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Like Laura de Jong yesterday, I’m too rocked by this week’s Christian Reformed Synod to speak to it. Maybe next time. But for now, a piece of American history that bears more than a little resemblance…

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Today’s the first day of summer, but we shouldn’t put spring 2024 to bed without marking the centennial of one of the most telling pieces of legislation to have passed Congress in the twentieth century. “Telling” as consequential and, especially today, “telling” as revelatory. 

The bill was the Immigration Act of 1924, colloquially named after its sponsors, Congressman Albert Johnson (R-WA) and Senator David Reed (R-PA). You can google the details or read a good summary of the bill by Jay Green, a historian at Covenant College, whose post brought the anniversary to my attention.  The header photo above is the headline from the Fiery Cross, the Ku Klux Klan newspaper, April 25, 1924.

Unwashed and Undeserving 1924

1921 political cartoon (Library of Congress)

In a nutshell, the Johnson-Reed Act accomplished four things. It cut off Asian immigration entirely (except from the Philippines, then an American colony). It radically reduced immigration to 165,000 per annum, about one-sixth the average of 1,000,000 new arrivals who poured in every year from the turn of the century to the outbreak of World War I. It then allotted those slots by a quota system geared to the 1890 census, heavily favoring northern- and western-European newcomers over those from southern and eastern Europe. (The Italian influx, for instance, was reduced from over 200,000 to 4,000 a year.) And it established the U.S. Border Patrol and for the first time required applicants to arrive with immigration visas in hand. 

The presenting causes of the bill—which passed by overwhelming margins in both houses of Congress and from both parties—were race and fear of recession. The U.S. economy’s exit from World War I had been choppy indeed, and although the famous 1920s boom was well underway by 1924, the memory of the postwar recession and fear of labor competition led the country’s largest union, the American Federation of Labor, to support the measure. 

Even more enthusiastic was the Ku Klux Klan, for the racism behind Johnson-Reed was open and adamant. Johnson himself was an outspoken eugenicist, and the theory and (cooked) data behind the Act had been cultivated by Ivy League scholars as well as small-town soap-boxers since the 1890s. It was high time to stop the “mongrelization” of America’s proud Anglo-Saxon race, they cried. Time to staunch the “alien blood” being brought in by “races” (namely Slavs and Jews and “Mediterraneans”) at once cowardly and violent, inferior and threatening. Time to cut off the sorts of people who were born criminals, incapable of education, morally primitive, lacking either sympathy or qualification for American liberty.   

Anti-Asian sentiment had been ensconced already in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the informal anti-Japanese “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of 1907. World War I with its crusades against foreigners, radicals, and dissenters added new measures to the mix. Johnson-Reed tied it all up in one package and stamped it on American society for the next forty years, until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 reopened the doors.

Unwashed and Undeserving 2024 

Donald Trump wants to slam them shut again. He inaugurated his 2016 campaign with a racist rant against supposed raping hordes of Mexican lowlifes pouring across the southern border, and he continues today with charges that illegal immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”  Yet, being himself the son of an immigrant mother and the spouse of two immigrant women, his subconscious needs to draw distinctions, and they are quite like the quota system of 1924. There are good “Nordic” countries of the lily white whose children are welcome here, and there are “sh*thole countries” of the black and brown who should be turned away.   

The key issue here is not Donald Trump’s potty-mouth but why so many Americans agree with him. Not just the WASPs of 1924, either. Polls seem to indicate that some Hispanic Americans wouldn’t mind having the door shut on their cousins. To assume inter-, even intra-, group solidarity is to miss a recurrent pattern in American history: newcomers can be a profound embarrassment to group members who have just established their bona fides in the host country. Thus it was German-descended Jews in America whose denigrations of their Eastern-European co-religionists turned into standard antisemitic slurs. Closer to home, the Dutch-immigrant family I’ve had the good fortune to marry into caught plenty of condescension from the goody-goody Christian Reformed of Holland, Michigan upon arriving in the late-1950s. It was the big Irish family down the block that was friendly.

White-washing History

Then there’s ignorance, or the willful forgetting, of history. It is FOX-News descendants of Irish immigrants, once deemed the death of America, who pioneered and mainstreamed the current right-wing mania. They should know better. More forgivable but much more numerous are people whose last exposure to American history came in an early-hour class sophomore year in high school. Thus when my wife once posted a charming picture of her family as new immigrants along with a heartfelt tribute to her parents’ courage, a niece riposted yes, but those were hardworking people unlike the criminal scum arriving today. This from a woman whose husband’s surname has sixteen letters, three of them vowels—that is, a grandchild of exactly the “mongrels” targeted by Johnson-Reed. 

