Putin’s World vs. the “Sanctity of Borders”

The “sanctity of borders” has been the central doctrine of the post-Cold War world order. It is very topical because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine which seems to have taken place on February 27, 2014. For the record, Putin has denied that Russian forces seized Crimea, claiming the pro-Russian forces are local militias. The US State Department has provided evidence that Putin is lying. As an intermittent Russia watcher, my impression is that words have an instrumental rather than a veridical function for Putin, and have little value as evidence for anything except what he thinks it is in the interests of Russian power to fool the world into believing at a particular moment. Be that as it may, the Crimea crisis is a dire threat to the global principle of sanctity of borders.

I have a schizophrenic attitude to the “sanctity of borders.” On the one hand, as I put it in the title of a previous post, “The Modern Borders Regime Was Designed to Secure International Peace,” which I just reread. It’s worth rereading now. Both there and in an earlier post, “Deepening the Peace,” I argue that the Wilsonian world order that, in the course of the 20th century, gradually succeeded in partitioning the world into sovereign democratic or pseudo-democratic nation-states with well-defined borders, has been (since World War II) strikingly successful in maintaining peace. I derived these ideas some time back from an excellent book by Michael Mandelbaum, The Ideas that Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century (but the book is really about the 20th century). For evidence on the world’s growing peacefulness in general, see the Human Security Report and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. (I find the latter book obtuse in many ways, but it musters the evidence convincingly.) I think the “sanctity of borders” as a principle of international relations is a crucial factor explaining the world’s unprecedented peacefulness.

This is partly why I have hitherto been skeptical of the peace case for open borders. While prima facie plausible, it seems empirically false. The Golden Age of Open Borders ended in World War I. The closed borders post-WWII era was much more peaceful. Correlation does not prove causation, of course, but the fact that the data seem to show the opposite of what the peace case would predict, makes it seem unpromising.

Now, to immigration restrictionists, “the sanctity of borders” has another meaning: borders are morally significant lines which individuals cannot cross without wronging all the inhabitants of the nation whose territory they have entered. Either governments per se, or the people through their governments, have a kind of collective right in the entire territory of a nation, which undocumented immigrants violate. Governments act justly when they restrict immigration, regardless of what their reason may be or whether they have any reason at all. There is no right to migrate; on the contrary, nations enjoy a right, analogous to private property rights, not to be migrated into without their (suitably defined) consent. Thus borders are sacred.

“Sanctity of borders” in this sense, I deny. I think it lacks moral or philosophical justification, and the belief in it is immensely harmful to human welfare. Governments do not really enjoy this right. When they act on their belief that they do, they act wrongly. The world would be a better place if they correctly understood that they do not have this right, that on the contrary there is sometimes a right and in any case a liberty to (peacefully) migrate which governments may justly infringe only in exceptional cases.

Is my rejection of “sanctity of borders” against international migration inconsistent with a favorable attitude to “sanctity of borders” in international relations. No. The reconciliation is easy: I could simply assert that governments have a right to defend their borders by force against armed invaders, and a duty not to send armed invaders into other countries, but that they do not have a right to deny entry to peaceful immigrants who intend only consensual and rights-respecting interaction with a country’s current and lawful residents. Maybe I would assert that. But I would qualify my support for sanctity of borders in other ways. And here my opinions track those of many “liberal internationalists” in the foreign affairs community.

There have been many instances of humanitarian intervention by Western democracies since the end of the Cold War, including: Rwanda; East Timor; Sierra Leone; Yugoslavia, and in particularly the 1998 war in Kosovo; and most recently, the 2011 intervention in Libya. All these wars tend to violate the principle of “sanctity of borders,” in the sense that military forces cross an international border without consent of the recognized, sovereign government of that country. Is it hypocrisy, then, to object to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, or of Ukraine in 2014, on the ground that it violated “the sanctity of borders?” No, but the sanctity of borders must be qualified. It could be restated:

(1) “No government should send military forces across the sovereign borders of another, not having been attacked, unless this is necessary to prevent a massive human-rights violation, such as genocide or ethnic cleansing, currently in progress [humanitarian intervention], and to prevent such a crime is the government’s only important motive [disinterestedness].”

