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A Christian conversation on immigration

Two different perspectives on how believers should approach the immigration reform debate

Clergy representing various denominations join immigration reform supporters gathered at a rally at the U.S. Capitol in 2006. Associated Press/Photo by Haraz N. Ghanbari

A Christian conversation on immigration

Christians are on both sides of the debate on what to do about illegal immigration. Since the Bible tells us that iron sharpens iron, we asked two leaders with different positions to summarize their arguments:

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, based in Washington, D.C., and the author of “Security and Immigration: What Is the State’s Duty Under God?” in The Review of Faith & International Affairs (2011). M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas) is a distinguished professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary and author of Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (Baker Academic, 2008). He is the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference’s national spokesman on immigration.

—Marvin Olasky

Immigration, political realities, and the gospel

By Mark Tooley

Some prominent evangelical leaders have taken a high-profile role in advocating legislation that would grant legal status to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. Some have described this political cause as a “gospel imperative.” Some have cited Old Testament admonitions to extend hospitality to the “stranger” as implicitly endorsing what is often called “comprehensive immigration reform.” Some have even claimed that Jesus was an illegal immigrant, apparently recalling the Holy Family’s escape from King Herod into Egypt for a season.

Political arguments referencing the Bible have often elevated American politics and helpfully remind us that government falls under divine sovereignty. But specifically claiming that the Bible endorses a particular contemporary political stance is often problematic and sometimes even dangerous. Doing so implies God’s favor for one political position and demonizes the opposition. Routinely portraying political debates as apocalyptic struggles between good and evil militates against political compromise and any social consensus necessary for the common good.

Neither the Scriptures nor Christian tradition typically offer specific political counsel on most contemporary issues. Instead, they offer broad principles about justice, human dignity premised on bearing God’s image, and, no less importantly, the persistence in this age of human sinfulness, which not only precludes but even forbids expectations for political perfection. Political expectations should always be limited, and the unintended consequences of ostensible political reform always a concern. Christianity’s refusal to offer a detailed political map, embodied in Christ’s own rejection of earthly rule and avoidance of specific political stances during His own troubled time on this earth, means that most political issues are matters of prudential judgment. It also means that faithful Christians will often be on nearly all sides of most political issues.

Christians are clearly divided on the best way for the United States to address immigration law. Polls seem to show most Americans and Christians favor some eventual path of legalization for current illegal immigrants. Yet polls also show most Americans and most Christians favor lower levels of overall immigration. Current evolving legislative proposals for “immigration reform” backed by some evangelical elites call not only for mass legalization of current illegals but also increased levels of legal immigration. The United States currently permits roughly 1 million new legal immigrants annually, a number that exceeds every other nation.

The current U.S. debate over immigration policy, like all political debates in this country, pits competing interest groups against each other. Backing mass legalization and increased immigration are business interests wanting cheap labor, some labor unions wanting increased membership, Democrats wanting to enlarge a Hispanic demographic that votes strongly for them, Hispanic interest groups wanting to expand and empower their own constituency, Republicans desperately hoping to appeal to Hispanic voters, and some church groups and officials who similarly believe their own outreach to Hispanics would benefit from the advocacy. Opposing mass legalization and often increased immigration are many working class laborers worried about the effect on wages and the job market, law and order advocates distressed about the effect on law enforcement, cultural traditionalists concerned about the erosion of American traditional culture, some environmentalists concerned about the effects of rapidly expanding population, fiscal conservatives worried about further expanding the social welfare entitlement state, some Republicans worried about the electoral impact, and some legal immigrants who resent that illegals will be rewarded for bypassing the legal process they observed.

On the extremes are anti-American ideologues who reject all national sovereignty and demand open borders, and racialists who fear an American that is less white and Anglo.

Excluding these extremes, most of these interests groups are perfectly legitimate voices who rightly advocate their cause within the great forum of American politics. There are believing Christians among all of these groups. Most of these advocates on both sides believe their cause would not only benefit their constituency but would also benefit the nation. It’s part of the genius of the American system that such competing interest groups, which collectively comprise the American people, peacefully and democratically push their cause before the public and within Congress. What typically emerges ultimately on most contentious issues is hopefully some approximation of a near national consensus, with nobody completely winning or losing. America’s Founding Fathers, with a fairly Christian understanding of fallen human nature, understood that politics cannot assume or seek pure virtue but instead should constructively channel myriad competing interests, avoiding absolute power or victory for any constituency.

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.

All sides in the debate over U.S. immigration policy involve Christians and others of largely good will, to the extent humanly possible, seeking legitimate self-interests while also professing some notion of the common good. Christians on all sides of the issue, while rightfully deploying their best rhetorical fisticuffs, should be wary of claiming certainty about God’s will or consigning their opponents to the moral outer darkness. And church leaders who are dogmatically pressing for a particular legislative political solution might more helpfully offer their members broad principles that should guide our national conversation. Those Christian principles, of course, should include compassion and forgiveness. And they should include Christianity’s understanding of the state’s divine obligation to enforce laws and protect its people.

