Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked the Bible to justify a policy that has separated nearly 2,000 border-crossing children from their parents in a mere six weeks. Referencing Romans 13, he stated that everyone must “obey the laws of our government, because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders then doubled down on this rationale. “It’s very biblical to enforce the law,” she told reporters.
Many citizens are right to be outraged by these statements, but they shouldn’t be surprised. Anti-immigrant forces have been making the biblically-inspired case for closed borders and callous measures against refugees and immigrants for some time, even if it has gone largely unnoticed until now.
Indeed, while Romans 13 is getting all the attention, there are other passages in the Bible that are regularly deployed in the cause of nationalistic movements or restrictions on migration. Collectively, these commands, sayings, and stories—interpreted in a conservative grassroots fashion—can be considered the “anti-immigration Bible.” And if we have any chance of quelling its influence, we must first understand it.
For starters, consider the work of Old Testament scholar James K. Hoffmeier, which has been embraced by the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization devoted to reducing immigration across the board. Hoffmeier notes that the Bible employs many terms for migrants, which have been translated into English as “sojourners,” “strangers,” “aliens,” and “foreigners.”
These linguistic distinctions are important, he contends, because “we can conclude that in the ancient biblical world, countries had borders that were protected and respected, and that foreigners who wanted to reside in another country had to obtain some sort of permission in order to be considered an alien with certain rights and privileges.”
The problem with using the Bible to guide immigration policy is that the notion of ‘illegal immigrant’ is a decidedly recent invention.
In Hoffmeier’s view, the duty to not oppress “strangers” (“ger”) found in Leviticus 19:33 does not apply unless a person already has gained legal approval to be within a nation’s borders. That “legal status” had to be obtained “from the appropriate authority in that particular culture” or else he or she remained a “foreigner” (“nekhar” or “zar”).
The problem is that the Hebrew words to describe others do not directly correspond to the distinctions found in complex modern legal systems. The notion of “illegal immigrant” is a decidedly recent invention. In fact, there is nothing that resembles immigration and border control laws in the Bible: no rules that criminalize unauthorized entry or working without a permit, no institutions empowered to issue visas or adjudicate claims for refugee status, no deportation force created to regularly expel unwanted migrants—and certainly no edict to destroy families simply to discourage foreigners from traversing existing borders.
When Hoffmeier tries to use the Bible to make neat immigration policy, he ignores these inconsistencies. He wants us to accept a hard and fast distinction between “ger” and “nekhar” as if they were intended as separate legal categories as opposed to descriptive terms used interchangeably.
But the proof isn’t convincing. For example, Ruth is a Moabite who is treated with kindness and given full legal rights when she later marries an Israelite, but Ruth is never called a “ger”—she is always referred to as a “nekhar.”
There is another problem presented by Hoffmeier’s view: what, if any, rules would apply to the treatment of foreigners? Hoffmeier never says, but one implication might be that there are no biblical prohibitions against the abuse of foreigners. This may be a tempting position for some, but it would undermine natural law’s universal quality if migrants could be mistreated simply because of who they are. And it would be horrifying to those who accept humanitarian rules grounded in religious teaching, as well as domestic and international law.
Despite these difficulties, Hoffmeier and others believe that injunctions and experiences drawn from an ancient historical context can yield exactly one correct policy for today. The Bible is not a “living breathing document,” Hoffmeier says, invoking the language of contemporary originalist scholars of the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, similar to originalists and their fear of “living constitutionalism,” Hoffmeier and his ilk worry about “the abuse of Scripture,” which could give us a range of plausible answers.
Sessions also sees the Bible as providing unambiguous instruction when it comes to immigration law. In June of 2016, when he addressed the Faith and Freedom Conference, he said, “I believe that it’s right and moral and just and biblical that we have a lawful system of immigration for the nation state that we serve.”
