September 27, 2011

Michele Bachmann, Immigration, and Religion in the West

by Quincy D. Newell

A little over a year ago, Brandi Denison wrote a great post about the Tea Party and the West, focusing on land and land use. As the race for the Republican presidential nomination heats up, I’d like to revisit and extend some of those ideas. In particular, I’ve been bothered by something Michele Bachmann said in the Republican debate held on September 7 at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

(Photo by Jae C. Hong, AP Photo.)

In a response to a question about what to do about “11.5 million people who are here [in the United States] without documents and with U.S.-born children,” Bachmann said this:

Our immigration law worked beautifully back in the 1950s, up until the early 1960s, when people had to demonstrate that they had money in their pocket, they had no contagious diseases, they weren`t a felon. They had to agree to learn to speak the English language. They had to learn American history and the Constitution. The one thing they had to promise is that they would not become a burden on the American taxpayer.
Bachmann repeated this claim in the next debate on September 12, blaming “liberal members of Congress” for changing the immigration laws and asserting that the way the system worked before was “the American way.”

Alex Wagner of the Huffington Post fact-checked the first statement for MSNBC’s post-debate coverage. Wagner’s analysis?

The rules that Michele Bachmann describes here are actually pretty darn close to exactly what already exists. To become a U.S. citizen, you have to show that you can read, speak and write basic English. You need to have a basic understanding of U.S. history and the form of the U.S. government. You cannot have a criminal record. You have to have filed your income tax return every single year. You must have, quote unquote, ‘good moral character.’ And if you apply for a visa or admission into the country, you`re rejected if you have a significant communicable disease.
I can only hope that all my students were as flabbergasted as I to hear these words emanating from Bachmann’s mouth, and that they were as disappointed as I that Wagner’s fact-checking didn’t go far enough. As many of you, dear readers, will know, the thing that changed in the mid-sixties that had profound consequences on immigration into the United States was not the requirements Bachmann named, but rather the system that had kept many people out for forty years or more. The law was a little thing we like to call the 1965 Immigration Act, but it’s also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 or, after its sponsors, the Hart-Celler Act. (LBJ signed the bill into law on October 3, 1965. Happy Birthday, Hart-Celler!) Although most of the discussion about immigration these days centers on Hispanic immigrants, the Hart-Celler Act affected Asian immigrants most dramatically. It ended the set of laws and agreements that went back as far as the 1880s and continued being enacted into the 1920s, often collectively referred to as the Asian Exclusion Acts. A few bloggers have picked up on this – among the earliest to write about it was Ian Millhiser at The Washington Post also carried an opinion piece on the topic. Nothing I’ve seen, though, works through the religious implications of Bachmann’s statement. That’s what I plan to do here.

First, some background. In 1924, as I mentioned above, Congress passed the Immigration Act of (surprise!) 1924 and the Oriental Exclusion Act. The former used a “national origins” system to limit European immigration. The latter, according to the good folks at Harvard University Library Open Collections Program, “prohibit[ed] most immigration from Asia, including foreign-born wives and the children of American citizens of Chinese ancestry.” In 1929, the National Origins Formula went further, capping immigration at 150,000 and totally barring Asian immigration. Result: in the 1920s, over four million immigrants arrived in the United States. In the following decade, the number was about an eighth of that – a bit over five hundred thousand. Keeping Asians out had the side effect of stunting the growth of Asian religions in the United States. Yes, there were Asians and practitioners of Asian religions in the U.S. after 1924, but their numbers were small. Thus, sociologist Will Herberg could publish an analysis of American religion in 1955 entitled Protestant, Catholic, Jew – and describe most of American religion in three words.

Things started to ease a bit in the wake of World War II, but it wasn’t until 1965 that the national origins system was dismantled. The effect was palpable: in 1965, Asian Americans comprised about half a percent of the total U.S. population. From 1971 to 2002, over seven million people immigrated to the United States from Asian countries. (This nifty table shows how that ranks in terms of continent of origin. Asia ranks second below North America [nearly ten million immigrants] and above Europe [over three million immigrants].) In 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 4.8% of the population of the United States is of Asian descent. In other words, since the 1965 Immigration Act, the proportion of the American population that claims Asian ancestry has increased almost tenfold.

