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August 12, 2013

Verily, Christians Disagree on Immigration 'Reform'

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Imagine a major Christian leader citing Scripture while writing about marriage, abortion, divorce or sexual abstinence in a commentary published by a mainstream newspaper.

Imagine him encouraging reforms that “reflect biblical principles,” noting that “nations will be judged,” that Christian lawmakers should “let personal faith replace political fear.” Imagine him arguing that a specific reform “will honor our American values, our biblical values and our God.” 

Hard to imagine a mainstream, secular publication featuring such a piece, isn’t it?   A chorus of voices would greet it with calls to keep religion out of politics and not impose personal religious beliefs on others.

Interestingly, though, both The Los Angeles Times and Washington-based Politico each recently published an op-ed by different Christian leaders. The articles argued for comprehensive immigration reform using the words quoted above. 

Ordinarily, believers do and ought to make their case in the public square using language and reasoning accessible to non-believers.  But with immigration, some are conspicuously quoting the Bible in a way rarely seen with respect to issues more out of keeping with secular liberal values. 

Interestingly, those who ordinarily would gnash their teeth at any hint of religious motivation for a viewpoint have been uncharacteristically silent about the effort of certain religious figures to encourage immigration reform. Set aside the apparent double standard under which the mainstream news media suddenly are eager to print policy prescriptions from an explicitly religious perspective.

If one is going to speak from the Bible – an authoritative text for Christians – it is important not to pick and choose but to consider the entirety of the scriptures carefully.  With respect to immigration policy, the Bible doesn’t say much that bears on how the state should treat those who enter or stay illegally.  Christians who point to carefully selected verses to promote amnesty for illegal immigrants should recognize that this is a subject on which biblically faithful Christians can take different views. 

The Bible rarely has a direct impact on public policy. Many of the Old Testament provisions for government were written for theocratic, pre-Messiah Israel, and the New Testament tends to address the church and individual Christians rather than the state. 

For example, Christians are encouraged to “render unto Caesar, things that are Caesar’s” and “to submit to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake.” The Bible’s commands for individuals (turn the other cheek, help the least of these) obviously are different than those regarding the state’s responsibilities.

In Romans chapter 13, the state is said to “bear the sword” to punish evildoers, yet in the previous chapter individual Christians are commanded to “not take vengeance.” Confusing these roles would be bad in both directions, whether an individual’s vigilantism or the state’s extreme pacifism.

In considering how to “help the least of these,” a teaching of Jesus, Christians historically have understood the call for charity to be a duty primarily for the family, the church and individual Christians.  Rulers are called to treat the poor fairly, neither favoring them nor favoring the rich.

Many Christians believe, for good reason, that individuals and civil society – not government – can best help those in material or spiritual need. They hold that the laudable impulse to help the poor should be informed by other considerations, including whether a policy is effective and workable. 

The Congressional Budget Office projects that the amnesty in the Senate-passed immigration bill would not stop future illegal immigration, and that millions more will come or stay illegally even after heightened border security.

By granting amnesty, as it did in 1986, Congress would encourage more people to break the law and risk their lives in hopes of future amnesty.  Serial amnesties would further deteriorate respect for the law, undermining justice.  Granting amnesty also would be unfair to the millions who seek to come legally – those who followed the biblical injunction to obey the government.

As for Old Testament teaching on how the community is to treat foreigners, scholars robustly debate whether it has in view legal or illegal immigrants. Old Testament scholar James Hoffmeier, writer of an authoritative book on the subject, notes that “in the ancient biblical world, countries had borders that were protected and respected, and that foreigners who wanted to reside in another country had to obtain some sort of permission in order to be considered an alien with certain rights and privileges.” 

Hoffmeier writes that three Hebrew terms for foreigners indicate that some were in Israel with permission, while others were not.  So it is “wrong,” he concludes, “to confuse these two categories of foreigners” and then use irrelevant passages “as if they were relevant to illegal immigrants of today.”

Clearly there is liberty for Christians who take the Bible seriously to take different views on immigration policy, including amnesty.  Compassion can be a worthy consideration in public policy. But it is completely legitimate to consider whether amnesty is fair to those who respect the law -- and whether it continues incentives that result in further injustice and inequity. 

Christians, indeed all Americans, understandably could conclude that amnesty is unfair, will not work and undermines government’s primary purpose: to restrain wrongdoing through fair and impartial justice.

-Derrick Morgan is vice president for domestic and economic policy at The Heritage Foundation, which houses the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society.

First appeared in The Los Angeles Times.

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