Both sides of the immigration debate might also consider that fast-changing demographics might swell over the current political realities. In recent years, during a depressed U.S. economy, and with strong Mexican economic growth, net illegal immigration, including illegals who quit the United States for their home country, is estimated to have been about zero. A stronger future U.S. economy, or turmoil south of the border, might shift that trend. But birthrates in Mexico and Latin America, as throughout the world, are plunging. Possibly the era of mass Latin immigration is closing. Asian immigration to the United States, which often includes a cohort with more advanced education qualifying for professional jobs, now outpaces Latin immigration. Meanwhile, birthrates for Hispanics in the United States are also plunging toward the below-replacement levels of white Anglo Americans.

How will these evolving demographic and immigration trends affect immigration political debates of the future? None of us know for sure, which is all the more reason for restrained political rhetoric, demands and expectations, especially when professing to speak for the churches or in the name of the gospel.

Immigration legislation and the Bible

By M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas)

Immigration reform continues to be a hotly debated and polarizing topic, within both secular and Christian circles—but talk of immigration reform within the framework of Christian faith is often shallow. We typically encounter broad appeals to a few Bible passages by both ends of the spectrum to establish the theological legitimacy of their points of view. Reform advocates cite Leviticus 19:33-34 and Matthew 25:31-46 concerning God’s desire to welcome the foreigner with compassion. Those reluctant to support reform turn to Romans 13:1-7 and stress the government’s right to set its laws and the duty of Christians to respect them. This battle of the verses will not do. It does not make for the substantive give-and-take needed for such a contentious issue.

In what follows I would like to suggest three elements that should be integrated into a more useful appropriation of the Bible for the national debate. As one who supports immigration reform, what concerns me is how Christians talk about immigration.

Awareness of our theological backgrounds

To begin with, the question of the role of the Bible in regard to immigration legislation actually is part of a larger conversation about the relationship between the church and the state. Over the centuries Christians have understood this relationship in various ways. For example, Catholic social theory compels Catholic church leaders to speak directly into the public square, Lutherans work from a two-kingdom framework and the notion of the Christian vocation in society, Reformed theology emphasizes bringing everything under the lordship of Christ, and Anabaptists combine a suspicion of government with the mission of incarnating an alternative community.

Each perspective has its own way of defining what Christian social and political involvement should look like and how to use the Bible in that engagement. In my experience, the two traditions that deal most self-consciously with immigration from their theological convictions are the Roman Catholic Church (there is even a Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People) and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (a PDF of its report, Immigrants Among Us, can be downloaded). At the same time, there is a growing consensus on immigration that stretches across Christian denominations. Go online, and you will find positive statements on immigration from Southern Baptists, the Evangelical Free Church, the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Wesleyan Church, the Assemblies of God, and others. Clearly there is something about caring for the foreigner that resonates with a wide range of Christian traditions.

The church-state frameworks mentioned above all have experience working with public policy. We may not agree with some of those efforts or models, but this long history is a resource from which we can draw. The loss (or ignorance) of this rich heritage has left us without the skills we need to speak as Christians on public matters. Without that solid theological grounding, many base their view on immigration on only a few Bible passages and theological concepts. If we were to be brutally honest, that view may have been made on other grounds (such as our political ideology or our economic convictions), with the Bible brought in secondarily.

One of the reasons Christians disagree about the Bible and immigration is that we speak from diverse perspectives that define in different ways how the Bible can be used for societal issues. Our starting points differ, as do our arguments. We should not be surprised, then, that we differ on things like immigration. We talk past each other without realizing we are speaking different “theological languages” from various church traditions. Our disagreements, though, do not disqualify Christian input into the national discussion, but we need to be wiser about how we speak out and be more aware of our theological and church backgrounds that may lead us in contrary directions.

Commitment to realism

In addition to being theologically aware, we need to be contextually aware. There are two relevant contexts here, the ancient and the modern. The ancient so that what the Bible says can be properly understood; the modern so that what we take from the Bible for today is done appropriately.

The history of the human race is the history of migration. The reasons why people migrate have always been similar. In Old Testament times many migrated looking for food and a new life. Others left their homelands to flee war or persecution, and still others were forcibly removed and sent into exile. It also is clear from the Old Testament, other ancient literature, and archaeology that nations maintained borders and were aware of outsiders. Economic and political factors came into play in how ancient peoples interacted with outsiders, and some nations had systems for monitoring their movement. Although the modern nation-state is different from what we find in ancient times, the contexts are not totally different. Then and now, concrete sociopolitical realities, economic pressures, and climatic factors (like drought) drove people to migrate.

