It was a time of great economic uncertainty and political turmoil. The next election promised to move the nation closer to a terrible precipice, and the native-born were frustrated by their diminished status, one accelerated by an apparently endless flow of newcomers who seemed destined to dislocate and replace them. Cries of “America for Americans” rose across the anxious republic.
Was that 1856 or last week? It appears it has been both. Responding to the “dog whistling”—or worse—of politicians, the xenophobia and neo-nativism of the so-called alt-right, thinly veiled as a political position, has emerged from the murk of the internet. The alt-right’s message has found an especially receptive audience among white males frustrated by reduced economic prospects and a perception of a loosening hold of white hegemony in U.S. society.
Voices from within this fringe sometimes bluntly promote hate and a juvenile, pseudo-scientific delusion of the superiority of European culture, denigrating others as polluters or diminishers of its greatness. But the Hispanic presence in the New World is old and deep enough to rival any Anglo claim to cultural legitimacy on these shores. Of course it is not as old as that of the “Americans” regularly ignored by such competing claims of authenticity: the indigenous people whose cruel eradication made room for everyone else in the first place.
The reek of this creed of tribalism and intolerance should be instantly recognizable to modern-day Catholics. To the Know-Nothings, Irish Catholics came to America merely as paupers or felons in service to a Romish plot to undermine American liberty through the ballot box. Recycling 19th-century nativist headlines would require little more than the adjustment of a few words: Replace Irish with Mexican, Catholic with Muslim.
In the 19th century the Catholic Church was considered the nexus of the disorder that the nativists believed imperiled a near-deified Republic. The contemporary church remains suspect to neo-nativists because of its presumed self-interest in facilitating the acceptance of Latinos into the United States. But the Gospel demands that the church welcome and support modern immigrants; no dark conspiracy is required.
Since its founding, the United States has been vulnerable to such spasms of nativism; the anger and hate on display in this election season may mercifully prove to be no more than one of these temporary lapses of civic sanity. But even if the present episode proves transient, gathering the moral and cultural resources to confront the forces that propel it will only become more important. The United States will continue to be a nation of immigrants.
Donald Trump is a native of perhaps the most multicultural metropolis in the nation, a low-crime, high-energy city that has consistently drawn new economic and creative vigor from its ever-evolving immigrant communities. This is an irony that appears lost on the candidate’s alt-right enthusiasts. While they pursue a Mexican bogeyman of their own creation, in the real world there are now more immigrants arriving in the United States from India and China, a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future.
In a few decades the percentage of the U.S. population born elsewhere may match or exceed 19th-century highs. Descendants of earlier immigrant groups now rightly celebrate their forebears’ verve as a vital expression of their own American heritage. They should actively support today's immigrants as they strive to establish the same communal and economic footholds in a new land. And because of their historical experience in the United States, Catholics have a special responsibility of solidarity and hospitality toward new immigrant groups.
As it absorbs these latest waves of immigrants, the United States of the mid-21st century will be a different place from the nation that assimilated white European immigrants over the last two centuries. That inevitability may contribute to the anxiety experienced among some U.S.-born Americans of European descent, especially if the current job insecurity, income inequality and stagnating social mobility persist. A dramatic transition will be underway. Will the nation be psychically prepared for it, or will it still be revisiting 19th-century battles over cultural and political turf?
Few American institutions can claim the connections with European-descent, Latino and Asian communities that the Catholic Church enjoys. Given its culture of community, theology of unity and practical experience with diversity, the church has a unique capacity to assist in this transition, assuaging anxieties even as it assists newcomers. It can begin that work now by offering a clear, scriptural and consistent condemnation of today’s echoes of nativism, wherever they originate.
CORRECTION, Sept. 22: Due to a production error, a version of this editorial was posted to the web on Sept. 20 that did not match the version that appears in the print edition. This version now matches the print edition.