Political Xenophobia: Back and Stronger Than Ever

A History of America's Nativist Tendencies
By Stephen Mattson 2-24-2016
Image from 1856 work: Americanism versus Romanism. Via wikimedia commons.

There’s a name for xenophobic-motivated politics: nativism. Oxford Dictionaries defines nativism as: 1) The policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants, and 2) A return to or emphasis on traditional or local customs, in opposition to outside influences.

Many political movements throughout America’s history have been inspired by such sentiments, but probably none was as prolific as the ‘Know-Nothing Movement’ from which the term ‘nativism’ became popularized. Called the Know-Nothings, supporters were supposed to say they “knew nothing” about their intentions when asked about their political party and ideas.

But as a political doctrine they emphasized the fear of all things foreign or culturally different, and attacked anything beyond what they considered “traditional norms.” The overall sentiment of disliking anything foreign — and using it as a political platform — became known as nativism.

The ‘Know-Nothing Movement’ was influential in the 1840-50s and was fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric. With Irish-Catholics — along with other immigrants — streaming into the U.S. and fleeing the desperate conditions caused by the Potato Famine, many blamed these newcomers for low employment rates, crime, and even feared that the Catholics were a threat to national security simply because they are loyal to the pope.

The nativists demanded that people new to America be required to wait decades before being allowed to vote, and insisted that only native-born individuals from the United States could hold any governmental office.

These policies along with other radical restrictions and hateful sentiments weren’t just words — they were often associated with bullying tactics and violence. In 1844, the city of Philadelphia was the central location of nativist sentiment, which led to nativists attacking and burning down Catholic homes, communities, and churches. Much of it was committed in the name of God, under the guise of religious faith and upholding spiritual morality.

It's the reason many “Christians” are drawn to political xenophobia — because it legalizes their innermost sin, making it acceptable in their own eyes to hate, adhere to racist policies, and succumb to biases.

It’s a deception that uses the tools of governmental authority to legitimize evil.

Although historical nativists gained some political power, they never won the American presidency, and ultimately the ‘Know-Nothing Party’ was seen for what it was: fear-mongering bigotry.

Today it’s hard to even imagine that Americans once despised Irish-Catholics, especially since we’re less than a month away from celebrating St. Patrick’s Day — where every American gleefully wears green and boastfully claims that, yes indeed, they are in fact part Irish.

It’s easy to pretend that nativism is an idea exclusively held by a small, undereducated population, but political xenophobia doesn’t restrict itself to just one particular demographic group. It was only a few decades after the Know-Nothings failed to gain the presidency, in 1894, that a group of Harvard grads successfully limited immigration and revived nativist sentiment by creating the Immigration Restriction League, which was built on the popular assumption that immigrants were the cause of many of society’s common woes such as overcrowding, crime, and labor-related disputes.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Because it’s 2016, and in the United States of America — a country where 99 percent of the population can directly trace their heritage back to either an immigrant, slave, or refugee — the political vitriol of nativism is back and stronger than ever.

From deporting immigrants, promising to build walls around our borders, and restricting incoming refugees — being anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-foreigner is now marketed by numerous politicians as being pro-America, and seen by many (even some Christians) as a pseudo form of patriotism.

It’s not.

And for those who think this it’s just “talk” and “campaign hyperbole,” real families (tens of thousands of people each year) are currently being separated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and consequently held in jail-esque deportation centers before being forcibly sent back to poverty-stricken and extremely dangerous conditions.

And if nativism continues to grow, it’s very feasible that newly elected officials could pass legislation banning not only immigrants, but various types of people — based on their race, creed, color, and religion. Such an atrocity occurred in 1882, when the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted immigration specifically based on a person’s particular ethnicity.

And in 1944 our country forcibly incarcerated our own citizens when nativism-based fears caused an entire nation to turn on their fellow citizens and forced anyone with Japanese ancestry into internment camps.

So when people talk about banning Muslims — or any other people group — from entering the United States, it’s not a trivial matter, because not only could restrictions happen solely based on a person’s race and religion (and an array of other attributes), but many horrifying human rights violations could easily occur given the right set of socio-political circumstances. It’s already happened in our country, and it could happen again.

As followers of Jesus, Christians should know better than to fall for the political lies of nativism — because every single individual is a person loved by God and created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27; 9:6).

Additionally, Jesus went out of his way to care for those who were “foreigners” and “different.” He advocated for the Gentiles, the Jews, the oppressed, the poor, the sick, the diseased, the prostitutes, the politically alienated, the social outcasts, and those who were seen as “threats” — these are the people Jesus particularly went out of his way to defend, accept, and love (Matt. 25:35-40; Luke 14:13; Matt. 11:5; Luke 7:37-50; John 8:2-11; Acts 15:7-9; Col 3: 11).

For Christians, nativism — and any type of xenophobia — should be seen for what it is: evil. Because even if you believe that a particular group of people is intent on ruining your nation’s values, taking your job, and even hurting your family, Jesus still commands that you love your enemies.

In Luke 6:27 Jesus says, “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” and in Matt. 5:44 he states “ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

So even if nativism were somehow supported by logical evidence, data, and reasoned theories (it’s not) — it would still be considered anti-Jesus, because the love of God isn’t logical, data-driven, or reasoned. In fact, the love of Jesus is unbelievably absurd in the best way possible — completely full of grace, mercy, generosity, acceptance, and forgiveness.

The power of Christ’s death and resurrection exposes even the most coherent and compelling arguments in defense of nativism as being xenophobic sin. So as Christians — people who are no longer foreigners and aliens (Eph. 2:19) — we must passionately promote the God-given worth of all human beings throughout the world whether they’re American, whether it’s politically beneficial for us, and whether it’s safe, because thankfully, for the sake of all mankind, Jesus wasn’t a nativist.

Jesus wasn’t exclusive, nationalistic, prejudiced, ethnocentric, or xenophobic. Jesus accepted everyone, sacrificially served everyone, and loved everyone. Can we do the same?

Stephen Mattson is a writer who currently resides in the Twin Cities, Minn. You can follow him on Twitter (@mikta) or on Facebook.

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