THR Web Features   /   February 10, 2022

The Unintended Consequences of Christian Politics

The case of American Protestants and immigration policy.

Myles Werntz

( Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus,

Reviewed here:

Ulrike Elisabeth Stockhausen, The Strangers in Our Midst: American Evangelicals and Immigration from the Cold War to the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Nicholas T. Pruitt, Open Hearts, Closed Doors: Immigration Reform and the Waning of Mainline Protestantism (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2021)

The religious life is a pilgrimage. As a once popular Methodist hymn and early country music staple put it: This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through. Likewise, many poets, mystics, and theologians have used such religious language of exile, drawing an analogy between the life of faith and the life of the migrant. Both are on their way to something—to a better life, to reunion with loved ones, maybe even to beatitude. But it is the migrant, not the religious, who is usually the true outsider in the world, the one living in uncertain conditions and negotiating an unfamiliar, often dangerous world.

The way leading American Protestants of the twentieth century responded to changing immigration policies illustrates how the religious person can see (or fail to see) in the migrant her own vocation of being ill at ease in the world. Two recent books tell a story not of Christians rejecting the strangers in their midst, but of something more beguiling: a process by which religious faith was instrumentalized and distorted for the purposes of politics. Ulrike Elisabeth Stockhausen’s The Strangers in Our Midst and Nicholas T. Pruitt’s Open Hearts, Closed Doors suggest an important if disturbing question: Is religious engagement in political life fated to fail—fated to become faithlessly entangled in the power struggles of the moment?

In Open Hearts, Closed Doors, Nicholas Pruitt traces mainline Protestant denominations’ response to national immigration policy between the critical years of the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Immigration and Nationality Act 1965 (the so-called Hart-Celler Act). The 1924 Act, passed during one of the more notoriously racist periods of American history, ushered in an era of migration carefully calibrated to ensure that America’s future would look like its past, prioritizing Western European migration and nearly eliminating entirely migration from Asia and Africa. Forty years later, this paradigm was replaced with a more intentionally multicultural paradigm of migration, introducing diversity visas, increased openness to Asia and Africa, and the end to temporary worker programs such as the bracero program, which imported temporary labor from Mexico.

What makes the mainline denominations a compelling subject to study is that the ecclesiastical groups affiliated with the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) traced their ascendency to the ascendency of America itself: the Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, Northern Baptists, Disciples of Christ—each denomination emerged out of a distinctly American story of expansion, improvisation, and finally, cultural establishment. Pruitt also includes Southern Baptists in his story, not because they are mainline or were longstanding members of the NCC, but because their story, too, is a distinctly American story of cultural establishment, and later, cultural exile. The timeline of American immigration statutes in the twentieth century, thus, coincides broadly with the rise and decline of elite Protestant institutions.

With careful attention to denominational papers, home missions movements, and statements on immigration, Pruitt, assistant professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College, shows how denominations affiliated with the NCC responded to shifting cultural demographics, balancing the desire to minister to immigrants with their recognition that changing migration patterns presaged the decline of a world—white, European, Protestant—that gave them cultural status. He demonstrates that this shift in values was not initiated by denominational leadership but largely by lay groups ministering to refugees: Schools at Ellis Island, the Woman’s Missionary Union, and church planting groups helped refugees integrate into the United States. This work transformed the way that those mainline denominations advocated for public policy.

As national refugee priorities shifted from post-war Europe to Asia, a rift emerged in the mainlines. Pruitt shows how, by 1965, the year that the Hart-Celler Act abolished the quota system of the 1924 Act, 65 percent of American Protestants were not in favor of increased immigration. Surprisingly, mainline protestant leaders continued to lobby for immigration reform, petitioning for reversals of demographic restrictions the 1924 Act had put in place. As Pruitt notes, this dissonance between laity and denominational statements can be attributed in part to the makeup of existing denominations: Mainline congregants were largely of European descent, groups which would no longer be prioritized under Hart-Celler as they had in the 1924 Act. But institutional leaders continued to support immigration reform—even when those policy outcomes did not benefit the white, historically Anglo-Europeans who sat in the pews and paid the tithes.