That would justify the war in Kosovo and some others, but not the 2003 invasion of Iraq. If we want to justify that too, we could offer the following:

(2) “No government should invade another country that has not attacked it, except to prevent extreme human-rights abuses or remove a totalitarian regime; furthermore, it should do so without intent of annexation or economic exploitation, without partition except as a last resort to prevent human rights violations, with fair advance warning, multilaterally and with the active support of other nations, and with a domestic record that gives it a credible chance of establish a rights-respecting regime in place of that which is removed.”

Principle (2) would justify the West’s humanitarian interventions, as well as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but condemn Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and Georgia. But am I just moving the goalposts? Is principle (2) actually rightin some fundamental moral sense? Does it allow too much, in authorizing so many interventions? Does it forbid too much, condemning some military interventions that are really justifiable?

For example, in Ukraine, Russia acted non-transparently and without fair warning, by stealth and surprise, in a situation where no major human rights violations were taking place, without a credible chance of establishing a rights-respecting regime because they don’t have one at home, with what seems to be an intent to partition Ukraine, and likely with an intent to annex Crimea. Yet Russians could make a plausible cause that the majority of the population of Crimea wants to be partitioned from Ukraine or even annexed to Russia (there may be a referendum about this in Crimea). Why shouldn’t the will of the Crimean majority decide whether the country is to be part of Ukraine or not? And why shouldn’t Russia help the Crimean majority attain its goals?

I think the best answer is that a world order based on a qualified sanctity of borders, as expressed above in Principle (1) or Principle (2), has proven itself quite effective in maintaining international peace. But that answer is not fully adequate, because man does not live by peace alone, and in all sorts of other ways, the contemporary world order is not conducive to the flourishing of much of the human race. The world order based on “sanctity of borders,” which Putin is now vigorously subverting, though impressively peaceful, has never been particularly rational or just. There was vast economic inequality between rich and poor nations. Totalitarian dictators like Saddam Hussein, whom the West had power to overthrow, were left in power, to the infinite detriment of their abject peoples. The 2003 invasion of Iraq has mitigated this problem a bit, but has not no way to guarantee people against getting trapped in a totalitarian nightmare regime. Many borders were drawn in a highly arbitrary fashion. Some states were rigged to fail by a disadvantageous geography or ethnic makeup. Ukraine, though far from the least fortunate of the world’s countries, is a good example of the arbitrariness of established borders, and the harm they do. There was never any very good reason for predominantly Russian Crimea to be part of Ukraine. It was a historical accident.

There have always been lots of plausible reasons to renegotiate all sorts of borders all over the world. Borders had to be treated as “sacred” precisely because they were so arbitrary and indefensible. We can’t offer a good reason why Crimea should be part of Ukraine, because there isn’t one and never was. Nor, for that matter, is there a good reason why Chechnya should be part of Russia, or Taiwan part of China, or why most of the borders in Africa should be as they are. But start to redraw them, and you open a Pandora’s box.

One of the more arbitrary borders in the world was that between Iraq and Kuwait, and just for that reason, the Gulf War of 1991 was so important for establishing the principle of “sanctity of borders.” That war, with full UN backing, embodied more than any other the principle of “collective security” which the US had been seeking to establish as the basis of the world order since Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The League of Nations had embodied it, rather naively and ultimately without success. The United Nations had embodied it, but UN processes quickly got caught up in Cold War realpolitik and didn’t work the way they had been intended. But suddenly, in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, a UN-backed US-led genuinely global coalition applied overwhelmingly force to reverse an act of aggression. The very arbitrariness of the border thus defended clarified that it was precisely the principle of sanctity of borders, i.e., of any internationally recognized border, that was being established. It was a watershed. To this day, the world is full of little countries with little militaries that go unafraid among the nations. They have confidence in collective security, in the US-led UN-based world order, in international law. It was the 1991 Gulf War, above all, that made that possible. Meanwhile, however, humanitarian intervention has been undermining the principles of that world order. In particular, the 1998 war in Kosovo, leading to its declaration of independence in 2008, and the 2003 war in Iraq, undermined it.

