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Colloquy: On Christian Duty As Related To President Trump’s Executive Order On Immigration

[This is designed to be a colloquy regarding the recent executive order by President Trump, relying on authority granted by Congress to temporarily bar most entry into the US by individuals from seven named, predominantly Muslim, countries.  As always, responses of interlocutors are in italics, color-coded to differentiate different interlocutors.]

The topic here is (as phrased by me; feel free to correct!), “what is the duty of individual Christians, in their personal lives and their political activity, with respect to the matters covered by Trump’s executive order?”  This choice of topic therefore necessarily excludes analysis of the legality/constitutionality of the order and its wisdom as a political matter.

I take as the starting point the unexceptional rule that it is very clear that Christians have an individual, personal, core duty to help those in need, generally called charity.  As with someone who thinks that a primary desire of God is for us to be rich, if someone denies this basic rule, he may be Christian in some sense, but it’s a very esoteric sense.  Both Biblical exegesis (for sola scriptura fans) and tradition (for everyone else) dictate this without any relevant contrary views.  For Catholics, for example, “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.”

If it were not for the command to charity, this discussion would be silly, for we would have only the opposing imperative of the Classical world, to help our friends and punish our enemies.  It is wholly false, and easily demonstrably so, that the Golden Rule is core to any religion but Christianity.  But, as with any Christian command, what does that mean and imply in a particular context, and here, in this particular context?

We can approach this by looking at two possible extremes.  If I, approaching my front door in December, come across an elderly woman, who I know to be starving and freezing, and my response is to step over her and ignore her, I have sinned.  On the other hand, if I do not sell all that I have and spend it on political activity to obtain a law that requires others to do likewise, and that requires the money to be spent such that those already leading a comfortable life may have a more comfortable life, I have not sinned.  Few would disagree with either of these conclusions.  The question becomes where on this spectrum do various possible individual actions related to Trump’s executive order fall?

The enemy of clear thinking is the failure to start with clear distinctions, both in categories and facts. So I will start there.  Thus, following are various short theses—not quite ninety-five, but it’ll feel like it if you slog through it.  Some of these are not fully fleshed out, but are semi-developed and act as placeholders for expansion, if desired.  Many of these relate to topics that have been debated by Christians for millennia, so I am pretty sure my summaries don’t add any value to the topic in the abstract, but they do put the current topic in the context of larger issues.  As I go, I apply these theses to the question—what should a Christian do in response to the executive order under discussion?  I also draw an overall conclusion, and then offer some additional thoughts.

PRIMARY THESES

1. Those who wish to enter the United States vary widely in their reasons. Some are refugees—which I will define as those fleeing conflict, persecution or other intolerable conditions in their homeland (e.g., famine).  Some are tourists.  Some are currently employed here.  Some, at roughly the opposite pole from refugees, are economic migrants—they do not face intolerable conditions in their homeland, but seek a new, better economic situation elsewhere, either more opportunity for advancement, more handouts from others in a wealthy society, or both.

While there is always a continuum, we can posit that “intolerable” is theoretically objective—we could, in theory, create a scale of intolerability, and decide that 6.4 on that scale is “actually intolerable,” and everyone else has merely a subjective desire to increase their own personal utility.  In practice, that’s not possible, but we can still make similar rough evaluations, and in fact we must.

Furthermore, within these groups, not all are similarly situated.  A mother with three small children is a different type of refugee, or tourist, or economic migrant, than a nineteen-year-old single man.   They are different in their needs and their opportunities, and, after all, justice consists not in treating all people equally, but in treating each person in the manner we should treat him.

2.  Christian duty to individuals necessarily varies along each of these axes. It is highest towards child refugees.  It is lowest toward nineteen-year-old single male economic migrants.  I posit we have no Christian duty whatsoever to admit members of the latter group, and an increasing duty as we head toward the former.  Again, this is probably unexceptional, but the required distinctions are rarely clearly and sharply drawn.

3.  But that Christian duty of charity does not necessarily require admittance of those wishing to move here. Our duty, to the extent it exists in a particular case, is to alleviate suffering to the extent we can reasonably do so, consistent with our other obligations.  To claim charity always requires admittance is mere sophistry.

