Tag Archives: Christianity

Terror in Paris and Open Borders

My recent exchange with Bryan Caplan about tolerance (see here, here and here) suddenly seems terribly topical in light of events in France last month, where 12 people were killed in a murderous attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, by gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar!”

The attacks may strengthen anti-immigration parties in Europe, and they have provoked attacks against Muslims. They seem to lend support to the tolerance=>migration restrictions argument that I mentioned at the end of the last post in my back-and-forth with Caplan:

2. Tolerance => Migration restrictions. Tolerant moral and social values are a distinctive Western achievement which will be diluted if we let in foreigners from less tolerant cultures. So we should keep  most foreigners out.

Now, you don’t have to think tolerance, as a concept, does much useful work in ethical or political argument, to think this kind of intolerance is a big problem. In one sense, tolerance is beside the point: what France needs to do isn’t so much to promote tolerance as to prevent murder. Still, if intolerant attitudes were the motive for murder, promoting tolerance might promote public safety. But public safety would be equally promoted if intolerance were kept peaceful. And peaceful intolerance– scorn and ostracism– for the kinds of attitudes and views that lead to violent intolerance, might be an effective way of making such attitudes scarce.

My take on tolerance, Islam, and open borders may sound paradoxical. I view Islam as inherently, and perhaps incorrigibly, intolerant and violent. But I nonetheless believe that the West and the world generally should be much more open to Muslim immigrants. Why? Because even Muslims shouldn’t have to live under Muslim rule.

On Charlie Hebdo

The attackers were avenging the paper’s depictions of the prophet Muhammad, and most recently, a cartoon depicting two men kissing, one in Muslim dress and the other labeled “Charlie Hebdo,” with the slogan “Love is stronger than hate.” From a Muslim perspective, I suppose, the cartoon is pornographic as well as blasphemous. I agree with the attackers in considering it offensive, though obviously not in how they responded. It’s symptomatic of the contemporary West’s degradation of the old Christian virtue of love into mere sensuality, as well as of its obsession with homosexuality. And there is a bitter irony in a cartoon that pretends to proclaim love while deliberately insulting those for whom it is pretending to advocate love.

I found the pope’s remarks in the Philippines refreshing. “Killing in the name of God is wrong,” he said, but also that it is wrong to belittle someone’s religion, adding that if a friend “says a swear word against my mother, then a punch awaits him.” I’m wary of the suggestion that violence can be an appropriate response to speech, but as a moral matter, we should have strong inhibitions against mocking what others hold sacred. If we do so– as God sometimes does in the Bible (or even more memorably, Elijah)– it should be with the loftiest of motives: to challenge evil powers, dispel myths, and save souls. But while I don’t think one should gratuitously offend Muslims by depicting Mohammed, serious criticism of Islam is another matter. We need more of it.

On Islam

It can be conceded, I suppose, that the Charlie Hebdo perpetrators don’t represent Islam: they went a bit further than most Muslims would. But the idea that Islam is a “religion of peace” is only wishful thinking; Sam Harris is closer to the truth. The advent of Islam ushered in a thousand years of tyranny in the lands the Arabs conquered, and as Rowley and I showed in a 2009 paper, there is a striking democracy deficit in the Muslim world to this day, especially in the historic heartland of Islam, the territories conquered by Islam before 800 AD. We found that there were no democracies at all in Islam’s historic heartland. Moreover, the correlation between GDP and democracy is reversed in Islam. In the non-Islamic world, higher GDP per capita is associated with a greater likelihood of democracy; in Islam, with a lesser likelihood. Islam’s freedom deficit is worse than its democracy deficit. The lack of religious freedom, in particular, is strikingly captured by the fact that apostasy is legally punishable in most Muslim countries, sometimes by death, which seems to have been the normal penalty for apostasy before the arrival of European colonialism.

Tolerance vs. freedom of conscience

I am not all that worried about Islam’s democracy deficit per se, since I regard democracy as a considerably overrated form of government. But democracy is, so to speak, overrated for a good reason, namely, that it is correlated with something much more important: freedom of conscience. But the freedom that Charlie Hebdo exercised, and that the terrorists violently cut short, is not a part of what I consider freedom of conscience.

There are a number of expressions which some hear as nearly synonymous with “tolerance,” but which, under closer scrutiny, vary in meaning, though they also overlap. “Freedom of speech” is a venerable phrase, but we don’t mean it literally. By what principle is it OK to prohibit perjury, false advertisement, inciting a crowd to violence, libel, and certain IP violations, if “freedom of speech” is sacrosanct? And on the other hand, how are Charlie Hedbo‘s cartoons protected by freedom of speech? “Freedom of thought” is very important but doesn’t demand enough: in a narrowly logical sense, a prisoner in chains is still free to think as he likes. “Free inquiry” is a noble ideal, in defense of which Socrates was martyred; but we want the freedom not only to inquire after truth, but to preach it when we find it. “Freedom of the press” makes the extension of free speech to printed material explicit; “freedom of expression” sounds vaguer but seems to cover all media.

“Freedom of religion” is narrower than freedom of speech, but includes elements of “free association” as well, e.g., the right to assemble with fellow believers to worship God. Problematically, “freedom of religion” crosses the line between speech and action, and it violates freedom of religion to be forced to bake a cake for a gay commitment ceremony even if you’re allowed to protest all the while that you don’t believe in it. It might also be a violation of freedom of religion to have to work on Sunday, or provide contraceptive coverage for one’s employees, or refrain from giving alcohol to children. Free speech sometimes crosses the speech/action divide, too, e.g., if people demand the right to conduct public protests– disrupting traffic, etc.– in the name of free speech.

My way through this confusion is to stress freedom of conscience as the key principle that explains all the others and defines their scope. Freedom of conscience is my right to obey conscience, to do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong. “Free speech,” “free press,” and “free expression” mean freedom to state the truth as I see it, in whatever medium is most expedient, to speak as conscience compels me to speak. But my conscience doesn’t necessarily deny to the government a say in what media are expedient. If, for example, all print media were prohibited for environmental reasons, “freedom of the press” in the literal sense seems clearly extinguished, but I would not regard that as a violation of freedom of conscience. “Freedom of religion” is of special importance because conscience obliges me to worship God, and more generally, for Christians, what religion commands and what conscience commands are essentially identical. “Freedom of association” requires not only that I be able to assemble with fellow believers to worship God, but also that I be able to collaborate with a team of bloggers to advocate open borders, because both of those activities arise from the demands of conscience; but it is not a violation of freedom of conscience, even if it is a curtailment of freedom of association, if I’m forbidden to found a company with a whites-only hiring policy.

