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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Warning, Contains Politics and Religion

And Also Race

Teachers across American should thank Senator McCain. His interview this Saturday opens up so many great doors for classroom discussion — and also, as I have often argued here, shows why history matters. As you all surely know, he said that "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian Nation." He went on to qualify that by saying, of course we have welcomed immigrants of every stripe. But those newcomers, he insists, "know they are in a national founded on Christian principles." Now that is a perfect job for historians — adults, high school students, 8th graders, 5th graders — to take that historical statement and see if it is so.

Fortunately, the founding fathers debated precisely the issue he raised — they knew America would be populated by immigrants, what qualifications should these newcomers have to meet? The result was the first naturalization law, passed in 1790. In Congress, several members raised the matter of religion. They felt that only Christians should be eligible to be Americans. But of course to them, Christian meant Protestant. Catholics were certainly not Christian. In fact, they were the Muslims of their day — viewed by some Americans as devious, given to violence, under the control of a scheming, dark fanatic (the Pope). The other group whose potential for being American Congress had to weigh were Jews — also, clearly not Christian. But, in its wisdom, Congress decided that even Catholics and Jews could become citizens (which was different from England, where they could not vote or hold office).

The 1790 Naturalization Law makes it very clear which foreign born nationals can can become American citizens: "free white persons." OK friends, want to know when that law was changed? Drum roll…..1952. 

So any teacher in America can take McCain’s historical gaffe, look back to trace out the story of America as a secular nation, but then also train students’ eyes on our long history of race and racial prejudice.
Knowing what actually took place in 1790 opens up so many great questions. Why did America pick race and not religion? Why could we be more tolerant of religious diversity than any place in the world (Holland being the one possible exception), while enforcing race-based slavery? How are the two linked? 

History mattters. As I mentioned the other day with the idea of a Monroe Doctrine display, how about a library display with something on immigrants, race, founding fathers, McCain’s interview printed out, and then a set of questions — what makes an American an American?