He has repeatedly cited the story of Nehemiah to rationalize get-tough immigration policies. At the 2016 conference—which was held in order to bring together evangelical voters and figures within the Tea Party movement—he told the crowd, “I recall Nehemiah returning to Jerusalem. He went to build a wall in Jerusalem and it wasn’t to keep the people in, you know.”
Last week, the same day he invoked Romans 13, he also said that building a wall to protect the people of Jerusalem was “the first thing” Nehemiah was told to do. “It wasn’t to keep people in. It was to keep bad people out.”
The part of Nehemiah’s story that Sessions doesn’t talk about is that the vision of cultural purity also justifies harsh measures to perfect the political community.
In the story, Nehemiah, a cup bearer to the King of Persia, gains leave to rebuild Jerusalem, which we’re told is in disrepair in large part because of cultural pollution: the men had taken foreign wives and “of their children, half spoke the language of Ashdod, or of one of the other peoples, and none of them knew how to speak the language of Judah.”
“You see the trouble we are in,” Nehemiah tells his people once he has surveyed the land. “Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been gutted by fire.” Then, to the great anger of nearby nations as well as the grousing of some Israelites, Nehemiah called upon fellow Jews to help him rebuild the walls “so that we may no longer be a reproach!” Once the wall had been restored, the chosen people make a new covenant, including ensuring Jewish men marry Jewish women.
It is easy to see why cultural nationalists are so keen on the story of Nehemiah. For such activists, loyalty to a state or to some set of political beliefs is never sufficient for citizenship.
Nehemiah’s account seemingly reinforces not only a strict notion of legality and obedience, but also a theory of nationhood that is based on religious law and cultural identity. It treats aggressive demographic control as a measure of political community and welcomes sweeping changes that bring secular law back in line with society’s dominant ethical tradition.
Crucially, the vision of political community depicted in Nehemiah’s story rejects multicultural self-governance based on liberal or even humanitarian ideals. As Sessions said last week, “I don’t think there is a scriptural basis that justifies any idea that we must have open borders in the world today.”
This particular political gloss on the Bible fuses together sacred text with a stop-migration-at-all-costs attitude. But the part of Nehemiah’s story that Sessions doesn’t talk about is that the vision of cultural purity also justifies harsh measures to perfect the political community.
As we are told in Nehemiah 13:3, after the dedication of the wall, “when they had heard the law, they separated all those of mixed descent from Israel”—to include the families of leading Jewish figures. Nehemiah cursed them as he drove them out. In his own words: “I cleansed them of all foreign contamination” and drew up new regulations “so that each had an appointed task.”
This vision of cultural self-governance is extremely popular with anti-immigration evangelicals. In the fall of 2017, a group called Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration sent a letter to Trump asking him to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and oppose amnesty. “We find that the Bible does not teach open borders, but wise welcome,” they wrote. “We are to welcome the lawful foreigner, who, like a convert, comes as a blessing. . . . We also find Nehemiah building walls to protect citizens from harm.”
To not draw distinctions between lawful citizens and undocumented migrants, the group argued, would actually violate the Bible. They read Isaiah 1 as “God condemning the destruction of borders and indigenous culture.” The Bible “envisions a world of beautiful and unique nations,” they continued, “not a stateless ‘open society’ run by global oligarchs.” This view of the world, like Hoffmeister’s, assumes that nations were purposefully created by God, rather than being a byproduct of God’s decision to scatter human beings across the globe as punishment for original sin.
The letter concluded by appealing to Trumpism’s nationalistic tenets: “All lives matter”—especially the “forgotten American citizens whose families have served our nation for many generations and the patient people who have applied lawfully to come here.”
We can’t get at the heart of what is at stake unless we are willing to talk openly, and sometimes religiously, about pressing national policies.
Trump secured 80 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2016, the highest recorded percentage of any GOP candidate. This demographic also represents the strongest supporters of immigration restrictions. Pew Research Center recently found that 68 percent of white evangelical Protestants don’t believe the United States has an obligation to accept refugees. This was the largest of the Christian denominations surveyed, with 50 percent of white mainline Protestants and 45 percent of Catholics saying there is no responsibility to refugees.
