Open Hearts, Closed Doors
Immigration Reform and the Waning of Mainline Protestantism
- ISBN: 9781479803545
- Published By: New York University Press
- Published: June 2021
The nativist impulses of white Protestants in the United States have received substantial scholarly attention in recent years. Researchers in both the social sciences and humanities have published studies about the conservative immigration politics of white evangelicals, whose ideas about race and militaristic masculinity have contributed to the fear that the American nation is vulnerable to a dangerous invasion of immigrants. The anxieties of white evangelicals, these studies suggest, have intensified support for aggressive border policies and drastic reductions in immigration and refugee admissions.
But as the historian Nicholas Pruitt shows in his book Open Hearts, Closed Doors: Immigration Reform and the Waning of Mainline Protestantism, the immigration politics of white Protestants are a bit more complicated than a Trump-era appraisal would suggest. A look at the first half of the 20th century reveals that, yes, some white Protestants championed exclusionary measures in order to protect their racial, cultural, and religious power. However, other white Protestants—especially white mainline Protestants—emerged as pro-immigrant advocates who championed calls for liberal reform.
In his book Pruitt traces the history of how white mainline Protestants engaged in debates about immigration reform between 1924 and 1965, the period of peak immigration restriction in the United States. Moving chronologically through the 20th century, he devotes a chapter to each decade and analyzes how mainline Protestants engaged in both debates about specific immigration legislation and the broader political, geopolitical, and cultural developments that shaped attitudes about immigration, cultural pluralism, and religious pluralism. In writing this history, Pruitt draws on extensive research in the archives of several mainline denominations.
Pruitt argues that throughout the restriction era, white mainline Protestants often advocated for immigration reforms that would bring more cultural diversity to the United States and end the discriminatory immigration quotas established by the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. Though less enthusiastic about religious pluralism—they favored a Christian nation, and preferably a Protestant one—these white mainline Protestants nevertheless supported increased cultural pluralism in a unified Judeo-Christian America.
As Pruitt shows, white mainline Protestants’ support for cultural pluralism and immigration reforms ironically created the conditions for the demographic changes that would ultimately undermine their own power in the United States. “Many mainline Protestant leaders turned to a more liberal immigration policy that welcomed cultural differences, with the understanding that America’s religious identity would remain largely intact,” Pruitt writes. “What they did not realize was that they unwittingly helped pave the way for religious pluralism in the future” (184).
In Open Hearts, Closed Doors, Pruitt makes several interventions of both scholarly and public policy importance. First, he provides a nuanced portrait of Protestant attitudes about immigration policy, and he offers a critical corrective to the common assumption that white mainline Protestants wholeheartedly embraced nativist politics. Some, of course, did. However, as Pruitt shows in exhaustive detail, enthusiasm for both the Social Gospel and home missions meant that white mainline Protestants were often energetically involved in efforts to care for immigrants in their own communities. These activities, in turn, shaped how they engaged in immigration debates. Pruitt thus reveals that nativist Protestants in both the past and the present do not hold a monopoly on Christian views on immigration.
In addition, Pruitt brings together two fields of American history that benefit from being in greater conversation with one another: American immigration history and American church history. Immigration historians tend to discuss religion primarily when they talk about immigrant culture and integration, though much less when they talk about immigration policies and politics. Pruitt helps to address that oversight by highlighting the significance of denominations, churches, and individual religious leaders in efforts to lobby for changes in immigration policy. Pruitt also deserves praise for how he pays attention to the development of important concepts—pluralism and cosmopolitanism, for example—and how they changed over time in the eyes of religious actors responding to a changing world.
More oriented toward American immigration history and American church history, Pruitt engages less in the scholarship in religious studies, but Open Hearts, Closed Doors is nevertheless relevant to religious studies scholars, especially those in American religion. Most notably, Pruitt’s work aligns with the field’s interest in lived religion. By offering a richly detailed account of the activities of congregations engaged in ministering to their immigrant neighbors, Pruitt suggests that what mainline Protestants did was just as important as what they professed. Of particular significance were the personal and political transformations made possible through the direct service projects that grew out of home missions and the Social Gospel. Interactions with immigrants through church outreach changed the hearts and minds of mainline Protestants. “As they encountered diverse cultures and tongues,” Pruitt writes, “white mainline Protestants were forced to reconsider the nativist political positions inherited from earlier generations” (13).
In detailing mainline Protestant’s outreach to immigrant communities, Pruitt also contributes to the scholarship about the diverse and dynamic meaning of pluralism in America. Most usefully, he reveals the diverse and context-specific understandings of pluralism, and he talks about how everyday people put ideals of pluralism into practice.
Open Hearts, Closed Doors makes valuable contributions to the academic literature on immigration, religion, and American history. But perhaps even more significant than its scholarly contributions are its potential interventions in contemporary American life. Pruitt wrote this book during a particularly contentious moment in American immigration history, a time when the United States has witnessed an aggressive attack on laws that welcome immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. This context matters. By highlighting how white mainline Protestants in the past chose to care for the foreign-born and advocate for fair immigration policies, Pruitt offers a gentle lesson to white mainline Protestants in the present—that they, too, can choose to engage compassionately and humanely in the immigration debates of the current day.
Melissa Borja is an assistant professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan.Melissa BorjaDate Of Review:August 16, 2022