I would regard an environmentalist prohibition of all print media as very foolish, and I’m skeptical about whether the government either has the right or is well-advised to prohibit workplace discrimination. But since such policies, even if unwise, do not violate freedom of conscience, I am relatively relaxed about them. But when freedom of conscience is violated, when the government commands someone to do what is wrong, or forbids someone to do what is right, a deep alienation occurs, and the social contract is shattered.

Patrick Henry’s ultimatum, “Give me liberty or give me death!” might have been a bit overwrought as a response to the mild misrule of King George III. But it is absolutely correct as a response to threats to freedom of conscience. A person who would surrender his freedom of conscience even in the face of certain death is, in the end, a person not worth knowing, a person whose actions and utterances have no real meaning, a person without value, except inasmuch as he might repent someday and become brave, become fully human, become real. Why trust a person’s utterances, when they are only a function of his circumstances? Society bribes us in all sorts of subtle ways to lie, if we’re willing to be bribed. Socrates and Jesus preferred death to denying the truth, to doing what is wrong. So should we all.

I have a tentative and vague preference for democracy over the alternatives. I have a firm, definite, and strong preference for market capitalism over the alternatives. But neither democracy nor market capitalism matters much relative to freedom of conscience. Any amount of unaccountable autocracy or needless and inefficient regulation is preferable to being forced by the state to do what one knows is wrong, or prohibited from doing what one knows is right.

In defense of Voltaire

Now, in Bryan Caplan’s recent dissent from the militant tolerance of Voltaire, I detect a reluctance to be drafted into fighting for freedom of the press as exercised by Charlie Hebdo, which I share:

If standing up for your own right to utter truth X is a grave mistake, why is standing up for someone else’s right to do the same any better?  Indeed, common sense morality says you have only modest obligations to help perfect strangers in dire need.  Why then should you assume a blanket obligation to die in defense of strangers’ rights to speak when they could easily remain silent?

But my reasons are a bit different. The conduct of Charlie Hebdo was gratuitously offensive. It certainly didn’t deserve death, but they didn’t deserve to be elevated to hero status by mass marches either, and it might, just possibly, be sensible for civilized societies to say that Charlie Hebdo kind of had it coming, and that protecting such useless, reckless, and vicious behavior isn’t the best use of scarce police resources. But when Caplan writes that…

Sure, you can devise hypotheticals where courting death by asserting the right to say X is an admirable choice.  Maybe standing up for the right to say X will, via your death, save many innocent lives, or replace an awful tyranny with something much better.  Maybe you only have ten minutes left to live, and want to go out with a noble bang.  Except in such unusual circumstances, however, throwing your life away to speak a few forbidden words seems not only imprudent, but wrong.  Any true friend would beg you to come to your senses and shut your piehole.

… he treats as odd “hypotheticals” what is really the normal situation of the courageous person speaking truth to power. Socrates and Jesus, the apostles, the Christian martyrs, and Martin Luther King all spoke truth to power and died for it. Just for that reason, their historical impact is wildly disproportionate to their numbers, and infinitely beneficent. For everyone who spoke truth to power and died for it, there are probably a hundred who spoke truth to power knowing that they might die for it, and where would the human race be without them? How much of the moral progress of mankind, in the end, is traceable to such people? Half? Nine-tenths? As the song says, “He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young.” Bryan Caplan calls himself (or at least invites others to call him) a “coward” at the end of the post, and says that “staying alive> asserting your own right to say truths.” A nation of such cowards is a nation of slaves.

The point Caplan is missing is that we all face a collective action problem, which is captured in (let’s call it) the Parable of the Playground. Suppose there are 50 Nerds in the playground, and 1 Bully. The Nerds are nice, tolerant, productive, independent-minded people who make the world a better place. The Bully is an intolerant, parasitic thug. Collectively, the Nerds are stronger than the Bully, but the Bully is stronger than any 1 Nerd alone. The Bully threatens to beat up any Nerd who speaks against him. If the Nerds think “staying alive > asserting your own right to say truths,” then no one will ever be able to tell the truth. But if the Nerds believe, with Voltaire, that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” then as soon as the Bully enforces his rule against one Nerd, he’ll be challenged and defeated by them all. Such is the foundation of courage on which free societies are built.

So we should certainly be ready to fight for our own freedom of conscience and that of others; but what is the scope of this freedom? I have said that freedom of conscience is the freedom to do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong, but our knowledge of what is right and wrong must be fallible, since there is so much disagreement about it. So should freedom of conscience mean the freedom to do what is really right, or the freedom to do what we think is right? Here a balance must be struck: some accommodation of eccentric ideas of right and wrong is needed, but we can’t respect the freedom of conscience of the armed jihadist. It’s all manageable enough as long as there is a certain degree of right-minded consensus about what conscience demands, such as prevailed in 19th-century America, where almost everyone was a Christian of some sort. In today’s America, afflicted as it is with people who think it’s morally acceptable to force photographers to serve at gay commitment ceremonies, I have grave doubts about the sustainability of freedom of conscience.

On courage

And that is one reason why I’m relaxed about Muslim immigration: I’m less afraid of Muslim intolerance than of the home-grown sort. I’d much rather have occasional random terrorist attacks against the publishers of gratuitously offensive cartoons, than Swedish-style arrests of pastors for preaching against homosexuality. Doubtless, the Charlie Hebdo attackers wouldn’t like an outspoken Christian apologist and critic of Islam like myself. But I’m much less afraid of them than I am of the PC police and the rising LGBT state.

More importantly, though, I want freedom of conscience for Muslims, and I think they’re unlikely to get it in their home countries any time soon. If you believe, as I do, that Islam is a false religion, then you ought to be very concerned about the fact that hundreds of millions of people live in countries where they are forced to believe it, or pretend to believe it, on pain of losing civic rights or even their lives. While I’m an unapologetic supporter of the 2003 liberation of Iraq, I think it’s clear that the West can’t impose freedom, least of all religious freedom, on the Muslim world by force (even if we can and should overthrow the worst totalitarian regimes). For the foreseeable future, the path to full freedom of conscience for Muslims is emigration. The West should give them that chance, even if it involves some risk to ourselves.

And that is why I don’t believe Caplan’s confession that he’s a “coward.” He surely knows there are risks, risks to the freedom of speech which few take more advantage of than he does, in letting in tens or hundreds of millions of immigrants, but he still wants to do it. He’s got a comfortable and secure life, but he’s willing to jeopardize that for the sake of a reform that he knows would be a great leap forward for the liberty and flourishing of mankind as a whole. I call that courage. Meanwhile, the nativist cowards are in a panic to build the walls higher.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

UPDATE: In addition to the comments here, you might also be interested in some discussion of this blog post in the comments on an Open Borders Action Group post about the blog post.

Related reading

What Open Borders Can Learn from the Abolition of Slavery

I occasionally hear people linking gay marriage and open borders. Thus, Jose Antonio Vargas (whom I wrote about here and heresays:

We are fighting for more than immigration reform. We are fighting for the dignity of people and liberation. More than anything Define American is trying to change media and culture. Again, LGBT rights would not have happened without culture shifting.

And Charles Kenny, in “Why Immigration is the New Gay Marriage,” writes:

The evolution of public attitudes toward gay marriage—which a majority of Americans now support—demonstrates that cultural shifts can be dramatic and rapid when circumstances are right. Perhaps U.S. citizens will start realizing that more people aspiring to become Americans is no threat to the institutions of America, just as they have come to accept that more people wanting to get married—some to people of the same sex—is no threat to the institution of marriage.

I’ll explain in a follow-up post why I don’t think open borders can expect to get much benefit from riding the coattails of, or emulating, the gay marriage movement. First, I want to describe the historical movement that open borders does resemble, and which it should emulate, namely: the movement to abolish slavery.

An excellent short history of the abolition of slavery, in Chapter 5 of his book For the Glory of God by sociologist Rodney Stark, which correctly treats it as part of the history of Christian social justice, begins with a sad history of this deplorable institution, which “has… been a nearly universal feature of ‘civilization’ [and] was also common in a number of ‘aboriginal’ societies that were sufficiently affluent to afford it– for example, slavery was very prevalent among the Northwest Indians,” and which, in fact, before the advent of Christian social justice, essentially occurred wherever “the average person can produce sufficient surplus that it becomes profitable for someone to own him or her” (Stark, p. 292-293). Stark describes slavery among the Northwest Coast Indians; in classical Greece and Rome; in the Muslim world; in black Africa long before the Atlantic slave trade; and in the New World in modern times. Stark pays less attention to China– space is limited, after all– but slavery also existed there.

The Bible doesn’t condemn slavery, though the Mosaic law does greatly ameliorate it:

Although Jews were prohibited from enslaving their fellow Jews, and their slaves therefore came from among the “heathen,” there were still severe limits on their treatment. Death was decreed for any Jewish master who killed a slave. The Torah admonished that freedom was to be awarded any slave as compensation for suffering acts of violence: “And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake” (Exodus 21:26-27). Hebrew law held that children of slaves must not be parted from their parents, nor a wife from her husband. Moreover, in Deuteronomy 23:15-16 Jews were admonished not to return escaped slaves: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escape from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee, even among you… thou shalt not oppress him.” (Stark, p. 328)

Is it embarrassing that God condones slavery in the Mosaic Law? In such cases, one must be careful not to kick away the ladder by which we ascended. Christians believe that God is trying to redeem fallen mankind. That sometimes means meeting fallen man where he is at a given time, improving him by small steps, and condoning much that is defective with respect to loftier ethical standards that he may attain later. Compared to the brutal exploitation of slaves by so many other civilizations, slavery as prescribed in the Mosaic law is humane. Jesus later told the Pharisees that Moses had permitted men to divorce their wives “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:8), and I think (and more importantly, Christians have long held) that the same principle applies to much of the Mosaic law. It was a kind of compromise between ethical perfection and human weakness. The subsequent history of the Jews shows how little they were able even to live up to this limited standard. But in the teachings of Jesus the fullness of ethical perfection was revealed, and this rendered obsolete some of the rituals and minor rules, and especially the imperfections and compromises, of the Mosaic law.

Yet even in the New Testament, slaves are told to obey their masters by both St. Peter– see 1 Peter 2:18— and St. Paul– see Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22. I don’t find these passages troubling, because I see them as instances of Jesus’s teaching to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) and, in general, to submit to coercion and even give more than what is demanded: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:41). After all, if we ought to serve our fellow men, then why should it be an unmitigated evil to be legally bound to serve one of our fellow men? More troubling, possibly, is that in advising the Ephesians, St. Paul does not command Christian masters to manumit their slaves, saying only “And masters, do the same things [i.e., render sincere service] to them [i.e., to your slaves], and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Ephesians 6:9). Certainly for masters to serve their slaves and to stop threatening them is a step in the right direction, but how can any kind of slavery, even an ameliorated form, be compatible with the Gospel of love?

I would offer three defenses of St. Paul here. First, the apostles weren’t trying to make a secular political revolution, for which they didn’t have the strength, but to save souls, to work a moral transformation from within. Had they attempted to launch a revolution against slavery, the Roman Empire would have crushed them. Even semi-public exhortations to manumission in letters to churches might have been dangerous. Second, this is another case of God meeting us where we are, and not giving us moral standards we’re not yet ready to live by. What would masters in the early Ephesian church have done, had St. Paul commanded them to manumit all their slaves? Let’s assume it would have been good for their souls as well as their slaves if they had obeyed. But, perhaps they would not have obeyed, but left the church instead. Would that justify Paul in limiting his exhortations to good treatment rather than manumission? I think so. Third, what happens to a manumitted slave? Don’t think of the ancient Roman Empire as a modern capitalist economy where any random person can find a job and support himself. A typical slave would probably have trouble making it on his or her own. To urge masters to manumit their slaves into isolation and destitution might have been no mercy. The slaveless society was a social model yet to be developed.

Theologian David Bentley Hart describes (in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, pp. 176ff.) the attitudes of the early Church fathers towards slavery…

The attitudes of many of the fathers of the church toward slavery ranged from (at best) resigned acceptance to (at worst) a kind of prudential approval. All of them regarded slavery as a mark of sin, of course, and all could take some comfort in the knowledge that, at the restoration of creation in the Kingdom of God, it would vanish altogether. They even understood that this expectation necessarily involved certain moral implications for the present. But, for most of them, the best that could be hoped for within a fallen world (apart from certain legal reforms) was a spirit of charity, gentleness, and familial regard on the part of masters and a spirit of longsuffering on the part of servants. Basil of Caesarea found it necessary to defend the subjection of some men to others, on the grounds that not all are capable of governing themselves wisely and virtuously. John Chrysostom dreamed of a perfect (probably eschatological) society in which none would rule over another, celebrated the extension of legal rights and protections to slaves, and fulminated against Christian masters who would dare to humiliate or beat their slaves. Augustine, with his darker, colder, more brutal vision of the fallen world, disliked slavery but did not think it wise always to spare the rod, at least not when the welfare of the soul should take precedence over the welfare of the flesh. Each of them knew that slavery was essentially a damnable thing– which in itself was a considerable advance in moral intelligence over the ethos of pagan antiquity– but damnation, after all, is reserved for the end of time; none of them found it possible to convert that eschatological certainty into a program for the present… Given the inherently restive quality of the human moral imagination, it is only natural that certain of the moral values of the pagan past should have lingered on so long into the Christian era, just as any number of Christian moral values continue today to enjoy a tacit and largely unexamined authority in minds and cultures that no longer believe the Christian story.

It is in this context that a certain stunning insight occurred to a certain 4th-century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, to whom, as far as I can tell, the abolition of slavery may be traced.

And yet– confusingly enough for any conventional calculation of history probability– there is Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s younger and more brilliant brother, who sounded a very different note, one that almost seems to have issued from some altogether different frame of reality. At least, one searches in vain through the literary remains of antiquity– pagan, Jewish, or Christian– for any other document remotely comparable in tone or content to Gregory’s fourth sermon on the book of Ecclesiastes, which he preached during Lent in 379, and which comprises a long passage unequivocally and indignantly condemning slavery as an institution. That is to say, in this sermon Gregory does not simply treat slavery as an extravagance in which Christians ought not to indulge beyond the dictates of necessity, nor does he confine himself to denouncing the injustices and cruelties of which slaveholders are frequently guilty. These things one would naturally expect, since moral admonitions and exhortations to repentance are part of the standard Lenten repertoire of any competent homilist. Moreover, ever since 321, when Constantine had granted the churches the power of legally certifying manumissions (the power of manumissio in ecclesia), propertied Christians had often taken Easter as an occasion for emancipating slaves, and Gregory was no doubt hoping to encourage his parishioners to follow the custom. But if all he had wanted to do was recommend manumission as a spiritual hygiene or as a gesture of benevolence, he could have done so quite (and perhaps more) effectively by using a considerably more temperate tone than one actually finds in his sermon. For there he directs his anger not at the abuse of slavery but at its use; he reproaches his parishioners not for mistreating their slaves but for daring to imagine that they have the right to own other human beings in the first place.

One cannot overemphasize this distinction. On occasion, scholars who have attempted to make this sermon conform to their expectations of fourth century rhetoric have tried to read it as belonging to some standard type of penitential oration, perhaps rather more hyperbolic in some of its language but ultimately intended to do no more than impress the consciences of its hearers with the need for humility… [But] Gregory’s language in the sermon is simply too unambiguous to be read as anything other than what it is. He leaves no room for Christian slaveholders to console themselves with the thought that they, at any rate, are merciful masters, generous enough to liberate the occasional worthy servant but wise enough to know when they must continue to exercise stewardship over less responsible souls. He certainly could have done just this; he begins his diatribe (which is not too strong a word) with a brief exegetical excursus on a single, rather unexpectional verse, Eccesiastes 2:7 (“I got me male and female slaves, and had my home-born slaves as well”); a text that would seem to invite only a few bracing imprecations against luxuriance and sloth, and nothing more. As he warms to his theme, however, Gregory goes well beyond this…

Continue reading “What Open Borders Can Learn from the Abolition of Slavery” »

Support for open borders is a fundamental tenet of libertarianism, and David Brat is not a libertarian

I live in Virginia, where unknown challenger David Brat just recently made US national news as a political giant-killer, toppling Eric Cantor from his Congressional seat and running on a vehemently anti-immigration, anti-open borders campaign. Cantor was widely seen as a strong candidate for next Speaker of the House of Representatives, and his loss was a huge shock to the US political establishment. A lot of ink’s been spilled on this, but I want to focus specifically on the libertarian response to Brat’s unexpected victory.

Brat teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, and generally describes himself both as a strong Christian and an adherent of Ayn Rand, a very influential thinker in the libertarian movement. He makes a lot of strong nods to libertarianism in his political rhetoric, although I’m unclear whether he self-identifies as libertarian.

Either way, I honestly don’t care that much about the outcome of this election: I have never liked Cantor, and although he has made some welcome limited moves towards amnesty for some irregular immigrants, he has basically been more pro-closed borders than many others in the political establishment (which says something). It is pretty amazing that Brat campaigned in part on the basis of alleging that Cantor supports open borders, and disappointing that Brat won, but it’s unclear how far his victory reflects voters’ stance on immigration or other policy areas, versus their general distaste for Cantor as a politician and legislator. I wouldn’t even bother to comment on this brouhaha, if not for how libertarians on the internet seem to be reacting to Brat’s win.

Now, full credit to the various libertarian analysts I’ve seen writing about Brat on immigration — virtually all of them dismiss his closed borders stance as inconsistent with libertarianism:

But reading through the reader comments on all these pieces, one cannot help but be struck at the amazing number of self-identified libertarians who are not just skeptical of open borders but outright opposed to it. If they support Brat for his alignment with Christian ideals or Randian thought, perhaps they ought to be aware that to the extent the Bible speaks about borders, it actually advocates for immigrant rights and the human right to migration (see our blog posts tagged Christianity), and that Rand was “indignant” at the idea of opposing open borders.

Although my personal policy stances (not just on immigration) tend to lean libertarian, like some other libertarian-leaners I have some skepticism about identifying as libertarian — in part because of the paleoconservative right-wingers who seem to occupy a disproportionate space in the libertarian movement. Either way, I lean libertarian, and so I feel somewhat obligated to engage with the idea that opposing open borders is consistent with the ideas of libertarianism.

In my view, it is impossible for a consistent libertarian to oppose open borders. One of the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism, which has been adopted (at least in name) by most of its descendants — including modern left liberalism and modern libertarianism — is respect for the individual’s rights and dignity. Prohibiting individuals from moving freely is a prima facie violation of these individuals’ rights. Now, in some or many cases, violating these individuals’ rights may be justified. But what sort of justifications can we provide that would be acceptable to libertarians?

The libertarian case for open borders hinges on the opinion — though I am tempted to call it fact — that you cannot justify arbitrary restrictions on the movement of individual people without resorting to fundamentally illiberal excuses which (to a libertarian) unjustly put the interests of the government or state ahead of the rights of the individual. From a libertarian standpoint, most — if not all — arguments for restricting the movement of individuals who have committed no crime against any identifiable victim simply boil down to collectivism, totalitarianism, or both.

On our site, we list out some common retorts to the libertarian case for open borders. They are:

  1. Enforcement of border controls is not a form of government action, and should be viewed instead as a form of government inaction
  2. Because governments are obligated to put the interests of their citizens above all else (a view sometimes called citizenism), they must prioritise the interests of citizens over the liberty of non-citizens
  3. The people of a state have a collective property right over their state’s territory which grants the state’s government a moral authority or right to arbitrarily exclude any foreigner that the polity sees fit to exclude
  4. That in an anarcho-libertarian world, many individual landowners would be able to and would in actuality exclude immigrants from their land, and therefore in a second-best world with government, governments must similarly exclude immigrants

True enough, virtually every one of these rationales for ostensibly-principled libertarian opposition to open borders has appeared in the reader comments section of the libertarian analyses I mentioned earlier. So let’s dissect them each in turn:

  1. Are states literally spending billions of dollars to do nothing? The barbed wire fences we build and gunships which our governments deploy in our name are surely meant to do more than just sit around and look pretty. It seems almost intentionally obtuse to deny that these things are meant to serve an active, violent purpose.
  2. There are many reasons to be skeptical of the citizenist worldview (or at least its most strong form), but to a libertarian, surely it’s relevant that citizenism outright declares that the interests (not just rights) of some individuals are more important than others’ rights. Sure, you can argue that a fundamental tenet of citizenism is that some people just aren’t entitled to certain rights, but you’re just shifting the goalposts: you can’t justify restrictions on individual movement of non-citizens without resorting to a literally collectivist worldview that says “citizens” are a collective whose interests supersede the rights of individuals that don’t belong to the citizens’ collective.
  3. The “collective property rights” argument literally has the word “collective” in its name. You can’t dress this up with liberal sprinklings of the phrase “property rights”. In the end, you’re still saying that a collective should be allowed to supersede the rights of individuals.
  4. First, I’m not sure the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual is all that compelling to libertarians who embrace minarchism or basically any non-anarchist approach. But even if it is, you can imagine a counterfactual world where many private property owners are happy to build a road and allow anyone to travel on it, whether for free or for a toll, and therefore bypass those landowners less amenable to immigration (if such a concept as “immigration” could even exist in a world with literally no borders). Libertarians who espouse this counterfactual also often take for granted that individual landowners could easily choose to ban natives, not just foreigners, from their lands. Consistent libertarians who take this idea seriously should agitate for stronger mobility controls over other citizens too, to preserve their property rights ostensibly implied by this counterfactual. In light of all this, why should my open borders counterfactual — one which also happens to more closely resemble the real world, with its actual roads built on the common law concept of right-of-way — be any less compelling than this strange hypothetical world?

You may not be a libertarian and find all of this irrelevant navel-gazing, if not possibly counter to your actual views. If so, sorry, but as is hopefully clear, these arguments aren’t aimed at non-libertarians. There are plenty of non-libertarian or non-libertarian-specific reasons to favour open borders and indeed to characterise open borders as a fundamental human right — I’m just intentionally not getting into them because I think the libertarian case for open borders ought to be compelling enough for libertarians.

Now, obviously a decent number of self-identified libertarians are able to reconcile their opposition to open borders with their proclaimed respect for individual rights. I think in general they do this by compromising a little and saying that collectives such as nations or states do have some rights (in some cases, such libertarians have explicitly made this part of their rationale).

Some libertarians no doubt will be tempted to right away dismiss these people as traitors to the libertarian cause. While yes, these people are surely no anarcho-libertarians, on the face of it they don’t seem to me all that different from libertarian minarchists or even other centre-leaning libertarians (such as, most famously, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom seemed content to accept the state even though this obviously necessitated some compromises on individual vs collective rights).

But saying that a collective has rights does not tell us what the collective is allowed to do — what its rights are, or how it may exercise those rights. I contend that a collective entity such as the state simply lacks the authority to forcibly exclude anyone, citizen or not, from its territory or jurisdiction on the basis of arbitrary reasons. Individuals may delegate collective authority to legislate to the government of a state, but that does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people whose last name starts with the letter Z, or people who have a freckle on their chin. It certainly does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people because of their race or sex or even sexual orientation.

I simply go one step further to say that place of birth should also be up there on that list of intolerably arbitrary criteria. I am not saying that your place of birth is irrelevant to who you are. It is no less relevant to who you are than your sex, your race, or a whole host of other things about you. I am simply saying that as far as the government is concerned, these conditions of birth should not be any of its business when it comes to deciding who it can exclude.

Now you can protest my general statement that governments cannot justifiably exclude people in an arbitrary manner — in which case you seem to be endorsing government exclusion of people on the basis of race, sex, and a whole bunch of other things, which in general is repugnant to libertarianism (a vocal racist fringe who self-identify as libertarian notwithstanding). But more likely you’ll protest my specific statement that exclusion of foreigners is arbitrary.

Now it’s certainly true that foreigners are different from citizens in a whole bunch of ways. They often grow up speaking a different language and operating under a different set of institutions. But our own citizens also grow up in a variety of communities, institutions, and backgrounds. Why do we treat citizens as morally non-excludable, and foreigners as excludable?

The objection seems to be that foreigners are fundamentally different from citizens. But why should this matter to a libertarian? If foreigners agree to respect the state’s laws, then they don’t harm any citizens and certainly don’t harm the state. If foreigners run afoul of the state’s laws, then the state may exclude them. The state certainly has no compunctions about excluding citizens who violate its laws, although it typically excludes them from society by jailing them instead of deporting them.

Perhaps anti-open borders libertarians worry that foreigners’ promise to respect the laws can’t be trusted. But judging from what they’ve written on this issue, it seems the clear theme is this: foreigners will respect the law, and that’s the problem. To be specific, they’ll obtain welfare as provided for by the state’s laws, and as Milton Friedman supposedly told us, society will literally collapse as a result.

To these libertarians, the claim that open borders and a welfare state are not compatible is a self-proving result; it also often seems to self-axiomatically lead to the conclusion that a welfare state which opens its borders will collapse into violence and disorder. Now, Friedman never stated that a welfare state with open borders would collapse into violence, so that second half seems completely suspect to me. But even so, it seems to me that libertarians are also completely taking for granted that Friedman must have been right when he declared this fundamental incompatibility.

The biggest reason Friedman was wrong is simple: welfare states generally do not determine who has access to their benefits simply on the basis of who is present on their territory or in their jurisdiction. There is almost always a whole bunch of paperwork you have to fill out to get your benefits, which is how the government makes sure you’re eligible. You can’t just show up and say “I’m a warm body, so give me my benefits!”

You might argue discrimination in benefits access isn’t an implementable public policy. But virtually every welfare state you can think of, even the most generous ones, already curtail foreigners’ and/or immigrants’ access to welfare benefits in some way. So it’s not impossible; it’s already being done. Americans often seem to forget that part of Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare reforms included stricter eligibility criteria for immigrant access to federal benefits.

You might say that our insistence that the government refrain from arbitrarily excluding people inevitably forces us to open benefits access to anyone irrespective of birth condition. But this confuses two very different things: under the collectivist principles we’ve been taking for granted, governments have the authority to exclude some people from society, and they also have the authority to subsidise some people. These two things are separate. The criteria you use to decide who to exclude don’t have to be the criteria you use to decide who to subsidise.

Exclusion is a matter of fundamental justice; abuse of the state’s power to exclude is a violation of the fundamental human right to associate with other people. Fundamentally everyone agrees the state exists to provide criminal and civil justice services — failure to provide these in a just and fair manner is unconscionable. Subsidies on the other hand are a matter of redistributive justice or compassion. Yes, these are things which many if not most libertarians reject as any reasonable basis for government policy — but if we’re taking the welfare state as a given, we are still taking as a given that the principles under which welfare benefits get doled out may and ought to differ from the principles under which we decide who to criminally punish and exclude.

So Milton Friedman was just wrong here: the welfare state does not fundamentally require border controls to limit access to benefits. The welfare state already has access to documentary evidence which it uses to determine eligibility. It is not just strange to insist that the police-military state be allowed to violently exclude people for the sake of protecting a limited pool of welfare benefits; it is completely unnecessary. The welfare state doesn’t need you to violently exclude anyone, because it already has its own process for checking people’s papers to confirm eligibility for benefits.

Grasping for straws, anti-open borders libertarians finally reach for perhaps the least libertarianism-compatible of all objections so far: the claim that immigrants will implement or encourage citizens to implement more statist policies, such as an expansion of the welfare state, and that to protect what little libertarian policies are left, it is imperative for libertarians to support the exclusion of immigrants. This argument is so patently unjust and transparently unlibertarian that I am amazed anyone can make it and call themselves libertarian with a straight face.

Let’s take for granted the questionable empirical claim that immigration leads to an expansion of the state’s power over individuals. How does this justify restricting immigration, without also justifying a whole host of other unjust exclusionary policies?

After all, besides immigrants, you can think of a whole bunch of other demographic groups who seem inclined to oppose libertarianism: in the US context, these include people like blacks, women, perhaps Jews. Why shouldn’t libertarians support policies that exclude these people too? You know what: allowing blacks to eat means that there’ll still be blacks around to oppose libertarian policies. Therefore, a good American libertarian should support policies that restrict the sale of food to African-Americans. Force the state to starve the statists, and ensure a brighter future for liberty!

You will surely object: hey, libertarians should oppose policies that unjustly exclude citizens, but libertarians may and should support the exclusion of non-citizens who hold the wrong political beliefs. But what rationale do you have for holding non-citizens’ rights to a different bar? Now we go back to all the rationales you cited earlier: collective property rights, bla bla bla.  But it sure seems to me like your whole project to erect an edifice of libertarian arguments for closing the borders is actually tearing down liberty, not building it up: if you’re so willing to make compromises on the liberty of people who’ve committed no crime other than being born in the wrong place, or thinking the wrong way, it’s questionable whether you’re committed to the liberty of anyone else at all.

Let’s say you’re all right with the idea that libertarians shouldn’t oppose open borders, but still find it a self-defeating political strategy to “eat your own” when it comes to the likes of David Brat. After all, when there’s someone saying the right things about markets and all freedom and all those things libertarians love, but also saying the wrong things about some other things, is it fair to criticise him? Especially when he’s doing well in the polls and might make a real political splash?

I am not all that qualified to pontificate on the political ramifications here, but let’s focus on whether support of open borders should be a top consideration in assessing someone’s libertarian credentials. From our discussion here, it seems to me that any libertarian who opposes open borders either has some serious missteps in their thinking, or simply rejects, in very large part, libertarianism’s ostensible commitment to the rights and dignity of the individual. Libertarians who oppose open borders simply should not exist; either you favour open borders, or you aren’t a libertarian.

This is not an arbitrary hurdle, such as “Well he doesn’t fully oppose government subsidisation of healthcare, so he must be a statist nut” (as was said of Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian Party candidate for Governor of Virginia in 2013, when he articulated a healthcare policy that didn’t boil down to “Abolish all government subsidies”). No, if you are a libertarian, the way you think about open borders cuts to the core of what it means to truly respect and uphold the rights and dignity of individuals. Opposing open borders is not just putting the collective ahead of the individual in a few fringe cases; it is literally letting the collective trample on individuals who have done nothing wrong except choosing to be born in the wrong place or holding the wrong political views. This cannot be libertarianism.