In terms of our current situation, discussion of immigration should include the thorny issues of its effect on labor; economic cost-benefit analysis; possible effects on the healthcare system, schools, and Social Security; and the challenges to law enforcement. It also should have some knowledge of the history of immigration into this country and the history of our immigration law, which has had exemplary moments as well as a dark side that has been driven by racism (like the Chinese Exclusion Act) and religion (such as the quotas on the Irish and the Italians, in part because of their Catholic faith). It is informative to track the progressive shift in the location of the office dealing with immigration affairs, from the first time immigration became a federal responsibility in the last quarter of the 19th century until the present day. Immigration matters originally were under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department, moved to the Department of Labor, then to the Department of Justice, and now reside within the Department of Homeland Security. These administrative changes reflect evolving perceptions of the immigrant and immigration.

Of course, migration is a global challenge. The United Nations estimates that more than 200 million people are migrating in some form or another. Immigration, in other words, is a worldwide phenomenon of the push and pull effects of international economics, labor, climate change, and political unrest.

More information about the ancient and modern contexts makes for a realistic discussion. The immigration debate must grapple with the pragmatics of politics, economics, the nature and history of immigration law, and the many other spheres that the migration touches both in this country and around the world. This realism must be combined with the solid theological orientation, which was my first point.

Identifying the Bible’s contribution

Third and last, a more complete Christian point of view on immigration will need to discern what the Bible—specifically Old Testament legislation on foreigners—actually can offer to the discussion.

Some Christians dismiss Old Testament legislation, believing it is locked within its ancient theocratic framework. Others disregard it because they think it has no relevance for Christians after the establishment of the church in the first century. These observations are common but shortsighted. Of course, the world of the Bible is not the 21st century United States. But that does not mean it cannot inform Christian views on issues not mentioned explicitly in its pages. We go to the Bible all the time, as our Scripture, for guidance in many such areas, like ecology, nuclear war, and genetic engineering. Even though the Bible does not deal directly with these things, we still seek its wisdom for our positions on them.

What Christians seek is a moral compass from the Bible, not a blueprint for policy. To imitate how an ancient people dealt in its laws with foreigners in that agrarian peasant context does not make sense. It did not make sense even in Israel’s time for other nations to copy its laws. But this legislation was seen as judicious and as a pointer to the God of Israel (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). In other words, the law contains a set of enduring principles that can be carried across borders and across the centuries. These principles can be classified as general moral imperatives (respect for human life, compassion, hospitality) and as practical legislative guidelines. Both levels of principles are needed today. For instance, outsiders are listed with widows, orphans, and the poor as a vulnerable group in need of gracious aid. Their vulnerability makes them a target of God’s love (Deuteronomy 10:17-19). The moral imperative to be welcoming to strangers is given expression in legislation that included fair wages paid on time, suitable rest from work, equal treatment under the law, and the provision of means for sustenance. How the moral imperatives and legislation might be implemented today obviously would be different than what is found in Israel’s laws, but the principles stand.

In Old Testament legislation there also were expectations of the outsider: Language learning would have been necessary to work and to understand the periodic reading of the law at which foreigners were to be present; a degree of cultural integration would have been necessary, too, to be able to participate in the religious services and daily life of Israel. In addition, the Old Testament has several terms for outsiders—for example, one that is used of those who sojourn in Israel (the ger) and another for those who do not seem to want to be incorporated into national life (nokri). Apparently, Israel made distinctions among the foreigners is its midst. There are lessons here, too, about expectations and classifications of outsiders. Again, a principled stance can give us insights for dealing with modern immigration.

There are many narratives that describe life as foreigners in new lands. We could mention Abram, Joseph, the Israelites in Egypt, Ruth, David on the run, Daniel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. These accounts ring true to immigrants today, who can identify with the experiences of these great men and women of faith. We could go on to the New Testament and speak of Jesus and his family fleeing to Egypt and living there for a time as refugees, the call in the epistles to be hospitable, and the use of migration as a metaphor for the Christian life (1 Peter 2:11). The Bible has a lot that is pertinent to immigration.


Mine is an invitation to a reasoned, full Christian discussion on immigration—one that is grounded in our Christian theological heritage, informed of the complex concrete realities of immigration, and knowledgeable of the breadth of the Bible’s contribution to the topic. This discussion would need the expertise and input from all kinds of disciplines. With this information and a commitment to charitable discussion, maybe we could get past the unfortunate labeling and emotionally charged caricatures, sit down at the table together, and have a constructive conversation.

Photo of Mark Tooley by James Allen Walker for WORLD

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

M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas) Daniel is a distinguished professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary and the author of Christians at the Border (Baker, 2008).

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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