Some church groups have pushed hard for the U.S. to accept large numbers of Syrian and other Mideast refugees. The Evangelical Immigration Table has a recent advocacy statement, although commendably, unlike others, it cites the unique plight of Mideast Christian refugees, against whom U.S. policy implicitly discriminates.
The horror in San Bernardino perpetrated by a Muslim couple of Pakistani background adds to this debate about immigration and Islam. He was the U.S. born son of immigrants from Pakistan (and had a brother who reportedly served honorably in the U.S. Navy). His wife was a Pakistani national who resided in Saudi Arabia and whom he brought to the U.S. on a fiancé visa.
For some Christian advocates, the issue of immigration and refugees is simply one of hospitality and generosity. What would Jesus do? Their intent and motivations are admirable. Our country is blessed by the many (but never enough!) who seriously ponder the will and love of Jesus. Part of the complexity is that Jesus Himself never asked the civil state to model its duties on His ministry.
According to traditional Christian teaching, government’s chief duty, in every country and age, is to protect its people, not to extend hospitality. Mothers and fathers have a special calling to look after their own children. They certainly should wish well for all other children. But parents who prioritize other children while neglecting their own are not typically admired. So it is true for the state, which must be unceasingly vigilant on behalf of its own people.
The percentage of refugees from the Mideast who might be violent undoubtedly is small, but what number would be acceptable? What if only one refugee were violent but perpetrates an horrific act that kills dozens or even hundreds? Would his murders mitigate against accepting many thousands who aren’t violent? Should our government take this risk?
There are other issues beyond the possibility of violence that are less directly discussed. The Syrian refugees have no experience with democracy. One poll says 13% support ISIS. Some support other Islamist militias in Syria. Still others support the Assad regime, a vicious dictatorship. To what extent would these refugees adapt to Western pluralism and democracy?
Some Western European nations have large Muslim populations of 5-10%. Often this demographic is ghettoized and not mainstreamed. Many Muslims in Europe lack attachment to their nation state. Some are attracted to radicalism. Some have joined ISIS or journeyed to the Mideast to join other extreme Islamist movements. Since the Paris attacks, the French government has been closing dozens of radical mosques, an option not possible under the U.S. Constitution.
As being American is not tied to ethnicity, and America has a long illustrious tradition of immigration, American Muslims are in general more integrated into the mainstream. Many Muslims in America model how Islam can operate in a pluralistic democracy, an example instructive globally, and helpful to American interests. But some American Muslims radicalize and even support violent jihad. It seems the San Bernardino couple likely followed this route.
Should Christian political witness lobby for U.S. policy to increase immigration from predominantly Muslim countries that increases the American Muslim demographic, currently at about 1%, to European levels? How would American culture and politics change under that dynamic? What if many Muslim immigrants and their children adhere to traditional Islamic political theology by opposing legal equality for women, favoring civil punishments for homosexuals, and advocating policies against blasphemy and other free speech? How would American pluralism incorporate large numbers of people who reject pluralism?
At the very least, Christian immigration advocates should urge U.S. immigration policies that strongly prohibit persons who reject American democratic principles. Over one hundred years ago immigration policies screened against anarchist sympathies, which murderously raged in Europe. Later U.S. policies screened against Bolshevism. Of course, the U.S. screened against Nazi and Fascist sympathizers. So too it should protect against adherents of Islamist theocratic political supremacy.
Often practitioners of Christian political witness base stances on complicated issues like immigration policy on a few Scripture verses rather than the prudential wisdom of the whole counsel of historic Christian teaching. Despite high-minded intent, sometimes the intended recipients of Christian political advocacy are caricatured as romanticized victims without their own complex cultural, political and religious histories. Sometimes Christian witness expects government to perform like a church worship service or potluck dinner, offering endless, unquestioning welcomes that will result in universal gratitude and even evangelistic success.
But government is not like church. And our government is ordained to tenaciously protect and advocate the interests of over 320 million American people, of different faiths and backgrounds, but bound together by our commitment to democracy, liberty and legal equality for all. The American experiment is unique, unusual in human history, and possible only thanks to the sacrifice of many millions across several centuries. There should be no reluctance by Christian political witness to support and defend the security and integrity of a great nation that benefits so many and which is, at its best, an example to the world.