For centuries, the clarion call of liberals standing for liberty has been: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” You can come up with clever pseudo-libertarian justifications for opposing open borders, but those seem to me to virtually always devolve to: “I may disagree with what you say, and so if statists will let me, I’ll put you to death.” That characterisation may seem uncharitable, but I cannot see how you can describe yourself as committed to the rights of the individual if you have a gap in that commitment big enough to drive the lives of billions of people right through.

For decades, a commitment to the free market has been a key component of the libertarianism acid test. But as many libertarians responding to David Brat have observed, you cannot have a free market when you ban your citizens and billions of other individuals from doing business as they would like to do it in your country. But worse, you cannot have a free society. A society which spends billions of dollars to exclude billions of peaceful individuals by using violent force can hardly call itself free. No libertarian should want any part of a society built on the active and continuing oppression of innocents who have committed no crime worse than being born on the other side of a border.

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.

Why don’t Christians care more about open borders?

We’ve blogged a fair bit in the past about how Christianity demands open borders. It doesn’t get more simple than “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Co-blogger Nathan Smith has time and again (and again) taken to task restrictionists who co-opt the Bible in a hamhanded attempt to claim border restrictions and all the inhumanity they entail are ordained by God himself. Co-blogger Paul Crider has pointed out that if Christians take the Bible seriously, they need to speak out strongly against the evil of arbitrary border restrictions. Given all this, it seems to me that more than anything, the church today should be one of the strongest advocates for open borders. Yet, some of the Pope’s recent calls for greater humanitarian aid for migrants aside, migration seems to be hardly on the Christian agenda, if it is on there at all. Churches may pay migration lip service, but it seems like Christian institutions in general are far more concerned about homosexuality and contraception than they are about open borders. This is puzzling, when surely Christian doctrine must militate just as strongly for open borders as it does for almost any other social issue the church is focused on today.

I’ve read Nathan’s and Paul’s arguments before, and found them convincing, but I had forgotten about them until recently, when Evan blogged about Orson Scott Card’s views on immigration. Evan linked to a piece by Card reflecting on how Republicans in 2012 tarred and feathered Rick Perry for his defence of guaranteeing equal university subsidies to Texan residents regardless of immigration status. Evan didn’t focus on this, but one interesting part of Card’s piece was how vehemently he insisted that liberal immigration policies are clearly mandated by the Bible:

I think it’s worth pointing out, when we’re discussing how to treat the children of non-citizens in America, what the Lord said to the people of Israel as they were dividing the land near the temple site among the tribes:

“So shall ye divide this land unto you according to the tribes of Israel.

“And it shall come to pass, that ye shall divide it by lot for an inheritance unto you, and to the strangers that sojourn among you, which shall beget children among you: and they shall be unto you as born in the country among the children of Israel; they shall have inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel.

“And it shall come to pass, that in what tribe the stranger sojourneth, there shall ye give him his inheritance, saith the Lord God” (Ezekiel 47:21-23).

Now, this seems a clear principle to me, that God tells his people to share their inheritance with the children of strangers who dwell among them.

I’m quite aware that those of you who, as Perry said, have no heart, probably are already composing elaborate explanations of why God really means the opposite of the plain language of the scripture.

This prompted me to reread Nathan’s and Paul’s posts, especially the ones that explicitly rebut ostensibly Biblical restrictionist arguments. It amazed me just how spot on Card was when he pointed out that the Bible does not mince its words — and that you have to really twist the Bible to come up with any meaningful defence of the status quo, where we treat people who cross borders in search of a better life as if they are violent enemies of the state.

The other thing that came to my mind was how this might stack up against what the Bible has to say about other forms of inequality that our societies promote, either via social norms or by direct government action. The Bible says there is no Greek nor Jew, no slave nor free, no male nor female — yet for centuries, it was thought that the Bible is completely okay with enslaving people or treating women as inferior. Given how apathetic or antipathic most Christians seem to be about open borders, it seems fair to say even today, people think the Bible is completely fine with treating someone as an enemy before knowing anything about him other than his nationality — despite what Galatians says.

Galatians is not the last word, even if it sums up universal moral rights succinctly. Other Bible verses clearly come to bear on questions of equity and equality. A few months ago, I was browsing around the blog of Rachel Held Evans, a notable Christian blogger, and found her take on the Biblicalness (or lack of it) of slavery abolition:

…the fact of the matter is, the pro-slavery side had more going for it in the way of proof texts. Slavery apologists could cite passages like Genesis 17:2, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2 to support their case. They pointed out that slavery was practiced by the people of Israel and regulated by God, and that Jesus never said a word against slaveholding. Even the apostle Paul instructs an escaped slave, Onesimus, to return to his master, they observed. Notably, many of the texts in question are the exact same texts—the Household Codes of Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter—that are used today to support gender hierarchy in the home.

Many Bible-believing Christians, including those who were uncomfortable with slavery, just weren’t buying the abolitionist argument that placed the “spirit of the law” over the “letter of the law.” As Connecticut Congregationalist Leonard Bacon put it: “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.”

I see Bacon’s dilemma, don’t you? Frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t trying to make a biblical case for abolition in the 19th century. I’m not sure I could have…or would have. Which is kind of sobering, right?

I have to agree: it’s incredibly sobering just how blatantly a by-the-letter-of-the-law reading of the Bible can lead one to blindly support the slavery or subordination of our fellow human beings. But what strikes me is how, in all the discussion I’ve seen of what the Bible has to say about immigration, we open borders advocates simply do not face the same conundrums that Christian abolitionists or Christian feminists once faced: the plain text of the Bible demands a large measure of equality irrespective of nationality.

Let’s go back to Card. His blustering condemnations of homosexuality make it surprising that he with such similar fervour demands open borders and liberal treatment of foreigners. But both of these make sense when you consider that all he is doing is applying the plain literal text of what he believes to be God’s word.