Help can be accomplished by actions other than accepting residents.  Moreover, in a world of scarcity, not all things can be accomplished, and tradeoffs are necessary.  Money given to a Syrian child refugee is money not given to a Congolese child refugee.  Realizing that decisions must be constrained is essential, and failure to do so and act accordingly is the opposite of charity, since it leads to unmet expectations and ineffective actions.

As an aside, the duty to protect others includes the duty to use violence to do so, if necessary.  The Crusades were awesome and wholly morally justified in their rationale (although the practice tended to slip after the Second Crusade).  Charity may consist of violence.  Moreover, violence carefully applied can reduce the need for other forms of charity.

4.  Moreover, in calculating tradeoffs, we have a primary duty to our family. We have an obligation to offer charity to all, but not at the expense of first providing charity to our family.  Similarly, we have obligations to others close to us, in an ever-expanding circle, like Ptolemaic crystal spheres.  Such circles include the larger family, the local community and groups to which the Christian belongs (employee groups; social organizations; trade unions); as well as co-citizens.  Failure to make correct distinctions among those entering the country, as well as between them and our citizens, is therefore a basic error.  This is not to say that nothing should be done for others, but rather than a clear understanding of priorities and tradeoffs must be admitted as a premise for any discussion of what to offer to others.

Similarly, a Christian has a duty to co-religionists.  It is not wrong for a Christian, individually or in his political action, to prioritize Christians.  This is true in general, and especially true because it is Christians in the Middle East who face the most persecution (other than certain small heretical Muslim sects).

5.  A clear distinction must be made between permanently not admitting a person, which as a blanket rule would likely violate Christian charity, and temporarily not admitting him, with an escape valve provided for hardship cases under which the individual may be immediately admitted. This latter is the actual situation with the executive order under discussion.  This flexibility is a Christian virtue.  Moreover, it is essential for Christians to acknowledge this.  Dishonesty and propagandizing by false descriptions to illegitimize the President, because #Resistance, is wrong.  It is not the case that a tourist who cannot come to the United States when he planned because of the executive order has any substantial claim that charity or justice demands his immediate admission.

6.  Christian charity does not permit offloading of the costs of giving charity onto others. A wealthy Christian who pushes for admitting people to the United States faces no costs at all; the costs are almost always imposed upon those lower down the socio-economic scale.  Those costs include competition for jobs; the making of direct payments via social welfare; and increased crime.  In fact, the wealthy tend to bear costs if they do NOT push for admitting people to the United States—among them, the social opprobrium that casually attaches to such a position in today’s toxic social media environment.  Instead, a Christian must strive to personally bear as much of the costs as possible.

This reminds me of the late Joseph Sobran’s joke, that liberal Christians often conflate Christ’s two commandments, to “love your neighbor as yourself” and “give all that you have to the poor,” into one commandment:  “give all that your neighbor has to the poor.”

7.  A Christian is obliged to acknowledge that terrorism is an actual problem that exists primarily among Muslims and that there is a legitimate possibility that admitting more Muslims to the country will result in increased terrorism. Denial of this is denial of reality and a failure of charity.  More generally, a Christian must evaluate all possible benefits of the executive order in an objective fashion, and weigh those in the balance.

8.  There is a distinction between what individual Christians should do and what the state should do. A Christian who concludes charity dictates a particular action by him is not obliged to push the state to take the same action.  First, the state is treated totally differently in Bible, tradition, and theology; it is not obligated to act wholly as an individual Christian would (and, as I discuss more below, most people attacking the executive order would be totally opposed to the state doing so in many other areas).  For example, the state not only may, but is commanded to, punish, while the individual is commanded to forgive.  Second, politics is the art of tradeoffs.  Even if he believes the state should have a rule that admits more rather than fewer people to the country, a Christian is not obliged to make this issue, or any other issue, the sole focus of his political activity, to the detriment of other equally or more important goals (and a Christian should separate his reasons for making this his focus of political activity, such that he does not conflate his charitable duty with an unrelated desire to generally defeat or frustrate a political opponent).