Holding pens in the Great Hall at Ellis Island. These immigrants have passed the first “mental inspection.” (New York Public Library)

It’s not just status anxiety or historical ignorance at work, however. I think scapegoating is going on, the yearning for a target to blame, for someone to bear away the real worries of our parlous times. The syndrome was obviously at work in 1924 and for good reason. Disappointments over a failed war. Resentment and fear over the government’s draconian measures during that war. A quickly repressed memory of the worst pandemic of the century. Four ancient empires toppled abroad, Victorian mores eroding at home, the great prosperity of Wall Street leaving rural America behind. Who was at fault? Where was relief? Ahh, drive the unclean ones from the gates of the city and we shall be healed. 

Fathoming the Unfathomable

The parallels to our own recent accumulation of traumas leap out. Failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the blown promise of Savior America. Another pandemic and the draconian government interventions it called forth. A rocky post-COVID economy. Ozzie & Harriet gone over to Harry & Barry. Obscene inequality translated, with some sleight of hand, into cities scorning the countryside. Easy again to blame the outsider and try to wash their putative pollution out of the system.  

1923 cartoon in the Fiery Cross (KKK newspaper)

Some of our recent traumas have been fully aired—indeed, beaten to death—among the commentariat, but some not. We have not come close, I think, to reckoning with the effects of COVID—medical, economic, political, and especially social-psychological. All parties Left and Right agree that it’s time to move on. Yet the deep fear, a proper fear, lingers on unbeknownst to ourselves, individually and collectively. How do we fathom something that, for all the complicity of our human systems therewith, remains (choose one) an act of nature, the fickle finger of fate, the mysterious will of God?

Repressed or ignored, the question is too haunting, too scary to deal with. At least for Wall Street and Main Street, for Capitol Hill and Silicon Valley. It does seem made to order for churches, however. Rene Girard famously theorized that the death of Christ could put an end to scapegoating. Can Christians today rise above the tumult and the shouting to name our fear, to own our blame-placing, and to carve out a channel for grace? 

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

9 Comments

  • Pat says:

    Eye-opening! Thank you

  • RZ says:

    It is always fascinating to me how historical narratives of a certain era carry over to another era and become institutionalized and expanded, whether relevant or not. Why do we need to study history? It might not mesh with our agenda.
    My second observation is the pure selfishness (sin) exhibited by once -immigrants who now have their privileged position and refuse to share it.
    My third observation is the mindless adoption of these attitudes by claimed Christians. I find no biblical justification for this intentionally false immigration narrative.
    And that reminds me of one more observation. Research tells us that people vote, first of all, according to which candidate/ party gives them the best chance of advancing their wealth and lifestyle Evangelicals actually cite this reason more frequently than others. Again, a biblical justification, please!
    Thanks for the interesting and compelling history lesson.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    A deep fear, a proper fear of Covid, but also the pending environmental collapse, and the two fears might related according to some–species out of place. Like the animals we are, our bodies tell us we are in danger, but our rational brain cannot figure out where the signal is coming from or what exactly is the danger.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thank you so much.
    As always so excellent.

  • Nancy says:

    Thanks for the fascinating history lesson, Jim. Indeed nearly all of us readers are here as the result of brave forebears who found their way to the U.S. or Canada

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    A couple years ago, at the RCA General Synod in Pella, when so many of our congregations were seceding, a native Iowan told me that, just based on lawn signs, he could make a strong correlation between political loyalties and secessions. I imagine the same could have been said about Michigan. About other states, I don’t know. So I’m wondering whether the inverse might prove true for CRCNA congregations being forced to disaffiliate. How that would work out in Canada, I can only guess. I’m also wondering, at least for the States, whether this same Iowan was right in saying that the church struggles were basically the ecclesiastical symptoms of political struggles.

  • RZ says:

    Are not secessions, chosen or imposed, another way of saying I will have my own way at all costs? I am afraid it goes way beyond Iowa and West Mixhigan.

  • J. Groen says:

    The purge/purify pathway is so well-worn and powerful. Fear- or shame-based longing for that “real rain that will come and wash all the scum off the streets” seems like such a godly and patriotic longing, and maybe it once was God’s way of envisioning a better future for the land and its inhabitants. Thanks for mentioning Girard’s idea of the scapegoat pressure release valve. If we followers of Christ can keep digesting the news that Jesus purified the whole camp not by modeling activation of one of the available group-purge mechanisms, but by absorbing and embodying defilement (through speech, touch, mixed-company dining) and allowing himself to become a political and religious Public Purge Object #1, we might stumble into that channel already carved out.

  • Dave Stravers says:

    Thanks for this great reminder. 100 years is not that long. Fear is never a healthy motivater, whether for immigration policy or pandemic response. Obeying Jesus, we believers are not afraid.

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