The Iraq War of 2003 had a justification in international law: Saddam had committed himself to letting the international community verified that his country was free of WMDs, then he’d kicked out the weapons inspectors. UN Resolution 1441, authorizing the use of force, was passed. But there was still something lawless about the way the war was initiated. For one thing, the US administration said that it wanted UN authorization, yet would intervene with or without it. The US administration didn’t seem to be reacting to anything Iraq had just done. In that sense, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a “war of choice.” There was certainly a humanitarian argument for overthrowing what everyone recognized to be a brutal totalitarian tyranny. But Saddam’s Iraq wasn’t engaged in genocide just then. The invasion of Iraq was part of a broader, much-misunderstood response to 9/11, and in that respect it was effective: Al-Qaeda was lured into a deadly trap. But to accept that as a reason to violate “Iraq’s sovereignty” was to set a dangerously ambiguous precedent, easy to manipulate and turn in sinister directions. The US wasn’t disinterested the way it had been in Kosovo or East Timor, and that made it more dangerous. The “sanctity of borders” was certainly violated in the sense that an international frontier was crossed by armed force, and the ex post justification, that a people was being liberated from tyranny, could easily turn into a program for wars all over the world, since there are plenty of genuinely tyrannical governments left standing. On the other hand, there was no question of the US annexing Iraq, and it didn’t partition it either. In that sense, the sanctity of borders was respected. But it was nonetheless a blow to the principle.

In the spring of 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, and this was recognized by many countries around the world including the US and most of western Europe. Russia was on the side of Serbia, a fellow Orthodox Slavic nation, and it’s probably in reaction to this that Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia, a province of the US-allied Republic of Georgia, grew more active… and a war took place in August 2008. How exactly this occurred isn’t entirely clear, since Russia is an unfree and secretive country. The outcome was that Russia occupied two provinces of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and supported their declarations of independence, which however have gone almost entirely unrecognized by the rest of the world. But while Russia didn’t procure international recognition for its new occupied territories, it didn’t face any real consequences either.

Obama came into office and immediately sought to “reset” relations with Russia, as if the breakdown in relations were the US’s fault. I think this basically reflects Obama’s uncritical, knee-jerk rejection of the legacy of the Bush administration. Obama appeased Russia by withdrawing plans to create a missile defense complex in Poland, among other things. To my mind, the “reset” was a huge mistake on the part of the Obama administration, and it’s the main reason why Russia has now occupied Crimea. Russia paid no price for its aggression in Georgia, so now it has done it again, on a larger scale. The West could have done plenty to punish Russia without going to war: boycott the Sochi Olympics, expulsion from the G-8, sending arms to Georgia, a military buildup along the Russian border, targeted sanctions, trade restrictions. It could have boycotted the 2014 Sochi Olympics, or agitated for them to be moved elsewhere, a blow to Russian prestige. It should have done all that, but it might not have worked, and it might have risked escalation into war. What made it difficult, though, was that Russia’s position– that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be separated from Georgia because their populations seemed to want to– was morally plausible. At any rate, to risk war with Russia for such a dubious cause would have seemed odd.

Now, after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the West finds itself in a position something like what it faced with Hitler in 1938. This is not a polemical reductio ad hitlerum, but an analytical device and a mnemonic. Putin resembles Hitler enough that Hitler’s career sheds light on Putin’s. Hitler and Putin came to power in countries bitter about losing major wars. Each was fiercely indignant about the fall of the former regime. (Putin has called the Soviet breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.”) Both rose in the context of a struggling democracy which they proceeded to eviscerate, clamping down on political parties and press freedom and imprisoning opponents. Both spread anti-Western attitudes through official propaganda.

By late 1938, Hitler had an impressive record of bloodless conquests. He had remilitarized the Rhineland, contra Germany’s agreements in the Versailles Treaty; executed an Anschluss or union with Austria, which was then confirmed by “referendum”; then occupied the Sudetenland, a majority-German region of , this time with the active support of France and Britain, which were hoping to sate Hitler’s territorial ambitions to avoid war; and then occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. None of this had met armed resistance, and naturally it did much to fuel Hitler’s popularity in Germany. Note that all of these early Hitlerian victories could plausibly be defended in terms of the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination. The West had greatly strengthened Hitler by letting him achieve all of this so easily. But what was the alternative? As long as Hitler had a plausible moral justification for his moves, however legally unacceptable they may have been, it was hard to muster the moral will to go to war with him. And so the rules of international legality were eviscerated, and a new system of incentives developed, and countries began to align themselves with Hitler. If Britain and France had fought in 1936, it would have been an easy win. By waiting to 1939, they almost handed Hitler the world on a platter.

Now, differences. First, Russia’s relative power is much less than Germany’s was. Second, whereas Russia is an authoritarian semi-dictatorship which has increasingly stifled dissent, it is not a totalitarian regime like the Nazis or the Soviet Union. Consequently, Russian public opinion is less crazy. Russians have more access to international news. Third, there isn’t a Russian ideology in the way there was a Nazi ideology. Fourth, Putin was less ruthless in establishing his regime. And I doubt that we’re on the brink of World War III. But the dilemma the West faces is similar to what it faced in 1938: either plunge into a nasty, dangerous confrontation that could lead to war for the sake of a not particularly just cause (keeping the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, or Crimea in Ukraine), or let the central stabilizing principle of the international order be eviscerated, and live in Putin’s world.

Bryan Caplan asked for predictions about Ukraine. I’ll offer a few. For now, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine looks unpopular in Russia. If Crimea secedes in some fashion, which it probably will, I doubt that Putin’s gambit will be so unpopular a year from now. I think Russians are afraid of the reactions of the West, but the West’s reaction will be feeble enough that, in Russians’ eyes, events will prove Putin right. Putin will be strengthened at home. Meanwhile, a few other things will happen:

  • Other secessionist movements around the world will be emboldened. They will behave more provocatively, and start to look for foreign patrons.
  • Demand for nuclear weapons will increase. Crimea will persuade many that nuclear weapons are the only real security in Putin’s world, and also, and worse, that they allow a nation to engage in aggression with impunity. I was tempted to say “fifteen nuclear powers by 2020,” but I don’t know enough about the supply side. Maybe nuclear weapons are too difficult for some regimes to get. But more will want them.
  • Military spending will rise in many countries.
  • Many regimes will try to alter the ethnic “facts on the ground” in their favor, burdening human rights in pre-emptive strikes against possible secession movements.
  • If Crimea’s independence is widely recognized, Taiwan will start to use it to bolster the case for their independence. This raises the probability of a China-Taiwan war.
  • The trend towards declining violence documented by the Human Security Report will stall or go into reverse.

Now, all this is causing me to reassess the peace case for open borders. Until now, I had been skeptical because the status quo seemed to be doing so well. But now it looks like the status quo may be breaking down. There’s a civil war in Syria which no one knows what to do about. In view of the empirical regularity that democracies do not fight each other, the global spread of democracy was an encouraging sign for the future of world peace. But democracy seems to be in decline. Democracy failed quickly in Egypt. The Pax Americana seems to be giving way to a more chaotic period of interregnum.

And so, let me suggest that it would be useful if open borders, the right to migrate, could be deployed in a somewhat opportunistic factor as a means to peace. Consider the case of Ukraine. One reason Russians care so much about Ukraine is that Kiev is so central to Russian history. It was where Russia began. Russians want to have access to it. If Ukraine joins NATO and the EU, immigration restrictions will probably be tightened in ways that make it harder for Russians to live and work there, or even to travel there. It’s not really clear why Russians should have less right of access to a place important to their culture and history like Kiev, than Americans have to a place important to our culture and history, like New York. Might it not help to reconcile Russians to Ukraine’s absorption into Europe, if their right to live and work in Ukraine were recognized and guaranteed? In principle, Russians’ right to live and work in Ukraine is separable from Moscow’s right to rule Ukraine.

Again, consider the situation of a Russian-speaking voter in Crimea, faced with a referendum on separation from Ukraine and incorporation into Russia. One major benefit of becoming part of Russia is that he will gain the right to live and work in Russia. This is quite valuable, since Russia is both big– many options– and richer than Ukraine. While it might seem even more valuable to have the right to live and work in Europe, (a) that is not being offered at the moment, and (b) for a Russian-speaking Crimean, the cultural transition would be much harder. Now, suppose arrangements could be made, such that Crimeans would be part of a free migration zone which includes Russia, so that Russians could move to Crimea and live and work there, while Crimeans could live and work in Russia. That might make it easier to reconcile pro-Russian Crimeans to the cancellation of a referendum on independence.

Indeed, if Ukrainians could all along have been an overlapping zone of free migration between Russia and Europe, such that Ukrainians could live and work in either Russia or Europe, and Russians and Europeans could live and work in Ukraine, need the tensions into Ukraine ever have come to this pass? Europe-oriented Ukrainians could be confident that the influence of Europe would be sustained, while Russia-oriented ones would not fear being cut off from their homeland.

At bottom, the trouble with Ukraine is not that her people can’t get along with each other, as that the sovereign democratic nation-state model just doesn’t fit it very well. Some other arrangement is needed to avoid conflict, which combines integration and fluidity with the autonomy of regions and ethnic communities, and which recognizes and gives institutional protections to the links Ukrainians feel to different communities beyond Ukraine. The state sovereignty model is too crude to accommodate these needs.

If we’re entering a more chaotic era, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It will probably be more violent: that’s just reversion to the historical mean. Minimizing violence was one thing that the late 20th-century Wilsonian world order did exceptionally well. But it may also be more creative, more just, and/or more interesting. As we muddle through, the single most important thing we can do is to advance individual rights on any front we can. Formal, democratic, constitutional processes may become less important, and hopefully some powers, such as the power to restrict migration, will be taken out of their hands. Protection of human rights should not be the responsibility only or primarily of sovereign states towards their own citizens, but churches and all sorts of civil society organizations and of conscience, as well as international organizations, should find ways to do it, and existing states should probably start doing it for people other than their own citizens. Apologies if this is vague, but it’s my dim glimpse of what may be in store for us.

Biweekly links roundup 11 2014

Here’s our Tuesday link roundup. See here for all link roundups. As usual, linking does not imply endorsement.

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General discussion of the ethics and philosophy of migration law

Migration in the news around the world

Research, policy analyses, recommendations, and long-run forecasts

Weekly OBAG roundup 02 2014

This is the second of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Will Immigration Advocacy Contribute to the Competitiveness of Churches?

So my recent post The Coming Catholic Movement for Freedom of Migration seems to be convincing some people. Not convincing people to support open borders, but convincing people that the Catholic Church supports open borders. Actually, I shouldn’t take credit. It’s not my arguments, but a statement of the Catholic bishops, that convinced a blogger to write acerbically about The One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Open-Borders Church. I merely drew attention to their statement.

Mangan’s writes:

It would be an understatement to call the writers at Open Borders immigration enthusiasts; they make the Democratic and Republican parties look like pikers. And even they have found an organization that appears at least as enthusiastic about immigration as they are: the U.S. Catholic Church [links to my post].

The post and the comments that follow partly criticize the Catholic bishops on what might be called Catholic grounds. Most interestingly, one commenter digs up a quote from Thomas Aquinas which I may quote in another thread. But some of the comments attack Christianity itself. For example:

“Most Christian leaders today are girly men.”

“Who cares what the church says or thinks?… Christianity has nothing to do with the truth.”

“The Catholic Church, and Christianity in general in the 21st century, calls on all white nations and only white nations to be lambs to the slaughter…”

“The Catholic Church has only secondarily — if at all — a spiritual mission. Today’s Church is a worldwide corporation, its main difference from Coca-Cola being that its wealth and investments are untaxed…”

“Pope John Paul II is rumored to have been Jewish by birth and once married with children… Communists as seminarians [have] infiltrated the church in the thousands.”

All this raises an interesting question: can churches afford to promote freedom of migration? If churches teach the Biblical view of immigration, and members disagree with it, why should they listen? Why shouldn’t they conclude that the church is a sinister conspiracy of international Jewish girly men determined to extirpate the white race through lies and slander, for the sake of profit? Why shouldn’t they stand up and storm out?

Religion can be thought of as a competitive marketplace. There is competition at several levels: among major religions; among Christian denominations; between Christianity, secular humanism, and other worldviews for people’s credence; between churches and the world for people’s time and money; within congregations about which activities– youth ministry, music, international missions, poor relief, etc.– will get funding and personnel; between liberals and conservatives to determine policy with congregations and jurisdictions; between priests for parishes; between parishes of the same denomination within a city, etc.

All this competition gives us reason to suspect that Christian churches aren’t really in charge of their own message. Rather, they’re constrained to satisfy customer demand. Pastors who tell people what they don’t want to hear will either get replaced, or else see their congregations dwindle until their parishes become unsustainable. We should see successful pastors teaching what their congregations want to hear. That’s not to say they are insincere. They might be. Some pastors may preach what their congregations like to keep their jobs. More honorably, pastors may downplay unpopular tenets of the faith in order to keep parishioners coming who would otherwise leave, and lose the beneficent influence that (the pastor thinks) even a watered-down Christianity has. But selection rather than adaptation may explain agreement between pastors and their congregations. Pastors who happen to say what the age likes get jobs and see their congregations grow. Pastors who say what it hates, don’t. And what one generation of pastors is silent about, the next generation hardly knows, having not grown up hearing it. And so, by this account, the religious marketplace will ensure that the content of Christian teachings will adapt itself to the times.

Now, I think there’s some truth to the cynical view in the above paragraph, and that’s part of the answer to John Lee’s question, “Why Don’t Christians Care More About Open Borders?” However favorable the Bible may be to open borders, the way the Church is enmeshed in society tends to distort and selectively censor the Christian message at any given moment in history, and often the parts of Christian teaching which are especially unwelcome get partially hidden. So “welcome the stranger” is either not taught, or is taught in an indefensibly moderate way, relative to what “love thy neighbor” would really demand in a world where vast inequalities in economic opportunity and political and religious freedom are largely driven by the accident of place of birth.

What is really striking for me, however, is how little the cynical, demand-side view holds true, when it seems at first glance so plausible. Superficially, Christianity does change with the times, it gets watered down and complacent. But real Christianity is always lying in wait to shine through all the compromises. And the result is that while the lukewarm Christians of former ages seem very alien to the modern Christian, the zealous Christians seem intimately familiar. It would be very difficult, at this distance, to understand the court of the empress Aelia Eudoxia, persecutor of St. John Chrysostom. But the writings of St. John Chrysostom (347-407 AD) are no more, and no less, psychologically remote from a devout Orthodox Christian than those of St. John of Kronstadt (1829-1908) or Tikhon Shevkunov (contemporary author of the bestselling Everyday Saints). The distance between myself and any of these three writers is not one of time, but one of sanctity. They are far above me, but they are not at all out of date. They have the same quality about them, and its name is Christianity. Only at a lower level of sanctity is there a 4th-century Byzantine Christianity and an 18th-century Methodist Christianity and a 20th-century English Christianity and a 21st-century Russian Christianity. At a higher level, all these converge. C.S. Lewis and Athanasius are almost interchangeable. The Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton described near the end of his book, The Everlasting Man, the strange and wonderful feeling that he and I and many others have experienced of coming into the full, living presence of a Christianity we had only glimpsed in the faraway past:

There are people who say they wish Christianity to remain as a spirit. They mean, very literally, that they wish it to remain as a ghost. But it is not going to remain as a ghost. What follows this process of apparent death is not the lingering of the shade; it is the resurrection of the body. These people are quite prepared to shed pious and reverential tears over the Sepulchre of the Son of Man; what they are not prepared for is the Son of God walking once more upon the hills of morning. These people, and indeed most people, were indeed by this time quite accustomed to the idea that the old Christian candle-light would fade into the light of common day. To many of them it did quite honestly appear like that pale yellow flame of a candle when it is left burning in daylight. It was all the more unexpected, and therefore all the more unmistakable, that the sevenbranched candle-stick suddenly towered to heaven like a miraculous tree and flamed until the sun turned pale. But other ages have seen the day conquer the candle-light and then the candle-light conquer the day. Again and again, before our time, men have grown content with a diluted doctrine. And again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine. And we only say once more to-day as has been said many times by our fathers: `Long years and centuries ago our fathers or the founders of our people drank, as they dreamed, of the blood of God. Long years and centuries have passed since the strength of that giant vintage has been anything but a legend of the age of giants. Centuries ago already is the dark time of the second fermentation, when the wine of Catholicism turned into the vinegar of Calvinism. Long since that bitter drink has been itself diluted; rinsed out and washed away by the waters of oblivion and the wave of the world. Never did we think to taste again even that bitter tang of sincerity and the spirit, still less the richer and the sweeter strength of the purple vineyards in our dreams of the age of gold. Day by day and year by year we have lowered our hopes and lessened our convictions; we have grown more and more used to seeing those vats and vineyards overwhelmed in the water-floods and the last savour and suggestion of that special element fading like a stain of purple upon a sea of grey. We have grown used to dilution, to dissolution, to a watering down and went on forever. But Thou hast kept the good wine until now.’

Against the cynical half-truth that the churches have to say what the age wants to be competitive, I see a deeper reality, that the Christian message is always latent, and I see in history the pattern, that that message repeatedly shines through and shatters the transient compromises.

Christian churches have always, albeit in varying degrees, distinguished God and Caesar, and regarded some matters are primarily Caesar’s realm, concerning which the church should remain on the sidelines. However, law and society and morals and faith are too interwoven for there ever to be a clear and clean separation of church and state. Churches may feel it appropriate to take stands on morally charged political issues. In some cases, they have to do so, because their own practical business is directly affected. It is possible to ask, then, whether a particular issue stance contributes to the competitiveness of churches. To illustrate the point, I’ll compare two issues: (a) gay marriage, and (b) immigration.

Gay marriage.

I’m sorry to say that I think Christianity will lose ground in America in the next generation because of its stance on gay marriage (as this study, for example, suggests). I also think that churches that remain staunch in their opposition to gay marriage will gain market share within the diminished ranks of Christians.

With 70% of young people favoring gay marriage, it seems unlikely that 77% of Americans will continue to self-identify as Christian. After all, both the Old and New Testaments clearly define homosexuality as a sin, and gay marriage contradicts two thousand years of universal Christian practice. If young people disagree with the Bible about this, they’ll feel growing cognitive dissonance in church. Many will leave.

Of course, there are a few churches, such as the United Church of Canada and some Swedenborgians, that recognize same-sex marriage. More churches probably will do so. The trouble is that in adopting the fashionable view on this issue, they fatally weaken the logic of Christianity as a whole. “Is the Bible the Word of God or not?” members will inevitably ask. “If so, why do we approve what it condemns? If not, why should we pay attention to it at all?”

Such churches lose members in both directions. Some will think Christianity true and go to other churches where it is still taught. Some, following their leaders’ concessions to their logical conclusions, will think Christianity false and look for other communities, other principles, and other things to do on Sunday morning.


There are a number of tactical reasons why “welcome the stranger” might be a shrewd message for contemporary Christian churches to emphasize. One is triangulation. A church that feels constrained to be on the “right” of the emerging consensus on gay marriage earns political capital with members who are more on the “right,” but risks losing people on the “left.” A strongly “left” stance on immigration might alienate members on the “right,” but if churches are the last bastion of support for traditional family values, conservatives may have nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, members on the “left” who are alienated by the church’s stance on gay marriage might be pleased by the church’s stance on immigration just enough to stay in.

Again, some Christians today find themselves obligated to violate anti-discrimination laws by refusing to participate in gay “wedding” ceremonies and thus endorsing a false belief about what marriage is. If Christian churches recognize that it’s right to violate the law on an issue of conscience like this, shouldn’t they also recognize that it might be right for someone in a poor or a totalitarian country to violate US law in order to earn enough to feed their families, or to practice their religion freely? And if undocumented immigrants are sometimes right to break US law, doesn’t it follow that the law is unjust and ought to be changed, just as anti-discrimination laws that violate freedom of religion ought to be changed?

Most fundamentally, though, the tactical merits of immigration advocacy for enhancing the competitiveness of Christian churches are linked to the Biblical case for open borders and its consistency with New Testament ethics. If people in the pews dislike what they hear from the pulpit, it matters whether the priest or preacher has the Bible on his side or not. If he (or she) is preaching gay marriage, he clearly doesn’t, and the parishioners’ belief in Christianity becomes the wedge that separates them from the church. But when the US Catholic bishops make a statement that all-but-endorses open borders, honest people among the Roman Catholic faithful, even if they don’t like the stance, must admit that the bishops have a strong case to make. They can’t plausibly regard the bishops as apostates for saying it. They can contest it, by quoting Thomas Aquinas or trying to offer different interpretations in the Bible, and the fact that they can do this is a reason for them to stay in. After all, if your preacher endorses gay marriage, and you disagree, what can you say? You can’t argue from the Bible, because he obviously doesn’t regard it as authoritative on the question. But if you think the bishops are making an honest mistake, you can argue with them, from traditional Christian sources.

At the end of the day, seeing the way public opinion has turned against them in the last couple of decades, Christian churches should be eager to elect a new people.

Reminder: Open Borders Day on March 16

This is a reminder that Open Borders Day will be held on Sunday, March 16, 2014. Due to the international nature of the site, and the real-time nature of discussion on Twitter and other forms of social media, we invite people to start celebrating the day starting from the beginning of Sunday, March 16 in New Zealand (the earliest timezone, GMT+12) and ending at the end of Sunday, March 16 in the latest timezone (GMT-12, followed by some Pacific islands).

Possible actions:

  • Use the #OpenBordersDay tag while sharing open borders-related stuff on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. The Open Borders Twitter account (which you might want to follow and tweet to) is @OpenBordersInfo. Open Borders regular bloggers and some occasional and guest bloggers will be active on Twitter throughout the day participating in the Twitter conversations.
  • Use Facebook to show your commitment to open borders. You could share the Open Borders logo, make it your profile picture or cover photo, or share links on Facebook related to open borders.
  • Organize physical meetups: Feel free to post about possible meetups on the Open Borders Action Group or send messages to people who’ve liked Open Borders: The Case and live in your city (you can find them using Facebook Graph Search).
  • If you’re attending the 2014 European Students for Liberty conference (14-16 March 2014), that would be a great venue to advertise Open Borders Day.

Keep in mind: the goal of the day is to raise the stature of open borders as a topic of discussion. It’s not possible or desirable to make instant converts by posting extraordinarily convincing tweets or posts for open borders (if somebody changes their mind completely after reading one tweet, their conversion is likely to be shallow). But it is possible to shift people’s views at the margin from “open borders is a crazy strawman” to “open borders is an out-there proposal that has a few good arguments for it that at least some people take seriously” — as Bryan Caplan has managed to do.