The current immigration debate that had been playing out in America and in the Evangelical community has exposed the lack of a rigorous approach to this contentious issue. When many Evangelicals take a stand on an issue and explain their basis, it is usually a bible verse or a claim from scripture. That may be right and good, but it’s often divorced from an understanding of actual politics as they are practiced and the ways that politics have developed in the West, which has formed the basis for European and American politics as we know and practice it today.
If I could state it succinctly: I get the impression they want to say a lot about politics without having to know much about politics, either intellectually or historically. To add a further complicating factor: it’s not clear how the theology that they present should be related to politics, both in term of theory and practice. For a group that usually offers profoundly biblical and well-thought positions on a host of pastoral, doctrinal, or cultural questions, their engagement with politics is woefully underdeveloped.
Michael Gerson outlined this problem in his critical piece in The Atlantic back in April. He chastises Evangelicals for lacking “a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action.” In comparison to Catholics, who have a rather broad and deep tradition of political thought, Evangelicals make appeals to the “the Bible” which means they basically have no framework to keep them tethered when the political winds blow.
Now, having a comprehensive set of concepts to help think through some of these very important political and social questions is not a panacea. Just ask the Catholic Church. They have a rather long and impressive body of social doctrine that many in the church just ignore. But it does help to have a tradition. The Biblicist impulse of Evangelicals that everything must have a direct bible verse to justify a statement prevents us from developing a broader body of social and political doctrine that will help frame issues regarding a whole host of social issues that are growing more contentious by the day.
What is needed is a framework for thinking through these questions. Catholics, for instance, have a host of concepts about the role of the state in relation to the church and the family. Catholic political and social thought is an amalgam of scripture and various political ideas which they have assimilated and reformulated over time. The common good (bonum commune), an idea first developed by Aristotle and later reworked by Thomas Aquinas and subsequent theologians, is the all-embracing duty and responsibility of the government to preserve and protect through law and coercion, if necessary. Natural law, which finds its roots in the bible (Romans 2:14-15) and Stoic thought, provides the basis for positive statutory law. My point is that Catholics have sought to develop a systematic body of political and social doctrine to address and think Christianly about these questions. Evangelicals could learn a great deal from Catholics on this point.
Without some orientation and structure to our deliberations Evangelicals lack coherence and discipline in our thinking and application. We also fail to learn from and understand how politics has actually taken shape in our history and how to apply our theology to those historic institutions and structures handed down to us. That process in long, arduous, and complicated. Debates will ensue and controversy and division will erupt, but that is part of the process and cannot be short circuited.
Often Evangelicals emphasize what the Bible says about sojourners and aliens as basis for the church’s response for the current immigration issue. And surely, this is true. But it is not enough. When God is speaking in the scripture he is talking to Israel, which is not a modern nation-state, and so, one would obviously want to know how they go from laws of ancient Israel to laws in modern day America. America is neither Israel nor the church, so how do we relate Christian convictions into laws without expecting America to become the Kingdom of God?
Evangelicals often cite the example of Jesus living in Egypt, which may or may not be relevant. The Gospels hardly emphasize that Jesus’ status as an “undocumented immigrant.” And the Gospels don’t claim to be a statement about state policies on immigration and border security, unless we think Jesus going down into the muddy waters of the Jordan for baptism as an affirmation of water pollution.
Taking a moral stance on an issue is one thing, having a constructive way to think about addressing these issues is another. And while pastors and theologians do not have the complexity of knowledge that policy experts have, they must engage at some level with empirical data and develop a political framework for thinking through these questions, otherwise they are in danger of falling in the trap of so many progressive Christians who combine maximal moral outrage with equally maximal political idealism that paints marvelous and beautiful worlds that are utterly impractical.
For evangelicals to begin the process of developing their own political tradition akin to Catholics would be a giant undertaking but one that is very necessary.