Reinhold Niebuhr, with his usual gift of mixing irony with political insight, once observed that he avoided reading political history because of the strained Manichean nature of the scholarship produced by the likes of presidential historians. Who would have guessed, he dryly observed, that President Warren G. Harding (of Teapot Dome fame) had actually fought with the Armies of the Lamb, as opposed to the Armies of the Beast? Who knew? But of course Niebuhr’s throw-off line about political history was itself richly ironic, as Niebuhr himself helped to construct one of the most powerful—and scary—Manichean scenarios of the last millennium with his “nuclear umbrella” arguments at the beginning of the Cold War.
Niebuhr would have changed his mind about both political history and its Manichean impulses had he the opportunity to read the scholarship of the presidential historian Lawrence McAndrews. One of the many strengths of McAndrews’s scholarly career to date has been his keen understanding that Catholic bishops and U.S. presidents defy easy categorization into lambs and beasts, sheep and goats or any other theological (or barnyard) set of tropes. While conservative Republicans (many of them Catholics) laud the Catholic hierarchy for their efforts on behalf of federal aid for Catholic schools and their firm opposition to federal funding for abortions, liberal Democrats (many of them also Catholics) praise those very same bishops for their opposition to large defense budgets and for their fervent advocacy of generous federal expenditures for social programs for the poor, undocumented workers and single parent families. And all the while, the Catholic faithful—that 99 percent of the church without whom, as Cardinal Newman once wryly observed, the institution would look pretty silly—seem to function as a theological swing vote, oftentimes (depending on one’s viewpoint) voting like sheep and goats simultaneously. Yet again, who knew?
Refuge in the Lord—an excellent and deft account of the policy debates about immigration reform between the American Catholic hierarchy and U.S. presidents between 1981 and 2013—stands in a line of fine studies produced by McAndrews. Previous works include excellent studies of the interaction of U.S. bishops and presidents on American education policy and on issues of social justice. It was the very complexity of the narratives in these previous works—their avoidance of easy answers and set formulae—that gained the readers’ attention (and then their trust).
McAndrews has produced yet another important work here. His thesis is simple: On issues of immigration between 1981 and 2013, American presidents and Catholic leaders often found important areas of agreement and cooperation. But the rigidity and inability to understand how to play the political game on the part of Catholics on both the left and the right during those 32 years led to missed opportunities for those on the margins of U.S. society. It was, then, the very religious passion on the part of Catholic leaders across the ideological spectrum that allowed important immigration problems to fester, or even to get worse.
From McAndrews’s standpoint, American bishops and other Catholic immigration advocates, in pressing for a religiously fueled set of solutions to the problems of current U.S. immigration law, have regularly impeded sensible accommodations in the political realm. As the author baldy puts it, significant immigration reform between 1981 and 2013 failed at least as much because of the naïve advocacy strategies on the part of American Catholics as because of the political machinations of U.S. presidents and Congressional leaders.
A classic instance of this conundrum might be found in a debate between the U.S. bishops and members of the Reagan administration during the second half of 1983. In a meeting with representatives of the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America in April 1983, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago (then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) informed the task force that he wholeheartedly condemned the Reagan administration’s Central American policies and had urged an end to the then-current practice of deporting all Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees from the United States. That Chicago task force was a prominent link in the “sanctuary” movement—a nationwide network of interdenominational and interreligious groups that offered shelter, food and clothing to undocumented refugees in defiance of Immigration and Naturalization Service guidelines on immigration. But while denouncing the Reagan administration’s deportation policies, Bernardin also repudiated the sanctuary movement itself, both because it put Catholic pastors in a very difficult situation (urging them to break federal laws about harboring illegal persons on Catholic church property) and because the movement in fact further endangered the very refugees it purported to help, making any “regularization” of their legal status in the United States even more remote by making them into criminals in the eyes of the I.N.S.
However internally consistent Bernardin’s position was (and there is much to praise in his morally complex position on the role of the sanctuary movement), it genuinely confused the Chicago task force. They responded to Bernardin’s visit with a long (and quite heated) letter: “In our April meeting you agreed that there have been and are circumstances that not only justify but necessitate that we disobey an unjust law in order to remain faithful to God.... The slaughter of about 100,000 human beings and uprooting of more than a million others from their homes by U.S.-supported regimes in Central America in the past five years” appeared to them, at least, as fulfilling precisely the circumstances that Bernardin had outlined as both necessitating and justifying civil disobedience to federal authorities.
Bernardin’s complex moral position took another turn (this time confusing the Reagan administration) in December of the same year during which Bernardin had confused the Chicago Religious Task Force. At a Mass commemorating the third anniversary of the murder of four American Catholic church women in El Salvador, Bernardin strongly denounced the Reagan administration’s military support of what he considered a corrupt political regime in power there. This support of military violence was deeply immoral and illogical. The administration’s flawed policy, he announced, “will not end the violence; it will not restore order and peace.” The American bishops, he announced, deplored this foreign policy as morally repugnant and deeply flawed. Reagan himself considered the Chicago archbishop’s speech at the anniversary Mass so vitriolic that he dispatched his Catholic associate director for public liaison (Robert Reilly) to lecture the cardinal on the administration’s objectives in Central America. As McAndrews dryly observes: “Cardinal Bernardin was not a receptive student.”
McAndrews does a fine job recounting the complex nature of the conversation between Catholic bishops like Bernardin and American presidents like Ronald Reagan. The levels of complexity involved in these conversations about immigration (and the sheer variety of conversation partners involved) makes McAndrews’s clear narrative all the more impressive and compelling. But whatever the levels of complexity that inform the story, the author’s thesis is actually quite simple: However grounded in the Catholic social tradition the responses of Catholic bishops might have been (and there is much to praise in positions like that articulated in Cardinal Bernardin’s stance vis-à-vis the sanctuary movement and the Reagan administration’s policy in Central America), much of the Catholic side of the conversation in these important debates made for extremely bad strategy. Indeed, McAndrews argues that there was an absence of a coherent Catholic political strategy in many of these conversations that affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. As Niebuhr himself put it so well, “Seek simplicity, and distrust it.”