But while churches are currently speaking out against the separation of asylum-seeking families, they have not always stood in defense of family unity in the face of state violence. In the case of Native American families, churches actually worked hand-in-hand with the state to separate children from their parents. Along with other denominations, the Catholic Church — which has objected to the current separations — once played an active role in dividing Native American families, despite the fact that none had committed crimes, much like today’s asylum seekers. Yet after decades of crafting a politics of religion rooted in family values — and expanding the core of the church outside the U.S. and Europe — the church has emerged as a staunch critic of Trump’s immigration and refugee policies.
Following the Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration worked with churches and missionaries to operate schools for Native Americans. They sought to provide venues that would assimilate Indian children into white, Christian society, one component of Grant’s “Peace Policy” for dealing with Native Americans, which he outlined in his first State of the Union message to Congress in 1869.
From the outset, Grant contemplated using Christian missionaries to further his new policy. The Office of Indian Affairs established partnerships with churches and religious organizations to operate the federal government’s Indian schools. Baptists, Catholics, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Mennonites, Methodists, Presbyterians, the Society of Friends and Unitarians all eventually helped run these “contract schools” through the 1870s and 1880s.
Catholics were eager to take advantage of this program, which offered both spiritual and political benefits. American Catholic bishops founded the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, to provide a unified voice in Washington for Catholic interests on reservations and Catholic alternatives to Protestant mission schools. The Bureau worked to convert Native Americans to Catholicism, maintain the faith among those who were already Catholic and shore up the church’s power in the face of perceived assaults against Catholicism by federal officials and Protestant spiritual rivals.
Catholic leaders saw their religion and religious education as a means of saving Indian youth from what Jesuit priest Lawrence Benedict Palladino called “moral and religious barbarism.” To save them from this evil, children had to be completely cut off from their culture — including their families.
The Jesuits and their allies, like Sen. George Vest of Missouri, saw this practice as essential to winning the “‘battle against barbarism.’” As the religious contract schools began to come under assault from Protestants worried about the influence of their Catholic rivals, the alarmed Jesuits reiterated the crucial import of the schools — and of their 24-hour per day nature. Palladino quoted Vest approvingly when the senator argued that “‘[i]t is utterly impossible…to educate an Indian if you let him go back to his family each day.” Returning native children to their families, reformers worried, would disrupt the process of assimilation.
As the families themselves vehemently objected to this dubious theory, Palladino stressed that the home of a Native American was “a complex of positively uncivilizing forces.” Benedictine priest Martin Marty complained in 1889 that placing Indian children in mission schools would be useless if they were “permitted at frequent intervals to return to their rude family circles in which existing evils have not been remedied.” They “must be kept at school uninterruptedly,” Marty argued, “until, by marriage there, they form new family ties and are prepared to settle down in a truly civilized and Christian form of life.”
Missionaries dismissed complaints lodged by the children’s parents as illegitimate since, in their eyes, the concern of the Catholic Church for the welfare of Native American children was self-evidently stronger than that of the children’s actual families. Vest agreed that “it is simply impossible to do anything for these people, or to advance them one single degree until you take their children away.”
The union of church and political leaders in the decades after the Civil War created both a political and moral justification for breaking apart indigenous families — families that had committed no crimes and whose precarious lives were often at the mercy of distant federal officials expressing concern over the future of national security and national identity.
Religious institutions have long ratified and implemented government policy, especially when it involves families. It is encouraging, then, to see so many religious bodies today expressing alarm over the growing humanitarian crisis along the country’s southern border. While the current crisis shares striking similarities with other forced separations and relocations that have preceded it in U.S. history, the capacity for long-term political change among communities of faith and the urgent, energetic calls by large numbers of Americans for an immediate end to the family separations are hopeful indicators that the moral crimes of the past need not be repeated.