Okay, so that’s the legal and demographic history that Michele Bachmann is referencing in her comments about immigration. The result for American religion was, predictably, a rise in religious diversity in the United States (although, since many immigrants have been Protestants, Catholics, and Jews – or have become part of that “triple melting pot” since immigrating – religious diversity has not kept pace with racial/ethnic diversity). In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life surveyed the American population and found that nearly three-quarters of a percent of American adults identified as Buddhist, almost half a percent identified as Hindu, and just over half a percent identified as Muslim. (These numbers differ slightly from the American Religious Identification Survey, released the same year.) Granted, those are pretty small percentages, but they’re significantly more than even the numbers from 1990, let alone from, say, 1960.

So why does Bachmann single the Hart-Celler Act out for special attention? I think Alex Wagner, fact-checking the statement on MSNBC, was right to describe Bachmann’s remarks as “based more on nostalgia than actual fact.” Bachmann is appealing to a specifically conservative Christian nostalgia – the longing for a lost golden age in America, when everyone was Christian, or at least “Judeo-Christian.” It’s worth noting that the concept of Judeo-Christianity is a twentieth-century idea that really took hold in the years after World War II. Originally a liberal ideal that competed with conservatives’ nativist, Protestant dream of a “Christian America,” the Judeo-Christian ideal became a rallying cry in the late-twentieth century for conservatives who feared the chaos of a pluralist society. (For more on this history, see Kevin M. Schultz’s book Tri-Faith America [Oxford, 2011], reviewed here by Edward J. Blum.) Perhaps someone out there with more Google skills (or more patience) than I will track down a quotation from Bachmann to the effect that she thinks the United States is or ought to be a Christian nation. I haven’t found it. However, much has been made in recent weeks of Bachmann’s (and Rick Perry’s) ties to conservative Christian movements like Christian Reconstructionism. And it’s clear that Bachmann has learned from and been influenced by people who believe that the United States is, or at least used to be and ought to be again, a Christian nation.

As it turns out, the Tea Party agrees, at least according to a 2010 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which found that 55% of Tea Partiers “believe that America has always been and is currently a Christian nation.” For comparison, 42% of the general public and 43% of white evangelical Protestants believe the same thing. So the desire for a Judeo-Christian America fits neatly with the values of Bachmann’s Tea Party supporters. In other words, Bachmann’s appraisal of the Hart-Celler Act as failed policy that is not “the American way” is Tea Party religion driving (implicitly) proposed immigration policy. Although there have been some claims that the Tea Party is not religious, Sarah Posner neatly made the argument that it is over at Religion Dispatches. Echoing the PRRI poll, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has also shown in a 2011 poll that “Tea Party supporters …. are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues [such as abortion and same-sex marriage]. And they draw disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants.” Indeed, some pundits have argued that the Tea Party is just the Religious Right with another name. See, for example, Rachel Maddow (start the clip at about 10:40), or just go straight to the New York Times opinion piece she’s working from, “Crashing the Tea Party,” by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam.

What, I’m sure you’re asking, does this have to do with religion in the American West? Well, first of all, immigration is a particularly live issue in the West. Anyone who has visited Southern California may have noticed signs like this one, which went up in the 1990s:

(Photo by Earnie Grafton, San Diego Union-Tribune.)

 More recently, another Western state, Arizona, has become the focal point for debates over immigration reform.

Immigration has meant that racial/ethnic diversity is quite pronounced in the West. From the U.S. Census:

In the 2010 Census, just over one-third of the U.S. population reported their race and ethnicity as something other than non-Hispanic white alone (i.e. "minority"). This group increased from 86.9 million to 111.9 million between 2000 and 2010, representing a growth of 29 percent over the decade.
Geographically, particularly in the South and West, a number of areas had large proportions of the total population that was minority. Nearly half of the West's population was minority (47 percent), numbering 33.9 million. Among the states, California led the nation with the largest minority population at 22.3 million.
Between 2000 and 2010, Texas joined California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii and New Mexico in having a "majority-minority" population, where more than 50 percent of the population was part of a minority group. Among all states, Nevada's minority population increased at the highest rate, by 78 percent.

