Once unwelcomed, again on the side of immigrants

The international press has news that the Catholic Church, led by Pope Francis and senior Bishops, is emerging as an influential opponent of right-wing immigration crackdowns in the U.S. and Europe. The Pope’s pro-immigrant judgment is seen in his speeches, sermons, and personal generosity. There is a history in the U.S. of Catholics and immigration, but one where Catholic immigrants were seen as a threat — social and religious — to established Protestant values.

From 1845 to 1855, 3 million immigrants, fleeing economic depression, entered the U.S. mainly from Ireland and Germany. Until then, the U.S. had been settled primarily by people of British heritage and, thus, Protestant religion. The new immigrants soon amounted to half of the populations of New York and Chicago. Typical middle-class Americans looked down socially on the newly arrived immigrants as undesirable ne’er-do-wells who, they believed, brought crime and indulged in alcoholism. Their lifestyle was seen as threatening to the ‘establishment’ sense of America as a Protestant nation.

Religious conflicts were crucial: most Irish and numerous Germans (and, later, Italians, Poles, and Hispanics) were Catholic. A hot point was schooling, where the typical day began with readings from the King James Bible and Protestant hymns and prayers. The insistence of the Catholics on their own Bible or on a Catholic education were widely seen as evidence of not being “true” Americans. In Philadelphia, there was a riot as Protestants mounted a defense to “Save the Bible,” two Catholic churches and a convent were burned down and martial law was imposed for a week.

Besides the Bible, Protestant Sabbatarians were irritated by the less orthodox observance of Sunday by Catholics, and especially by Irish bars and German beer halls. These locations were in effect community centers for many immigrants, especially on Sundays when families socialized there with their friends. They were also local political hubs for the Democratic Party favored by immigrant Catholics. By 1855 thirteen states or territories had enacted temperance laws against the sale of alcohol, essentially destroying the social and economic fabric immigrants had built around these centers.

A secret, Masonic-like society, The Order of the Star Spangled Banner, better known as the “Know Nothings” (“I know nothing,” if asked about membership) arose as a specifically anti-immigrant political association that grew to over 1 million members. The political power of this Protestant backlash swept through New England and opposed the Democratic Party in the South, replacing the former power of the Whig Party there. In 1855, the group went public as the “American Party.” Membership was limited to native born citizens, Protestants, and those not married to Catholics. Their ideology of ‘keeping America Protestant’ was thus waged against the Catholic Church, the Pope, and what they saw as any foreign influences on American institutions.

These social trends also coincided with the slavery debate. The Whigs, who favored a strong Congress over a strong Presidency, banking reform and economic protectionism (and who were against Jacksonian Democrats), were undone in the South by the Compromise of 1850 (which defused — for the moment — the debate over slavery) and in the North by the Know Nothings theocratic crusade against immigrants. In 1854, a new party — the Republican — was formed to stop the further expansion of slavery into the West.

At first it was a Northern party, opposed to Southern values, especially slavery and its many social and economic ramifications. Many, like Abraham Lincoln, were former Whigs. Events approaching anarchy arose between pro- and anti-slavery devotees; these crises made good propaganda for the Republican Party. And despite the distress in the North about Catholic immigrants, slavery rose in people’s minds as the most severe challenge to American values. The Know Nothings lost favor to the Republicans, yet the Democrats elected the president in 1856. The many issues involving immigrants and the Protestant backlash against Catholicism had to wait until early in the next century with the arrival of a new generation of immigrants from Europe and Asia: today’s great-grandparents.

This history is a reminder of the conflicts that can arise when the commitment of established citizens to protecting their way of life from immigrants reflexively, aggressively, and uncharitably asserts their own values. Today, in the U.S. and Europe, such confrontations are complicated by immigrants who are asylum seekers, fleeing for their lives. In response, the Pope and church leaders reaffirm the charity of Catholic teaching, the Bible, and Christianity as a whole. To quote aphorist Yogi Berra, “its deja vu all over again,” except now it is time to finally end such intransigence and bias in favor of social generosity and open-mindedness.

Thomas A. Regelski, Ph.D., is emeritus distinguished professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia.