When Religion Holds Hands with Politics, it Ends Up on the Wrong Side of History

Today the church remembers and mourns Executive Order 9066.

By executive order of President Roosevelt, Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were United States Citizens, were forced into internment camps on this day, February 19th, in 1942.

It is estimated that, at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 112,000 of the 127,000 Japanese Americans lived on the West Coast. Of those American residents, around 80,000 of them were second and third generation, never having spent any time in Japan.

Forced from their homes, schools, and places of business, anyone with Japanese heritage (in California they exacted it to 1/16th of Japanese lineage) were placed in regional concentration camps. What was trumpeted as a “security measure” in case any of them were sympathetic to Japan, was actually legalized racism. Such measures were not taken for German or Italian residents in the United States, many more of whom were not legalized citizens (though a small number of people of German and Italian heritage were also forced into these camps on the West Coast).

By this order all people of Japanese heritage were forced to leave Alaska, as well as many areas of California, Oregon, Arizona, and Washington State.

In 1944 a legal challenge to 9066 came to a close, and though it’s constitutionality was upheld on technicalities (another instance where the small print delayed justice, and it didn’t even opine on the concentration camps themselves), it was affirmed by the court that “loyal citizens cannot be detained.”

The day before the results of this legal ruling would be made public, 9066 was rescinded, an implicit admission of purposeful wrongdoing in my book.

In 1980 Japanese Americans lobbied forcefully to have Executive Order 9066 investigated. President Carter initiated the investigation and in 1983 the commission reported that little evidence of disloyalty was found in the Japanese-American community of the day, and that the internment process was blatant racism. In 1988 President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and officially apologized on behalf of the United States government, authorizing monetary settlements for everyone still alive who had been held in a camp.

In other words: the US government gave reparations. It’s not unprecedented…

The larger question for me, though, is: where was the church?

Why wasn’t the church lobbying hard to have these fellow sisters and brothers released?

Additional studies have shown that religious prejudice also played a part in the justification for these internment camps. In a largely “Christian America,” these often Buddhist, Taoist, and Shinto practicing Japanese residents were seen with much more suspicion (which is probably why the German and Italian residents, also largely thought to be “Christian,” were not rounded up).

The church failed to protect a vulnerable population. The church held hands with the politics of the day in ignoring at best, and aiding at worst, the abuse of other humans.

Today we remember, mourn, and are honest about this failure.

This commemoration is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that when religion holds hands with politics we end up on the wrong side of history.

-historical bits gleaned from Clairborne and Wilson-Hartgrove’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals as well as common source news

-for more information on how religion played a part in this stretch of history, visit: https://religionandpolitics.org/2019/07/23/first-they-came-for-the-buddhists-faith-citizenship-and-the-internment-camps/

-art by Norman Takeuchi with his piece, “Interior Revisited,” stated that “Interior and ‘internment’ are synonymous for many of Japanese-American lineage,” because they moved people from the coast to “the interior” of the United States for these camps.

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