Can We Really Separate Religion From Politics? On Immigration, for Instance…

By John Zmirak Published on July 13, 2018

One of my favorite evangelical commentators is Mark Tooley. In a recent column, he called for a moratorium on using specific Bible passages to argue about immigration.

Tooley cited two examples of conservative Protestants who delved into scripture to argue in favor of America controlling its borders. Paula White responded to the “Jesus was an illegal immigrant” claim by noting that Egypt and Palestine were both part of the same Roman empire. So the Flight Into Egypt was more like going from Texas to Oklahoma to escape a lawless sheriff. Wayne Grudem sifted the Old Testament for positive references to borders, boundaries, and walls.

Tooley noted the limits of such an approach, and asked both right and left to lay off polemical exegesis — which often turns into eisegesis.

No, that’s not some Christian knock-off of Vanilla Ice’s signature song. (At least I hope not, since “Ice, Ice, Jesus — too cold, too cold!” strikes me as uninspiring.)

Eisegesis is the practice of inserting your own meaning between the lines of scripture, or taking them out of context. In American law, the technical term for this is “Justice Anthony Kennedy.”

Open Borders and Burning Witches

I agree with the thrust of both Grudem’s and White’s positions. But I share Tooley’s concern, up to a point. We shouldn’t pick isolated phrases out of the Old Testament (or even the New) to serve as policy slogans. I’m deadly sick of open borders nudniks wielding Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Even pro-choicers think that women really exist.

So I always refer people back just three verses of the same chapter of the same book. That reads: “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18) And I offer a deal: We can open the borders, as long as the same day we implement the death penalty for witches.

I never get any takers. Weird. …

There’s No Such Thing as a Neutral Political System

The left loves to savage conservatives when we cite scripture, of course. They conveniently wipe from history the fact that abolitionists and Civil Rights advocates leaned heavily on biblical texts for their arguments against historic evils. In fact, they wish away the crucial role that Christianity has played in promoting equal rights for women, the poor, and the handicapped, along with humane treatment of prisoners and restrictions on how (or when) we wage war.

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Sometimes anti-religious “conservatives” try the same trick. TV’s peroxide sophist Tomi Lahren made such a claim on Fox News:

As in every heresy, there’s a grain of truth hiding among such claims. We see it clearly when we’re repulsed by Muslims who want to impose sharia law. Or Integralists who crave the Catholic equivalent.

The best answer is not to secularize politics, however. There is no such thing as a morally “neutral” system or state. That’s because every law rests, finally, on a set of moral claims. And those rest, in turn, on truth-claims about the universe. We forbid murder because we claim that it is wrong. We defend individual rights because we believe that they exist.

Now postmodernists think “rights” are a convenient invention of our founders, and not a cosmic reality. But they still make grand moral and metaphysical claims. They’d oppose domestic violence, for instance. Why? Because they really believe a world of non-battered spouses is better than the alternative. That’s a moral claim. So it must be traced to some assertion about the world. Most of them, if pressed, would agree at least that it’s better that fewer people and animals suffer. That’s because they think people and animals are a certain kind of thing, which ought to be happy. And suffering is another kind of thing, which should be minimized. Those claims are not the least bit provable from (say) Darwinian science. They rest on a belief in a certain kind of moral and metaphysical truth that goes beyond modernist limits on reason.

Once we’ve worked out policies that accord with natural law, we can certainly use religious rhetoric promoting them. In fact, we must! We can and should cite Bible verses to rouse the troops, inspire activists, and rally opinion.

Even pro-choicers think that women really exist, and that they really deserve absolute, even lethal sexual autonomy. There’s nothing in narrow biology or chemistry to prove the latter claim. Moral knowledge is knowledge. But it comes from a reason much broader than that allowed by modern secularism.

Embrace the Law That Comes Naturally

So every worldview includes some moral vision, even if it’s denied. But we don’t want to provoke religious wars. So we don’t make laws based on sectarian doctrines of contested religious authorities. (Which Bible? Who decides what it means?). Instead we should rely on natural law. As I’ve written here:

That’s the moral code that God wrote on everyone’s heart. You don’t need supernatural faith to know it, though grace certainly helps you to obey it. Natural law, not the Gospel, is the proper basis for legislation in a pluralist society.

How fair is it to ask Jewish citizens (for instance) to bear the costs of a policy that’s driven not by reason and justice, but a specifically Christian notion of “generosity”? Not fair at all, I’d say. On a long list of issues, from abortion to euthanasia, from aid to the poor to just war theory and even same-sex marriage, natural law provides clear, consistent, guidance. We should base our policy arguments in natural law, not (sectarian) doctrine.

Our policies should be those that accord with natural law. We wouldn’t want laws banning “heresy,” for instance, or forcing sectarian religious duties on citizens. We must restrain our impulse to impose every aspect of the Truth in which we believe on others using the guns and jails of the State.

Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration

But matters don’t end there. Once we’ve worked out policies that accord with natural law, we can certainly use religious arguments promoting them. In fact, we must! We can and should cite biblical texts to rouse the troops, inspire activists, and rally opinion. The beauty and truth of scripture should never be treated as somehow radioactive. And in a culture that is still nominally Christian, such arguments can persuade.

But the common good we pursue should not exceed what any rational person honest enough to accept the core truths of natural law could know. Even without the grace of supernatural faith. If you’re curious about how much we can really know by reason, read up on natural law. I recommend the book What We Can’t Not Know. It’s clear and convincing.

Keep Faith With Reason

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, as it happens, does a good job of unpacking natural law on the issue of immigration. None of the following rests on belief that Jesus rose from the dead, much less that the pope is, in narrow circumstances, protected from error:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.

Now, we could argue all day about the wisest way to apply such observations. But none of them would lead to the extreme, hysterical conclusions favored by open-borders Christians, whose ranks (sadly) include too many Catholic bishops.

Reason sure comes in handy. I think I’ll stick with it.


John Zmirak is co-author, with The Stream’s Al Perrotta, of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration.

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