Spreading the Faith: Lessons from US History

Writers rarely pay attention to an era of US history that is today more relevant than ever

“At the time of the American Revolution, Catholics made up less than one percent of the nation’s population, but that rose to five percent in 1850, twelve percent in 1890, and seventeen percent by 1906. The modern proportion has usually fluctuated around a quarter.”

 

We hear a lot today about the effects of immigrants on American religion, and the rise of a majority-minority country. I am always surprised that in such discussions, writers rarely pay attention to an era of US history that is today more relevant than ever, namely the mass influx of immigrants in the previous great immigration, between 1880 and 1924. Of course, the analogies are not perfect, but they are richly informative, and they apply to all contemporary faiths and denominations, not just Catholics. (I am adapting the following from a piece I published at aleteia.org. Please also note that my Baylor colleague Tommy Kidd also posted on this same era at another site).

The numbers involved were proportionately even larger than those in recent times, In 2010, 12.9 percent of Americans were foreign born, but that figure was actually lower than at any point in the nation’s history between 1860 and 1924. In 1890, the figure peaked at 14.8 percent, and almost reached that crest again in 1910. And although the vast majority of immigrants in that era were European, many were classified by the standards of the time as non-White.  That label applied to Jews, but also to Italians and southern Europeans, and many east Europeans. Much scientific endeavor in those years was devoted to proving the physical and intellectual gulf that separated those categories from superior White Americans.

Or as Woodrow Wilson notoriously proclaimed in 1902,

Immigrants poured in as before, but…now there came multitudes of men of lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meanest sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence; and they came in numbers which increased from year to year, as if the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population.

Over time, though, peoples and races do indeed become white. I have worked a good deal on American ethnic history, and I am often struck by the potent analogies between the “mainstream” or “old-stock” response to Latinos today and the very similar attitudes to Italians a century ago. Look, for instance, at popular culture images of Italian-Americans in the 1920s and 1930s, which are often demeaning or condescending even when they are trying not to be outright hostile. A sizable body of “mainstream” opinion back then held that Italians could never be truly American, or truly white.

Today … well, go into a meeting place or social gathering in South Philadelphia and tell the Italian-Americans there assembled that they are not truly American, and certainly not white. If you like, throw in sordid and hapless. I will pay good money to observe the ensuing conversation.

Such historical analogies apply especially in the religious dimension. If you want to understand the appeal of churches in an era of migration, look back at American cities in the early twentieth century. Look at how people clung to those institutions to find community and comfort in a hostile world, and often how they tried to reconstruct their lost home societies in miniature. And look at the phenomenal growth of the Roman Catholic church above all on the strength of successive waves of migrants, from the Irish of the Famine years onward. At the time of the American Revolution, Catholics made up less than one percent of the nation’s population, but that rose to five percent in 1850, twelve percent in 1890, and seventeen percent by 1906. The modern proportion has usually fluctuated around a quarter.

Migration, then, can fundamentally change the religious or denominational balance of a society.

Beyond noting the critical importance of religious institutions then and now, we also trace other parallels in the practical issues raised by mass immigration. What, for instance, is or should be the relationship between old and new ethnic groups in particular denominations? In that earlier era, we see endemic clashes and debates between old and new believers — usually civil, sometimes not, and sometimes so grave as to detonate schisms and separations.

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