A different poll found that 76 percent of white evangelical Protestants supported the administration’s Muslim travel ban and about half believe there is already a “great deal” or “fair amount” of Muslim extremism in the United States.
Perhaps the most vociferous members of the coalition are the “Teavangelicals,” those who claim the Bible actually commands the deportation of undocumented migrants because they are “lawless invaders” who are “coveting” the country’s resources and “stealing” jobs and social benefits. These believers don’t much care why or how the spigot of immigration is turned off as long as the polity is purified or scarce resources are kept from needy migrants.
In general, there have been two strategies to combat the use of the anti-immigration Bible. The first is that “church and state” should be separated, not children from parents. That is a catchy slogan, but it is misguided as a strategy.
First, while religious practices in the United States are decentralized, three-quarters of its citizens identify with a Christian faith. Biblical arguments carry great weight.
Second, by asking citizens to bracket religious arguments as we debate the direction of immigration policy, we sap the national conversation of the moral power it needs. Concepts such as dignity, equality, fairness, and family integrity have sacred as well as secular sources.
Laying down one’s weapons unilaterally or complicating things by demanding that opponents disarm is counterproductive. Even if some people backed off religious argumentation (a dubious proposition) we would just be replacing a strict rule-of-law discourse with an equally empty invocation of legal rights without moral content—as if order itself was synonymous with justice.
We can’t really get at the heart of what is at stake unless we are willing to talk openly, and sometimes religiously, about pressing national policies.
The second strategy undertaken by some activists is more promising: engaging directly with strict, nationalistic interpretations of the Bible, as well as those that would put cultural purity or formalism above duties to treat others with respect and kindness regardless of their status in society.
The Trump administration, for example, has emphasized the law-and-order interpretation of Romans 13—“Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities”—rather than one that gives more nuanced effect to the Apostle Paul’s comments in the same passage. The duty of obedience, Paul also suggests, turns on whether one is “do[ing] evil” and that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Historians such as Lincoln Mullen and James Byrd have pointed out that these dueling interpretations have cropped up repeatedly, including at the nation’s founding. At the time, loyalists insisted that defiance of the Crown was tantamount to rebelling against God whereas some revolutionaries—including opponents of slavery and the extermination of native peoples—argued that immoral laws did not compel obedience.
There is so much more text to engage—text we should not let policymakers forget.
Today, the anti-immigration Bible is similarly grounded in a nation-centered world believed to be unchangeable and sustained through supreme confidence in the power of interpretation to discern the truth. The law-and-order exegesis provided by its disciples has proven incredibly attractive for people such as Sessions to rationalize inhumane policies or people such as Sanders to quash moral debate.
But there is so much more text to engage—text we should not let policymakers forget. Many elements of the anti-immigration Bible, for example, are found in the Old Testament, which allows for a well-accepted principle of interpretation to come into play: that which comes later in time modifies the former.
The Golden Rule, Jesus’s de-emphasis of institutional monopoly over the meaning of text, and his vision of radical inclusiveness that encompasses the impoverished, sick, and the despised all come in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles.
“When you pick your grapes, you shall not go over the vineyard a second time,” Deuteronomy 24:21 instructs. “Let what remains be for the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow.”
Isaiah 16:4 speaks to the duty to take in refugees: “let the outcasts of Moab live with you, be their shelter from the destroyer.”
And, of course, the oft-cited command: “You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt,” found in Exodus 22:20.
1 Kings 8:41–43 ties the treatment of foreigners to God’s claim on all of humanity: “To the foreigners, likewise, who are not of your people Israel, but who come from a distant land for the sake of your name … listen in heaven, the place of your enthronement. Do all that the foreigner asks of you, that all the peoples of the earth may know your name, may revere you as do your people Israel, and may know that your name has been invoked upon this house that I have built.”
Together, these and other passages form the basis for a migrant-friendly corpus. They are the means by which to resist those who would scapegoat strangers for political ends.