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Open Hearts, Closed Doors: Immigration and the Eclipse of Protestant Cultural Authority in America

At the outset of the twentieth century, white Protestants still held a tight grasp on the cultural and social resources of the United States. Public school classrooms began each day with largely Protestant prayers, local stores closed on Sundays, national political leaders touted the centrality of Christian ideals to American identity, and an expanding overseas empire aimed to extend the reach of Christian civilization. For many Americans, such religious aspirations blended seamlessly with American cultural norms of personal enterprise, a shared English language, and democratic principles. This boldly Protestant orientation would not last.

As the twenty-first century unfolds, Protestants still hold a disproportionate amount of power, but schools no longer expect prayer from their students and it is now common to see a mosque or Hindu temple along the highway. Even long-standing Protestant denominations have surrendered much of their power to newer evangelical groups and coalitions. While Protestants still claimed a majority of seats in the 116th U.S. Congress (convened in 2019), the 163 Catholic, 34 Jewish, ten Mormon, five Orthodox Christian, three Hindu, three Muslim, and two Buddhist members of Congress showed a more apparent diversity. Scholars and pundits alike acknowledge the role more recent immigration has played in redefining America’s cultural and social identity. Robert P. Jones’s 2016 book The End of White Christian America examines such trends and draws attention to demographic shifts, both racial and religious, that are occurring in the United States. Twelve years earlier, political theorist Samuel P. Huntington went so far as to lament these same developments in his book Who Are We? No matter how one interprets these changes, the social and cultural landscape of the early twenty-first century United States is much more diverse than it was a century earlier.

This coming change was not evident to the Protestant figures and politicians who gathered at a 1961 consultation to discuss immigration policy. Religious leaders representing most mainline Protestant denominations met with key policymakers in Washington, DC for two days to discuss immigration reform. Attendees believed the nation’s immigration policy during the last four decades had enforced forms of racial discrimination that favored some nationalities over others. These liberal Protestants joined a chorus of voices at the time calling for the dismantling of the national origins system, thus allowing for more diverse groups of people to enter the country. Despite the pushback they would receive from their more conservative constituents, those in attendance were convinced that the nation could maintain a Christian identity while still tolerating the cultural diversity that accompanied immigration. Many in attendance also believed that the Cold War demanded liberal reform in order to distance the United States from the godless totalitarianism practiced in the Soviet Union. The themes of Protestant relief and Cold War concerns all converged in an endorsement the delegates received while at the 1961 conference. “Consultations such as this focus attention upon an issue that is important to both our international standing and our national self-respect,” declared President John F. Kennedy in a statement sent to the gathering. “You who assume the daily burden of guiding the oppressed and the orphaned people of the world to productive and satisfying lives under the banner of freedom deserve our thanks.”

Read entire article at Canopy Forum