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Reviewed by:
  • Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II by Anne M. Blankenship
  • William Issel
Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II. By Anne M. Blankenship. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 296pp. $29.95.

When in early 1942 the United States Army implemented President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 by assembling and then relocating West Coast residents of Japanese descent (Nikkei), it uprooted the 20 to 25 percent who were Christian along with the majority who were nominally Buddhist. In Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II, Anne M. Blankenship tells for the first time the interrelated stories of the wartime adjustments forged by the Protestant and Catholic missionary institutions that ministered to almost all of the Nikkei Christian population and the religious cultures that the Christian Nikkei created in the internment camps. She is emphatic in her insistence that neither [End Page 93] of these stories can be reduced to simple morality tales. She is also empathetic in her treatment of both the War Relocation Agency (WRA) charged with organizing and overseeing the camps, and her treatment of the white administrators of the Christian missionary institutions in the camps. In both cases, they “cannot be judged simply as doing right or wrong . . . [because even] their more questionable actions were intended, if misguidedly, to shape a more just and peaceful world” (5). Blankenship details how, contrary to previous commentary, the government “was not colluding with Christian leaders to convert the Japanese American population or otherwise interfere with their religious liberty” and “the pastoral needs of most incarcerated Christians seem to have been met” (134, 136).

Readers of this journal will be interested in how Blankenship distinguishes between the minority Catholic and majority Protestant subjects of her history. She begins in her Introduction, where she explains three ways that the wartime experience of Catholics involved in the internment differed from that of Protestants. Catholic priests and nuns were monitored by Maryknoll superiors and the Catholic Church hierarchy but Protestant ministers had relative freedom from such oversight; Catholic personnel insisted upon independence from government agencies and recognized that the government “inadvertently favored Protestantism” (4); Catholics believed that “the world must embrace a Christian worldview with Christian foundations for democracy to establish lasting peace” in contrast to FDR (and many Protestants) who “lauded freedom of religion as the foundation for democracy” (9).

Careful distinctions between the Catholic and the Protestant stories, and among the various Protestant denominations, continue to be highlighted as Blankenship moves from the initial reaction to Pearl Harbor and the issuing of the Executive Order, to the organizing of aid to the relocatees, to “Building Churches behind Barbed Wire,” to the Nikkei’s cultural experience of their Christian faith during their confinement, and to the closing of the camps and the dispersal of the Nikkei to their previous homes or to new residences beyond the West [End Page 94] Coast. Among her more interesting findings, Blankenship points to the limited degree of ecumenism despite the War Relocation Agency’s agenda supporting it, the Catholic commitment to resettling its communicants as quickly as possible, and the robust Catholic objection to the WRA’s Protestant bias and its refusal to build Catholic schools in the camps or to place all Nikkei Catholics in one single camp. Father James Drought, the Maryknoll priest second in command refused to condemn the government’s decision to intern well over 100,000 Nikkei despite the lack of evidence of their threat to national security, but he was forthright in his criticism of implicit anti-Catholicism in the operation of the camps: “To be obedient to the Government is one thing. To be a complacent rabbit for the Protestant organizations is a very different thing” (104).

This book is a welcome addition to World War II Homefront studies, both for its originality and for its thorough grounding in the appropriate public and private archival collections. Some readers will object, as did this reviewer, to Blankenship’s positing as facts assertions that the United States was only “purportedly” fighting against “ideas of racial superiority propagated by fascist regimes...


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pp. 93-95
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