Of course, all that racial/ethnic diversity has religious consequences for the West, too. In a really interesting article in Geographies of Religions and Belief Systems (volume 2, issue 1, pp. 3-20) Lisa Marie Jordan analyzed the spatial distribution of religious adherents in the United States, and concluded that “The Pacific Northwest coast, a home to many new, non-Christian immigrant families, shows very high rates of religious diversity” (11). The West is home to lots of different religions: Protestants (of all stripes), Catholics, and Jews, to be sure – but also Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Mormons, Sikhs, many new religious movements, and many other religious traditions that I haven’t named. The West also has some of the highest proportions of “nones” – people who claim no religious affiliation – in the nation. Though it’s not entirely due to the Hart-Celler Act, this diversity is certainly fueled by that change in the immigration laws.

As Sara M. Patterson pointed out in her paper for the Religion in the American West Seminar’s very first session way back in 2008, in religious terms, everyone is a minority in the West. The West has thus become the poster child for a new understanding of American society based on pluralism rather than “Protestant-Catholic-Jew.” That’s not to say, of course, that there haven’t been conflicts: the West has been the place where white American Protestants have perhaps worked the hardest to impose their vision of what it means to be an American. (There has been so much work done on this idea, I will only list a couple more-or-less randomly selected works from a pile of possibilities: Todd M. Kerstetter’s God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land [University of Illinois Press, 2006] and Susan M. Yohn’s Contest of Faiths [Cornell University Press, 1995] are both good places to start.) But the West is also where competing visions of what it means to be an American – and how religion might (or might not) be involved in that endeavor – have emerged most clearly. For example, the children of South Asian immigrants in Southern California discovered that the way to be accepted by their classmates was not to cover up their religious differences, but to embrace them – to become American by becoming Hindu. (See Prema Kurien’s wonderful article “Becoming American by Becoming Hindu” in Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration, ed. R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner [Temple University Press, 1998].)

What changed in 1965 was not what we asked of immigrants – that they speak English and be economically self-supporting, that they know something about the United States and that they not pose a criminal or epidemiological threat to society. We still require all of those things. What changed in 1965 was who we allowed to immigrate. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act into law, he did so saying that the old system, based on national origins – the system Bachmann described as “the American way” – was “un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country.” The Act allowed the United States to become more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse than it ever had been before, and much of this diversity is concentrated in the American West. Before the Hart-Celler Act, Michele Bachmann said, “our immigration law worked beautifully.” Perhaps someone should ask her if she finds religious pluralism attractive.

(Many thanks to Jennifer Schuberth, Susanna Morrill, Sara Patterson, Frieda Knobloch, and Brandi Denison for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this post.)


Joshua Paddison said...

Thanks for this! Does Bachmann realize she's basically calling for the return of Asian exclusion? LBJ's quote (and speech) is interesting. He seems to be making not a plea for religious pluralism but saying that the National Origins Act was un-Christian because it was discriminatory.

Quincy D. Newell said...

Josh, I thought at first that Bachmann maybe didn't realize the implications of her remarks -- but the second time she talked about immigration in a debate she was so clearly referring to Hart Celler ("the immigration system in the United States worked very, very well up until the mid-1960s when liberal members of Congress changed the immigration laws") that it's hard to believe she's not fully aware of what she's talking about. The Washington Post suggested that this is some sort of "code," meant to signify one thing to an in-group (ie Tea Partiers or evangelicals) while going unnoticed by the out-group (ie liberals), much like references to slavery served earlier conservative politicians as a way to talk about abortion without talking about it. That may be true, but it seems to me that waxing nostalgic for the days of Asian exclusion is not exactly the best way to talk about a Christian nation while flying under liberals' radar. (Then again, it took a while for liberals to notice, or at least to start talking about this.)

I also found the LBJ speech interesting, not least because it appeals to ideas -- about the Pilgrims and the Founders and their "faith" -- that seem, these days, to be the almost-exclusive province of conservatives, and it uses those ideas to justify the Hart-Celler Act. (Also, LBJ doesn't mention Asians at all. Fun fact: apparently the people who shepherded the act through congress didn't think Asian immigration was going to change much. Boy were they wrong!)