Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In “Immigration Idealism,” Matthew Schmitz argues plausibly that Christian views on immigration are distorted by the same sentimental liberal theology that inspired mid-century pacifism. He calls for a Christian “response to migration that does not merely baptize liberal pieties,” a response that recognizes “peace must be protected by strength of arms.” He endorses Pope Francis’s sensible view that nations must consider their capacity to receive and integrate migrants and repeats the pope’s wise warning that Europe will deal with immigration “only if it is capable of clearly asserting its own cultural identity.” The policy upshot is, negatively, that “not everyone can or should be admitted to any political community” and, positively, that “migration policy [should] give preference to those who share the history, culture, and creed of the welcoming nation.”

Yet Schmitz makes things too easy for himself. Some of the statements that he views as expressions of contempt for working Americans are factual claims. Is Jeb Bush right that immigrants establish new businesses at a higher rate than Americans? Is Rupert Murdoch correct that native-born Americans are more likely than migrants to commit crimes? If these things are true, it cannot be an insult to say they are so. The polarized structure of Schmitz’s argument also makes it too easy for him to make his case. You’re either a liberal idealist or a clear-eyed realist. The possibility that a non-liberal might have reasons to take the side of migrants is excluded from the outset.

What reasons? Biblical ones. Schmitz complains that immigration idealists read their Bibles selectively, but his presentation of biblical teaching is also skewed. The Torah repeatedly commands just treatment of strangers and aliens (Exod. 22:21; 23:10; Lev. 19:10; Deut. 16:11–14). One arresting passage (Lev. 19:33–34) demands that the stranger be “as the native among you,” a requirement that’s rooted in Israel’s historical experience (“for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”) and that expresses the commandment that Jesus identified as the second-greatest (“you shall love him [the stranger] as yourself”). Schmitz acknowledges that welcoming the stranger is an “inescapable” theme of Scripture that “demands the Christian’s obedience to the point of pain,” but he concedes the point in passing. He doesn’t seriously consider whether some of what he labels liberal idealism is an effort to be faithful to the rhetoric and substance of Scripture.

He instead devotes several paragraphs to Thomas’s exposition of Deuteronomy 23. He’s correct that this passage places restrictions on entry into Israel’s “assembly.” Some nations were excluded for three generations, some for ten. But it’s not clear how relevant this text is to immigration. After all, even Israelites born from a forbidden union were excluded from the assembly for ten generations (Deut. 23:2). That is presumably what happened to the tribe of Judah, whose descendants came from Judah’s incestuous union with his daughter-in-law, Tamar (Gen. 38), and who entered their full royal inheritance only with David, ten generations from Judah (cf. Ruth 4). Even if Deuteronomy 23 is about immigration, Schmitz’s resort to this text, rather than passages that address migrants and aliens more directly, leaves him vulnerable to the charge that he’s scoured the Bible for passages reflecting his anti-liberal realism.

Schmitz’s “Thomist” distinction between the political and ecclesial community is too sharp. As he presents it, the church is a spiritual community of hospitality, but political communities must operate by different standards. The two communities are not as different as Schmitz says: The church is not “open to all comers” but to the penitent. Converts as much as immigrants are expected to “have the common good of the community at heart.” The church doesn’t operate by liberal idealism any more than the state.

Besides, on Schmitz’s own premises, it’s hardly surprising that church leaders stress the demand to welcome the stranger, even if that puts them at odds with more restrictive national policies. Isn’t the church in the business of reminding us of goods that transcend national interest? With his sharp distinction of church and political community, Schmitz reverses that relationship. “Realism” effectively if unintentionally subordinates the church’s witness to the needs of civil order. It sounds as if Schmitz wants the church to have a frictionless relationship with political powers.

The problem goes deeper. This sharp distinction of spiritual and political communities implies that the state is impervious to the appeal and transforming power of the gospel—that the state cannot and should not become more like the church. But Western politics is in large measure the product of the evangelical leavening of public life. Models of kingship, the understanding of political community itself, the relation of religious institutions to the state were all drastically transformed by the gospel. America’s generous stance toward immigrants is a case in point.

In the end, the question is: What is real? It is true, as Schmitz says, that “we were long ago expelled from paradise.” But Genesis 3 isn’t the end of the story; it’s the beginning of the story that culminates with Jesus’s entry into glory, the gift of the Spirit, and the promise of his return. Why should original sin be more real, or more relevant to politics, than the cross and resurrection? Why should the first Adam be more determinative than the last? The Jesus who now reigns as King of Kings is a child of the exodus. His people were once strangers in a strange land and were commanded to love strangers as themselves. If Jesus really reigns, that reality cannot but affect what counts as political realism.

Peter J. Leithart
theopolis institute 

Peter Leithart writes that it cannot be an insult to say something true. Perhaps men should not be insulted by true observations, but very often they are. If I call someone a liar, a lush, or a fraud he is possibly even more likely to be insulted by these charges if they are true. It is more interesting to consider my intention and the comment’s effect. Do I say these things out of concern for him, or to express my contempt? Do I seek to renew our bonds of solidarity, or to break them? To save a friendship, or to end it? And what consequences do these comments actually have?

I believe that the regular, casual derogation of working-class citizens in the developed world has frayed our bonds of solidarity. It has served to justify an economic order that benefits those at the top and the bottom far more than those in the middle (see Branko Milanovic’s elephant chart). Political upheaval has been the predictable result.

Leithart writes: “‘Realism’ effectively if unintentionally subordinates the church’s witness to the needs of civil order. It sounds as if Schmitz wants the church to have a frictionless relationship with political powers.” This is exactly backward. Data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, some of which I cite in my article, makes very clear that our political, economic, and cultural powers line up on the idealist side of the immigration divide. See the Archbishop of Cologne, who responds to Merkel’s open-borders policy by saying “we will support the Chancellor with no ifs and buts.” His immigration idealism neatly subserves the immigration idealism of the political powers. This dynamic plays out in America as well, where religious leaders have provided purportedly Christian justification for the policies preferred by business and governmental leaders.

My discussion of migration humbly follows St. Thomas. He is not anti-liberal, nor does he overlook biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger. He cites more “universalist” passages from the New Testament as well as injunctions against molesting the stranger from the Old, all in an effort to achieve a coherent and Christian synthesis. I do not doubt that some “liberal idealism is an effort to be faithful to the rhetoric and substance of Scripture,” but I find that effort lacking. Thomas offers a more balanced biblical discussion of migration than any theologian today.

Finally, Leithart suggests that I sketch too sharp a distinction between the ecclesial and political communities. They indeed are distinct. But the distinction I sketch is far from absolute. I write that European states, like the United States, are societies “of a Christian mark,” a phrase Pierre Manent seems to have borrowed from baptismal theology. No Christian can think that migration policy (or any other policy) could be made without due regard for the teaching and kingship of Christ. On this point, Leithart and I surely agree. So, implicitly, does anyone who tries to shape a nation’s migration policy by invoking Scripture, however irresponsibly. In this sense, liberal idealists who urge America to welcome the stranger are as much “Christian nationalists” as anyone else.

Matthew Schmitz
first things

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter. 

Photo by Sarahmirk via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles