcomer. They were different. They were odd. Their religion seemed built on a wholly different foundation. How, in the eyes of Protestant America, could these others really fit in? How could the United States NOT feel threatened?
You don’t have to think long about these 160-year old fears before a much more contemporary set of concerns present themselves. Then as now, there is the persistent image of 1) immigrants disrupting law and order together with 2) foreigners whose faith is wholly inimical to the American way. Questions of immigration are always in the background even as the rhetoric of democracy versus recalcitrant religion persists. The Hispanic and Arab/Muslim immigrant to the United States faces a tough road in our modern age.
To be sure, the players may be different and the facts on the ground are not the same. But the stage seems awfully familiar. True, now as then there should be some legitimate pause, if not for concern, at least for reflection. There are many news sources parsing the issues of immigration and you can watch Ben Affleck arguing with Bill Maher if you’d like to see the debate over Islam laid bare. Even so, with a legacy like the 19th century leaves us–where racism, fear, and religious prejudice came together in some completely unnecessary and wholly unfortunate ways–can we really just continue to move forward? Ought we not to stop ourselves and ask whether we are equally as blind as we now see our American ancestors to be? The last time I looked the Roman Catholic church had not turned the United States into a slave of the Pope and Germans and Irish people did not destroy the fabric of American society. To even posit such ideas in the early 21st century seems quaint if not completely nonsensical.
The bare facts of history leave us with open questions about the present: Are today’s foreigners and immigrants really a threat to our society in the ways we think, or are we somewhat paranoid in the grand tradition of American nativism? What will future citizens think about the ways in which we see and have treated other strangers in our midst? Dare we move forward uncritically without realizing what our fears may bring? May we think carefully through these and other issues and we move forward.