PRIMARY CONCLUSION

I conclude that, weighing these theses and factors, (a) a Christian has no duty to oppose the executive order in any way, whether verbally or with more concrete action; (b) it is arguable that it is sinful for a Christian to oppose the executive order, at least without clearly stating under what circumstances he believes it would be acceptable to refuse entry to individuals to the United States, or, phrased another way, it is erroneous for a Christian to state flatly that a Christian’s duty is to oppose the executive order; and (c) a Christian does have a duty to, through personal action or political action towards state action, to alleviate actual suffering of those wishing to enter the United States, although not necessarily by acting to make that entrance possible.

SECONDARY THESES AND THOUGHTS

 1.  To the extent a Christian concludes that fulfilling his duty requires admitting any particular person to the United States, he has no duty not to place conditions or requirements upon that admission. Such conditions should be reasonable.  But he has to objectively weigh costs and benefits to those to whom he has a duty.  This objectivity fails often where Muslims are concerned—as in Europe, where the massive increases in crime resulting from unrestricted Muslim immigration is actively covered up, as in the Cologne rapes and many, many more instances.  To take a less controversial example, all other things being equal, we should accept the educated and talented ahead of the uneducated and unskilled.

2.  It is permitted for the Christian to take into account the fact that the West spends much more money on Muslim refugees than do Muslim countries, most of whom do not take in refugees, much less economic migrants. Christians should also be clear-eyed, and recognize, for example, that the Muslim obligation of zakat, or charity, depending on which Muslim religious authority is deemed authoritative, either means that any charity to non-Muslims is wholly forbidden, or that any charity to non-Muslims does not fulfil the duty of zakat, and there is no third interpretation that is not heretical from a Muslim perspective.  This does not change a Christian’s objective obligation, which is obviously not dependent on what other religions believe, but it does mean that Christians should resist cheap propaganda about Islam meant to shame Christians through the propagation of falsehoods (such as “Islam is a religion of peace”—certainly most Muslims are peaceful, but both historically and theologically a blanket claim is not only false, but the opposite of the truth).

3.  It is permitted to recognize a geographic imperative and that charity should be viewed differentially related to it. The obligations of Turkey are greater to Syrian refugees, in the same way that our obligations to Mexico (were there refugees from Mexico, which there are not) are greater.

4. If Christians are obligated to accept those fleeing war and oppression, should the United States have accepted, post-World War II any individual who had been a member of the Nazi Party? The United States absolutely barred such people and their equivalents, and still does, I believe.  If not, why not, and what does that imply for the executive order?

5.  As a political matter, we have heard many claims that politicians and judges should seek to overturn Trump’s executive order out of Christian duty. Let’s assume that is 100% correct.  The oddity is that many, if not most, of those pushing such state action would complain bitterly if Christian belief used to justify any other public policy.  For example, we hear all the time about how Christian belief is illegitimate as a reason for opposing legalized abortion.  Yet what is sauce of the goose is sauce for the gander.

6.  Christians have a duty to defend their own culture against alien cultures that threatened to destroy it. This is especially true when the alien culture is opposed to Christian religious belief and wishes to replace or to dominate it.  Of course, this does not necessarily mean that Muslim immigration is detrimental to American culture.  In fact, there is a strong argument that devout Muslims are natural allies to orthodox Christians in opposition to the modern soulless pursuit of unbridled individual autonomy and consequent normalization of vice.  However, determining whether this is the case is not necessary here; my point is that denying entrance to others because it is judged that the impact on the existing culture will be detrimental is not a lack of charity.


I haven’t made it all the way through yet but I’m curious about how you’re supporting the statement “Similarly, a Christian has a duty to co-religionists. It is not wrong for a Christian to, individually or in his political action, to prioritize Christians.” (While I suspect we’ll differ on whether this statement *should* be true, that’s not the purpose of my question.)

That was among the few weak links I perceived in the piece. I’m curious about the support for this, too.


The claim I made above was “Similarly, a Christian has a duty to co-religionists.  It is not wrong for a Christian to, individually or in his political action, to prioritize Christians.  This is true in general, and especially true because it is Christians in the Middle East who face the most persecution (other than certain small heretical Muslim sects).”