Pruitt’s work details how this was occasionally a high-wire act for institutional leaders. When Cuban refugees needed resettlement, for example, NCC members advocated for Cubans while simultaneously seeking to Americanize them in ways more amenable to average churchgoers. The 1924 Act both benefited established Protestant traditions by preserving white majorities central to mainline trajectories, while at the same time, the overt exclusions ran against a developing mainline commitment to cultural pluralism. As Pruitt details, Americanization was central to the mainline approach, but not in a way which the notorious 1924 Immigration Act envisioned: By helping to acclimate non-European refugees, mainline efforts expanded the vision of who America was while still inducting refugees into the ethos of America. The mainline efforts, thus, become a story of success which led to cultural influence, as cultural pluralism in America meant a diminished role for mainline traditions in America’s cultural future.  The mainlines, of course, did not die in the twentieth century, and have adapted to the social realities of the late twentieth century. But by 1965, it was clear that mainline Protestant political opinions had lost influence and that mainline ministries to migrants had unintentionally opened the door to their diminished cultural dominance.

Waiting in the wings to inherit the mantle of cultural influence was evangelical Christianity. In her recent The Strangers in Our Midst, Ulrike Elisabeth Stockhausen, a US historian and scholar at the Max Weber Foundation in Bonn, Germany, focuses on statements made by the publishing arms and advocacy agencies linked to evangelical denominations over four decades (a method preferred to scholarship that rests upon polls which allow people to self-identify as evangelical). Like Pruitt, she draws together a variety of groups into her narrative, including Missouri Synod Lutherans, Evangelical Covenant church, and the Assemblies of God. 

Evangelicals brought a more conversionist emphasis to immigration in the 1960s, Stockhausen writes, than their mainline counterparts. This is an important distinction that illuminates not just political but theological motivations. Evangelicals, in short, were not primarily concerned with Americanizing immigrants as much as Christianizing them.

Like NCC members, evangelicals attempted to thread this needle of public relevance and religious fidelity. Even as evangelical publications and advocacy groups, for instance, supported Laotian refugees during the 1970s, they subsequently failed to extend support to illegal immigrants in the 1980s. One of the unintended consequences of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act was a displacement of natural migration from Mexico by diversity lotteries. But evangelical support for migrants from Mexico, who continued to travel as they had prior to 1965, waned by comparison to their support for Laotians and other refugees: the latter were seen as objects of mercy and the former as those breaking the law.

Whereas mainline arguments for migration remained relatively constant—inclusion and Americanization of the immigrant—popular evangelical arguments for or against new waves of migration shifted according to what the politics of law and order demanded, Stockhausen argues. As undocumented immigration increased, evangelicals exchanged the love of the sojourner for obedience to legal authorities. Groups such as World Vision, the Evangelical Immigration Table, and the progressive magazine Sojourners attempted to reframe the evangelical approach to immigration around hospitality and the welcome of fellow Christian immigrants, to little avail.

What separates evangelical and mainline responses to immigration in the last sixty years is not that one group’s responses were framed by national politics and the other not, for both mainliners and evangelicals retained a robust sense of their place within the limits of American political culture. The differences that do emerge—that evangelicals emphasized conversion, or that mainline organizations emphasized justice—largely appeared, it seems, as strategies by which the groups sought to be faithful to both scriptural injunctions concerning migrants while also preserving their place within national political and social conversations.

But as the NCC discovered as a matter of irony, and as American evangelicals discovered more abruptly after the 2020 election, the coincidence of religious ideals and political relevance can be short lived. Initiatives such as the Evangelical Immigration Table, which sought to build legislation around a platform of compassion to immigrants of all legal status as well as political order, ultimately foundered, Stockhausen writes, when the choice between compassion and law and order became divided along partisan lines.

In a culture where religious participation continues to decline, I am curious whether the recent history of American Christianity and immigration serves a bellwether for the future of the marriage of religious faithfulness and political relevance. After all, both the road of consistency, as Pruitt describes within mainline denominations, and the road of political acclimation, as Stockhausen shows with evangelicals, led to a decline of their movements, though in different ways. One could point to the continued significance of issues like marriage, abortion, religious liberty, and so forth to dispute the idea of declining religious influence. But then again, when these counterexamples are more closely scrutinized—and when this broader history is taken into account—it's difficult to see how religious positions can be entirely disentangled from the complex of economic, social, or cultural interests. All of which raises the sobering possibility that the quest for religious influence over public policy can lead to its own unintended, if neverthless self-inflicted, form of exile.