Now, as Christians, Card and I may disagree quite strongly about what God has to say about how we should treat our homosexual brothers and sisters. Here, I would have to follow the well-worn track of the Christian abolitionists and feminists who’ve come before us, and focus on the spirit of Christianity as revealed in the Bible, and summarised so well in Galatians: all human beings are created equal in dignity by God, and whatever you as a fellow human think of our sins or shortcomings, it is not your place to judge us, and it is not your place to punish or subordinate others for their sins or shortcomings. A system of justice is necessary, no doubt — but the Christian tradition is to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s. The judicial system should not enforce our personal judgments of others. However we might feel about blacks, women, gays, or foreigners, or what we might think the Bible says of them, it is not our place to force Caesar to enforce God’s judgment on others.

But I don’t need to take this tack with immigration restrictionists. All I need to do is to follow Card’s approach towards homosexuality, and quote the plain words of the Bible at those who want to oppress immigrants in the name of God. When God made the laws of Israel in Leviticus 19, he said: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Lv 19:15) He said: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lv 19:34-35) Now, to be fair, in this same chapter, God also makes the law: “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” (Lv 19:27) I’m guessing on this basis, you could well argue that the entirety of Leviticus should just be discarded. But the fact remains: if we are to blindly follow the letter of God’s instructions to us, we must abolish discrimination against foreigners in our governments’ policies.

You can certainly find verses in the Bible that might suggest some discrimination against foreigners is Biblical. But you cannot find any verses which contradict the basic principle, which is made clear in Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Galatians: do not mistreat immigrants, but love them as you love yourself. Treat their children the same way you would treat your children. All of us are human beings equal in fundamental rights and dignity. As Nathan’s said before,

In the debate among Christians about slavery in the 19th century, abolitionists tended to apply the loftier ethics taught in the New Testament, love thy neighbor and the Golden Rule and “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me,” (Matthew 25:40), while apologists for slavery were more literalist, observing that Peter and Paul told slaves to obey their masters, and the patriarchs had slaves, and the Bible never seems to call for or envision a world without slavery. In the case of migration restrictions, too, the higher ethics of the New Testament clearly point towards open borders, but the difference is that the words of the Old Testament, too, quite literally and directly support welcoming the stranger in a fashion that there seems to be no sound warrant for interpreting otherwise than as a template for open borders.

Why then do Christians not heed the word of God and speak out against the grave injustices our governments and societies wreak upon innocent immigrants every day? Why do we not demand justice for the foreigner who wants to work in our country and contribute to our society? The restrictionist is quick to say that God has ordained international borders and we cannot contradict him — fair enough, but we don’t need to abolish borders, we just need to open them. The best defence I can see for the Christian restrictionist, ironically, is that Christians should not be trying to impose our values on the secular political system: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.

This template for political disengagement might make sense, but I simply don’t see how most intellectually honest Christians can buy it. I think it’s fair to say most, or at least a lot of Christians want to do what is morally right by God. If we see harm being done, harm that goes against the moral principles laid down by our religion, it’s our obligation to do something about that harm. One thing we can do is, while avoiding confronting the actors behind these evils, help the victims of these harms. Churches can offer sanctuary and aid to immigrants who are being hunted by the state. And you can certainly make the argument that the church ought to do more. As Nathan’s observed before, Christians in democracies are sovereign citizens who have a say in making policy. There is nothing stopping Christians from vocally supporting and voting for leaders who would support an end to the global war on immigrants.

This is a different kettle of fish from using Christian morality as a basis to harm or oppress others. You can be a Christian who wants to use the power of the state to punish non-Christians, or to use the power of the state to punish people who sin by Christian standards. But you can also be a Christian who rejects Christian morality as a basis for harming or punishing others, while still embracing Christian morality as a basis for using the state to prevent people from coming to harm. I think there is a clear difference between these two types of Christians, and their respective kinds of political activism.

Immigration restrictions are a clear form of harm and oppression. They harm and oppress anywhere from “just” hundreds of millions to literally billions of people. And they do this in a very clear and unBiblical manner: by mistreating foreigners as if they are scum, rather than loving foreigners like we love ourselves. We do not need to demand that our governments provide equal measures of “social justice” or socioeconomic guarantees to all; Nathan himself has argued before that a modest amount of citizenism is still totally compatible with open borders and the fundamental principle of guaranteeing equal protection of the law to all, as Leviticus 19:15 instructs us. All we need to do is to demand the same basic rights for immigrants that we expect to be accorded ourselves: the right to live with, and take care of our own families. The right to work for an employer who offers us wages we are willing to accept.

The Bible does not waver on the point that we must love all humans as we love ourselves, irrespective of nationality. You might argue it’s infeasible to treat all humans as we treat our fellow citizens. But it’s impossible to treat all humans equally; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive towards it. It’s easy to dismiss an idea as impractical without deep consideration. Unfortunately, I worry that this exact sort of dismissal is why Christians don’t give open borders the attention or consideration it so clearly demands. Rachel Held Evans concluded her discussion of abolitionism by noting a passage from the abolitionist tract Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

Noll points to a great scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Mary Bird tries to make the case for taking in runaway slaves based on Christ’s teachings in Matthew 25. John Bird’s response to his wife’s perspective made me laugh out loud: “But, Mary, just listen to me. Your feelings are all quite right, dear, and interesting, and I love you for them; but, then, dear, we mustn’t suffer our feelings to run away without our judgment.”

I underlined that bit and wrote in the margins of my book, “sounds familiar!”

I worry that this is why the church does not take open borders more seriously. The governments of the world spend billions of dollars a year to point guns at unarmed civilians seeking a better life — civilians who the Bible has commanded us to love as if they are ourselves. If we take the Bible seriously at all, we have to heed both its letter and its spirit. If Christians are going to say they can’t follow through on what the Bible commands because it’s just far too impractical for us imperfect human beings to manage, they need to be sure they truly have a watertight case for that claim. As far as I can tell from the empirics, there is no such watertight case. Regardless of where one stands on social issues like homosexuality or contraception, it seems to me impossible to deny that the global war on migrants is a war on the family, a war on human life and human dignity. It is a mystery to me why the church as an institution and Christians as individuals appear so nonchalant and blasé about the evils of closed borders.

The painting featured in the header of this post depicts a scene from the Bible’s Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite who married an Israeli immigrant to Moab, and later herself immigrated to Israel after being widowed.