This strikes me as totally unexceptional.  As a historical matter, any member of any religion would not have found this noteworthy until very recently.  I suspect that the American idea that the government should not prefer or advantage one religion to another has morphed in some people’s minds into the idea that individuals should not prefer one religion to another, even though there is no logical connection and in fact the latter idea is, to put it mildly, odd to any serious religious believer.

The claim I made was “it is not wrong . . . to prioritize Christians.”  By implication, of course, I meant in choosing whom to admit to the United States under what conditions, but there is no reason to limit the principle to that situation.  Instead, I want to strengthen the claim to be that it is wrong for Christians to NOT prioritize other Christians in all circumstances, though confined to those circumstance where all is more or less equal.  That is, if picking which of two beggars to give money, the Christian is obligated to give money to the Christian, and not the non-Christian.  (It could be that the situation is not equal on a metaphysical level—for example, it may be that the non-Christian beggar, if given the money, will be more likely to convert to Christianity, thereby benefiting his soul.  But, as I say, then all things are not equal.)

I suspect my interlocutors who posed this question to me find this enhanced claim even more utterly bizarre.  I will explain why I believe this to be true, although perhaps the burden should be on my interlocutors to show why my claim is not true, given that I think their position is the exceptional one.  But, briefly, without doing biblical or catechetical exegesis, just my own thoughts:

1.  It is the duty of Christians to spread the Christian faith, in order to bring as many people as possible to God. This is not news nor arguable for an orthodox Christian.  In order to spread the faith, it is necessary to support the community of believers in all ways, including prioritizing their movement if such movement is in fact necessary.  Such support is noted throughout the New Testament.

2.  It is also, and related, the duty of Christians to protect the Christian faith from attack.  Where segments of Muslims in the Middle East are actively attempting to exterminate Christians, it is a Christian’s duty to ensure that does not happen, to the extent within his power.  Thus, if choosing between a Muslim refugee and a Christian, the Christian should be chosen (again, all else being equal, and if a choice must be made).  (A Christian should also be open to war to protect Christians, as I noted earlier.)

3.  Other than that, it follows from what I said in #4, above, that we have differential duties, highest to the family, and spreading out from there. Christians are within the inner circle to other Christians.  So, among other exemplars of this principle, it is a duty of Christians to, among other things, admonish erring Christians.  That is, Christians are differently situated to each other relative to how they are situated to non-Christians.

4.  I have not differentiated in #1-#3 between actions taken “individually or in his political action.” A Christian’s duties toward other Christians in terms of agitating for political action to benefit other Christians are not as strong, though they are not zero, and they have limits.  For example, it would not be right to seek to harm non-Christians in order to provide a benefit that benefits Christians (except in certain zero-sum situations).  And, of course, certain political actions would be constitutionally forbidden if translated into certain forms of government action.

5.  But there is nothing unconstitutional, illegal, or remotely undesirable about Christians, or any other religious believer, agitating for political actions based wholly on their moral beliefs that are based purely on their religion. If, for example, I oppose abortion on wholly religious grounds, this is a totally legitimate reason that I can, as a voter or legislator, translate into action without apology or denying the rationale.  The increasing modern tendency to believe this is not so, to think religion has no place in the public square, is wholly new, extremely pernicious, and violates the First Amendment (and conflicts with the same peoples’ exaltation of identity politics otherwise).  But that is a much longer, and different, topic.  My only point is that is perfectly OK, in most situations, for Christians to use their beliefs as a, or the only, basis for a political position, including this one.

6.  This principle is even stronger in other religions, particularly in Islam. One of the attractions of Islam has always been that within the ummah, or community of believers, all are theoretically equal.  In practice, it’s not always that way, but everybody knows that the greatest caliph is no better than the meanest beggar, as long as both are Muslim.  But everything is focused on other Muslims; minimal to zero duty, and often hostility, are owed to those not Muslim (see the discussion on zakat above).  My point is not that this is good or bad, but that the principle of prioritizing co-believers is not unique to Christianity (and in fact is probably stronger in Islam).  The same is true of Judaism.  I can’t speak to, say, Buddhism or Zoroastrianism, but since the latter viciously persecuted Christians in the later Roman Empire, I’m guessing it was the same there.  Sure, in a sense this is irrelevant, since the focus here is Christians, but it’s interesting, at least.

