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.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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