Western Novels, The Good Book, and the Modern Immigration Debate

I’m reading a Western at night before bed. It’s called Massacre at Goliad, by Elmer Kelton. The author made a name for himself writing those good ole fashioned easy to read midcentury Westerns. His works are like those of Louis L’amour. The latter wrote almost exclusively pulpy books; Kelton also wrote straightforward popular Western novels for the most part but a few aspire to be substantive works of literature. His 1973 The Time It Never Rained is generally considered one of best Westerns of the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

Massacre at Goliad is set in Mexican Texas in the early 1830s and covers the events of the Texas Revolution. There’s good guys and bad guys; there are shoot-outs, men fighting, men falling in love, men getting revenge etc. It’s a fun book, and like so many Westerns, there is something quintessentially Protestant and even what might be rendered (historically at least) Evangelical about the main protagonist, Josh Buckalew. He hails from western Tennessee, travels to Texas to make a life for himself, and engages in small and sometimes large test to become a more virtuous man. His unnamed but undeniably “Evangelicalish”—probably Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian—piety is that of the Jacksonian frontier. He references “The Good Book” and is guided by its precepts without being a doctrinal or moral pendant.

 Josh and his older brother Thomas arrive in Texas and begin making a home. They’re two bachelors but neither hopes to stay that way; Mexico’s government won’t grant a man a full claim unless he’s married. The brothers are both interested in wives, but Thomas makes it very clear his pool of potential mates is more limited that his younger brother’s. He declares he will never marry a Mexican woman. The Buckalew brothers discover their nearest neighbors are Tejanos—Texans of Mexican descent—and Josh promptly falls in love with the eldest daughter Teresa.

The obvious divide between the two Buckalew brothers is that while Josh doesn’t understand, or even naturally sympathize with his Tejano neighbors, he sees their shared humanity, values their less commercialistic economy and their commitment to leisure, and falls in love with a Mexican woman. His brother Thomas nurses an innate dislike of the Mexican other. Josh can imagine a blended Anglo-Tejano Mexico. Thomas can only see Texas’ potential when it will finally be devoid of what he believes are lazy and troublesome Mexicans.  

What interested me is that Josh is the more religious of the brother. He compares notes on the Good Book with Teresa’s brothers. Kelton paints the culturally Catholic Tejanos as bound to family and tradition; the culturally Protestant Buckalews are wedded to liberty, conscience, and the freedom to choose. This is a reductionistic religious cartoon, of course, but what I admire about Kelton is his ability to think that Texas could be—and eventually became—a blended society. That blending it should be noted was deeply flawed. Anglo-Amerian Texas also brought a renewed legacy of slavery and caste-based racism to Texas, which Kelton noticeably ignores. But Texas in the last half-century has become a relatively prosperous, free, and diverse place.

Kelton’s Texas struck a chord with me. I’ve been reading Jake Meador’s In Search of the Common Good. It’s a good book. Whatever disagreements I have with Jake—my favorite ones are our good-natured ribbings about ecclesiology; he’s Presbyterian; I’m Anglican—I very much sympathize with him on the immigration issue. But I am struggling to reconcile my dovishness on the border with what seems to be a breakdown of any institutional preservation of the American republic’s national boundaries. Axios reported that a “50,000 migrants who crossed the southern border illegally have now been released in the United States without a court date.” They had been instructed to report to ICE officers instead, but only 13% did so. The number startled me. Even in 2021, fifty thousand undocumented people is a huge number. And the thought that only seven or eight thousand followed the already lenient instructions given by the Biden regime is deeply concerning. The current administration, it should be noted, has hypocritically pursued it’s predecessor’s policies regarding separating children from parents. There is, at least in the immigration debate, no one righteous in either party.

I lived in Texas, am the grandson of a Texan, knew undocumented people, and have no interested in creating a gestapo hounding Latinos in the border states. Certainly Josh Buckalew’s Good Book has important things to say about how we in 2021 should treat aliens and strangers among us. But the American Union also has a right to police—forcefully if need be—its own border. So too, of course, did the Mexican republic of the early 1830s. The Mexican government passes laws barring immigration and still Anglo-Americans came. Modern Texas happened because of what was essentially illegal immigration. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is any meaningful case for open borders, etc, and that is not my plea.

The modern right, it seems, has grown more hawkish on borders, and many Christians have become similarly hawkish on the border, often with good reason. Mexico’s drug war has spiraled out of control and cartels operate in the US regularly. Conversely, most immigrants aren’t soldiers in cartels. Still, a country—in this case the American republic—has a right to control its borders, which I believe have nurtured, however imperfectly, the vibrant social diversification and growth of border communities. Alastair Roberts usefully noted that often “resistance to undifferentiated and uncontrolled immigration” is mistaken for “resistance to immigration as such” and “widely attributed to racism.” Resistance to unrestricted often arises, argued Roberts, “not primarily from hatred of persons from different countries themselves, but from recognition that such unmanaged immigration has a track record of eroding communal identities that support people’s belonging.” For all of its imperfections, the American republic did in fact eventually nurture something along the lines of a healthy multiracial and pluralistic community. And it seems like protecting that republic’s boundaries remains in the best interest of those who want to see Josh Buckalew’s optimistic Good Book-based multiracial vision for Texas remain ascendant over his brother’s.


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