7.  Of course, ideally Christians should give to all, in order to continue giving substance to the complaint of the Emperor Julian the Apostate, as he tried to re-invigorate paganism:  “Why do we not observe that it is their [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?  For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [i.e., Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”


Recognizing that I’m probably more likely to engage in a colloquy (or actually get anything done) in a timely fashion if I limit myself to short rather than extended thoughts, I’ll raise a quick question in regards to one of your primary theses.

Specifically, in thesis #4, you posit that in calculating tradeoffs we have a primary duty to our family, the latter term (following your expanding rings) being defined first presumably narrowly and in the immediate biological sense and then more expansively in terms of what we might term local affinity groups.

When speaking in terms of biblical injunctions, however, thesis #4 is problematically put, for when it’s deployed here it provides a theological patina to a claim that is more likely civic, traditional, or natural/evolutionary. That doesn’t make the claim necessarily less useful, but it should not by itself be a controlling factor in an argument regarding Christianity.

There are clear NT assertions, in fact, that argue *against* conflating the demands of family and faith. Luke 14: 26-27 is perhaps the clearest, and that it follows the parable of the banquet seems particularly apropos to this discussion.

Why do I raise this concern? Because I think there’s an implicit–and at times explicit–reliance in your argument on the necessity to defend “Christians.” That seems to be a potentially misleading goal whose mistatement is not just a matter of semantics. Especially in the light of the Luke passage, one might more appropriately posit “our primary duty is to our faith.” That would seem an unobjectionable claim (and as an aside, I like the regularly blithe use of unobjectionable 😉 )

If the message of that faith is fundamentally an almost reckless and unjustified (word play intended) charity toward others, one modeled on the cross, we may have good reason to reconsider how precisely we manifest and advance that faith.

 . . .

Probably the short version of my comment is that I think the message of the Luke passage (and its larger chapter) challenges this sentence of the reply you offered Mary: ” In order to spread the faith, it is necessary to support the community of believers in all ways.”

Terrible things can hang on the conflation of faith and community implied by that assertion of necessity.


Trying to be brief as well, and working backwards, it is no doubt true that “Terrible things can hang on the conflation of faith and community implied by [an] assertion of necessity [to support the community of Christian believers.” But that does not imply the assertion is false. It implies that everything must be balanced and all actions taken with as clear as possible an understanding of their consequences. Almost any moral principle can be applied in such a way as to lead to “terrible things.” That says little about whether the moral principle is correct.

I think there is a lot to our duty being to the faith rather than to Christians, per se. On the other hand, since the faith is composed of actual Christians, not just an abstract collection of doctrines, I am not sure this distinction makes a real difference. But perhaps your phrasing is better.

As to the primary duty to the family, I think this is a largely Catholic viewpoint that is, I agree, subject to attack based on purely scriptural responses (though to defense as well). (Maybe the parable of the banquet is mean to show that immigrants who won’t convert should be excluded from the banquet!) I would have to know more Aquinas, etc., to pull out the threads of Catholic doctrine on this topic, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this, in essence, and I think for tradition-oriented Christians the idea of Ptolemaic spheres of duties is unexceptional (though that doesn’t make it correct, of course).


I agree with the necessity of having a clear understanding of possible consequences, especially to the faith. Making the faith/actual Christians distinction I think does matter in this instance, but I’ll add that in a new reply as it might be of interest to others here who haven’t come down this particular rabbit hole with us.

More immediately, since your post is not simply about the philosophical underpinnings of duty but the application of that duty to the travel ban, I think there are arguments–or certainly at least questions–that follow from a consideration of consequences that in this instance may alter Christian duty in regards to this ban.

Briefly, we might ask–does the perception in the ME and elsewhere of this travel ban possibly intensify the hostility against Christians? (Granted, weak argument in a philosophical sense, as the difference is likely one of degree rather than kind.) Does it endanger communities here in a similar fashion? (A stronger argument insofar as radicalization in the age of the Internet crosses borders much faster than people, an issue not discussed well by either side on this EO.)

I’ve suggested that we should distinguish between defending the faith and defending Christians, which Charles has wondered is distinction without sufficient practical import. But using Charles’s rejection of Westboro Baptist up-thread, I want to suggest that there are some implications to this distinction, and its operation in regards to the EO, that are worth serious consideration.

