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A Christian conversation on immigration

"A Christian conversation on immigration" Continued...

Some media outlets have sought my views on immigration because they have failed to find many evangelical leaders who are publicly opposing “immigration reform,” even though polls show that evangelicals are among the most skeptical. Conservative religious activism has typically focused on social issues like marriage and abortion, plus religious liberty, issues for which there is some historic consensus within the church. Religious traditionalists, including evangelicals, are typically conservative politically on many other issues but don’t usually organize religiously to address them or speak to them through their churches. Partly this reticence reflects their understanding of the institutional church’s limited political vocation and the Bible’s avoidance of political specifics.

My own organization has no specific stance on immigration legislation. But we are concerned about the political witness of the churches, especially their fidelity to their own vocation, tradition, and constituency. Should church officials dogmatically endorse or oppose political legislation when Christianity offers no unequivocal teaching and when their own constituency is divided or largely differs with their own stance?

Christians operating outside of the institutional church, of course, have wider parameters for political advocacy. Healthy debates require vigorous arguments and even strong polemics. Thoughtful biblical metaphors and citations are not inappropriate. Christians with a vocation for political activism are certainly called to try to enact their faith’s aspirations for a society seeking approximate peace and justice. And yet there should be modesty and caution about what we can claim about God’s will and our ability to achieve God’s plans politically. Contrary to the claims of one prominent religious advocate of “immigration reform,” we cannot easily discern or make claims about “God’s politics.”

Too much of the verbiage from religious activists outspoken on immigration mimics the soaring and unrealistic ostensibly biblical rhetoric of old-time progressive social gospel crusaders for other sweeping political causes. For them, caring about the poor has long meant endorsing an unlimited social welfare state, which, despite lofty intent, often breeds dependency and social decay, while being financially unsustainable. Caring for God’s creation also motivated political schemes that too often expanded state power at the expense of private actors, including the poor, while achieving minimal environmental gains, sometimes even unintentionally creating even greater eco destruction. Religious demands for peacemaking sometimes disarm or paralyze state actors whose vocation is to defend the innocent from aggressors. Some church activism for racial justice has, again with lofty intent, constructed regimes of racial preferences that impair progress and social harmony, often hurting most the intended beneficiaries.

The list goes on. Religious activists who claim the Bible offers direct and indisputable political answers too often extrapolate meanings not there while ignoring the moral hazard and unintended consequences of vast social and political engineering.

So how might prudent Christians approach the immigration issue broadly? My colleague Alan Wisdom has suggested some guiding principles. They include observing the state’s vocation to safeguard borders and to prioritize the welfare of its own people, the church’s calling to offer its ministry to all people, the state’s sometime interest in offering clemency amid the “moral hazard” of rewarding illegality, special recognition for fleeing victims of persecution, honoring family structure while preventing “chain migration,” rejecting both racism and claims that all skeptics of unlimited immigration are racist, and the likelihood that reducing illegal immigration involves an ultimate mix of amnesty, deportation, and encouraged voluntary returns.

Adding to Alan’s principles, I would caution Christians against sweeping “comprehensive” legislative solutions to deep, pervasive political problems. Solutions to most political challenges are more typically incremental. And in our fallen world, reputed solutions, even when implemented relatively effectively, usually create new problems demanding attention. And in this particular debate we should avoid rhetoric that romanticizes immigrants no less than avoiding demonization. Immigrants, legal and illegal, are frail humans like us all, a combination of virtues and vices. Their presence among us brings both gifts and troubles. Some immigrants have included barbarians like the Boston bombers, who were here legally. And our prisons are full of tens of thousands of immigrants, legal and illegal, who have committed heinous crimes. There are also, of course, millions who work hard, are faithful to their families, and love their new country. Likewise, many immigrants, even while working hard, ultimately draw government benefits and services that outstrip their financial contributions, making their presence in America an additional fiscal stress upon our already fraying and probably unsustainable entitlement state. The mass legalization of 11 million illegal immigrants would likely add to that stress.

Here’s another important principle to consider as Christians examine immigration or virtually all other political issues. Providence exploits nearly all sides of a debate for some larger purpose often indiscernible to all of us mortals. God deploys both the wicked and the good as He writes the path of human history. And each of us is actually a combination of wickedness and good, with constantly mixed motives and mixed results even at our best.

Photo of Mark Tooley by James Allen Walker for WORLD

Photo of M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas) courtesy of Denver Seminary


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