We live in an increasingly diverse society, which has led to what we might call a nativist backlash.
“America for Americans,” you might say, but who is an American?
Nativism isn’t new, as we can see by looking back in history. In the 19th century, it was largely Catholics who faced a Protestant reaction – both political and theological. (Today, it’s Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs.)
What’s interesting is that religious liberals like Lyman Beecher and Horace Bushnell were leaders of this 19th-century effort.
Nativism began as an anti-Catholic movement during the first half of the 19th century.
From 1815-60, Protestantism enjoyed a quasi-establishment. In addition there were social factors such as the beginnings of the transition from an agrarian to an industrial and urban economy.
Many feared that the influx of cheap labor would undermine the American livelihood. The poverty of many immigrants and the need for charitable assistance also increased tensions.
Anti-Catholic attitudes were widespread among white Protestants. In 1834, a mob burned down the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass. Beecher’s “Plea for the West” (1834) included a long tirade against Catholics, alleging that the Pope, the Catholic kings of Europe, and Catholic immigrants were conspiring to take over the Mississippi Valley.
Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, published another volume that fueled the nativist movement, “Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States” (1834).
Morse unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York in 1836, but Nativist Whigs would win a year later. The Evangelical Alliance, with the encouragement of Bushnell, was founded in 1846 along anti-Catholic lines.
The Know-Nothing Party emerged in 1849 as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner and became a political force by 1854, running on the platform of opposition to the election of foreigners and Roman Catholics to public office.
The popularity of the nativist movement can be seen in the success of the Know-Nothing Party in the 1854 elections.
As part of its election success, the party claimed the loyalty of 75 representatives to the U.S. Congress; it dominated the elections in Massachusetts.
Only the rise of the Republicans out of the ashes of the Whig Party in 1854 prevented a Know-Nothing victory in the 1856 elections, which featured former President Millard Fillmore as the nativist candidate.
By 1856 most northern nativists joined the Republicans, leaving the South as the only Know-Nothing stronghold.
After the change in immigration patterns in the 1880s, nativism again appeared.
One of the more outspoken groups was the American Protective Association. In 1895, John L. Brandt (1860-1946), a Disciples of Christ minister, wrote a broadside titled “America or Rome, Christ or the Pope,” which had the support of the APA.
Brandt worried that the immigrants were a vanguard of popish agents eager to take over the country.
“Our country is a paradise for Rome,” he wrote. “She has, without being disputed, introduced into our beautiful and fair land, many dogmas, founded upon pretended visions and fabulous tales, more fit for pagan darkness than for evangelical light; she has burdened millions of our people with masses, auricular confessions, priestly celibacy, and fears of purgatory; she has attacked our public schools; she has denounced our Bible; she has favored the union of church and state; she has thrust her hand into our treasury; she has monopolized the funds donated to the religious bodies for Indian education; she controls our telegraphic system; she censures and subsidizes the public press; she manipulates many of our political conventions; she rules many of our large cities; she has put eighty men, out of every hundred, at work in the public department at Washington; … she has plotted to destroy our Government; she has made her subjects swear allegiance to a foreign power … ”
Brandt called on Protestants to watch “this cunning enemy.” Though there might be good people within the church and while at times it may have done good, that should not prevent one from seeing the “evils that have followed in her footsteps.”
Ultimately the cause of nativism was not economic, but cultural. Most old-stock Americans had little to fear economically since most immigrants took the lowest paying jobs.
Instead, nativism was culturally based. Old-stock Americans and even older immigrants saw the new group of immigrants as socially and culturally inferior.
Many were Jewish or Catholic and thus far removed from the dominant Protestantism. They also came from more backward countries where democracy was not known.
Finally, since most of the immigrants congregated in the cities rather than going to the farms, many saw them as people who retained their foreign culture and often turned to crime.
So, how do we respond to the nativism present in our own day?
Bob Cornwall is Senior Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Michigan.