Charles notes that Westboro isn’t Christian in any “meaningful sense of the word,” and that even if it is, it’s ok to distinguish among Christians. I happen to agree with the former in particular, but I think it should be recognized that Westboro does have a clear (if to my mind mistaken) theology, one that rests on a highly intensified form of Calvinism.

I’m cool with Charles or _______ or myself making these distinctions, and I’m fine with church structures (such as the Baptist Convention) doing so similarly. But I think there’s very good reason to be wary of enabling if not demanding governments to do exercise their police powers–in this case via CBP–to perform similar judgments.

Such judgments are a necessary corollary of immigration restrictions that are explicitly promoted to favor a particular religion. I’m unclear at present how CBP would assess whether a particular applicant is indeed Christian, and thus appropriate for prioritization. Most readily one might simply accept a statement to that effect (“Are you a Christian?” “Yes, I am.”) as prima facie evidence. That’s perhaps the safest in terms of governmental interrogation of religious belief, though it’s obviously at odds with vetting (extreme or otherwise). More intensive questioning might better establish the genuineness of Christian belief, but that to me has deeply problematic implications.

So if we recognize that the primary aim is to defend the faith rather than simply the person, in applying that dictum to immigration we need to have a mechanism for the government to determine whether any given applicant is indeed faithful. And I’m getting hives just typing that.


All true, and we seem to have converged in part on some of the narrower issues involved. As with the question of “will our actions exacerbate anti-Christian hostility,” as you point out, these are not philosophical questions so much as practical questions; therefore, they are not truly susceptible to clear answers.

But on the question of “determining faithfulness,” this sort of thing is done in the employment context from time to time, to determine reasonable accommodations for religious belief. There is an actual set of tests for “what is a religion” (veganism fails), and tests for whether people really believe. Yes, it skeezes courts out to make these determinations, but at some point they’re necessary. I suppose you could go full “Silence” and just see which image of which religious figure the claimant refuses to spit on, but that seems a bit much. Finally, of course, if persecution is the question, rarely does degree of faith figure in. A wholly non-observant Christian in Syria is probably treated no different by ISIS than one who goes to church every day of the week. So perhaps degree of faith doesn’t matter, more the binary question of self-identification.

On the question of increasing anti-Christian hostility, that’s certainly possible. But it’s hard to say, and in the narrow extremist Muslim context, it’s not likely the case. In fact, if anything, using a very broad brush, most Middle Eastern cultures (this has nothing to do with Islam, it’s cultural, as with many dubious behaviors that are incorrectly ascribed to Islam simply because of the overlap of Islam and some of these cultures), as with most primitive cultures generally, will respect the “strong horse,” so it could go either way.


Modern person: Today we are interviewing Charles Martel, King of the Franks, hello your highness.
Charles Martel: Be quick. We ride at dawn. I must see to the ordering of my host.
MP: Is it true that you and your lords and villeins are committed to smiting with fire and sword the followers of Mahound who have invaded France?
CM: We will leave them food for the birds and worms. None will escape us.
MP: Do you not see a contradiction here between the admonition of Jesus to turn the other cheek and your highly violent response to these newcomers to your land?
CM: Our Lord’s sepulchre has fallen into their hands, for now. Fair France will not fall. Our churches will not be mosques. Our sons will not turn toward Mecca. Our Lord will grant strength to our arms, and direct our spears to pierce the corselets of those paynim dogs who have harried our coasts, carried off our people, and plan to bring us all under their crescent banners! By God the last thing they will see is my sword, which bears in its hilt relics of many holy saints! God will bless us and lay them low!
MP: Let me rephrase my question, I may not have been clear …
CM: I have no time. Stop your chatter, return to your tent, put on your armor, strap on your arms and ride with us, or go among the women and await the result.

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One Comment

  1. emmett coyne emmett coyne

    Seems you reflect Paul’s admonition, “Be good to all people but especially those of the household of the faith.” One’s own, whether through blood or water (baptism) have priority. I find more challenging Peter Singer, atheist, challenge to see every child as an equal to one’s own.

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