January 30, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, January 30, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
How should Christians think biblically about President Trump's latest Executive Order on refugees?
The nation’s policies on immigration and refugees were very much in question when the President of the United States last Friday signed executive orders changing the American policies on both of these crucial issues. Both of them, of course, not only highly charged, but highly controversial. When he was running for president, Donald Trump made immigration and refugee policy key issues in his platform and thus we should not be surprised that just days after his inauguration on January 20, the President has moved to change national policy on these questions. There are huge issues at stake here, of course. We are talking about immigration policy and refugee policy. We’re talking about human lives. We’re talking about international affairs, and we’re talking about our relationships with other nations. We’re also talking about the kind of nations that the United States of America intends to be.
But we’re also looking at a situation that is constitutionally complicated. There is no question that as Chief Executive, the President of the United States has massive influence, authority, and power over both immigration and refugee policy. And there is also no question that the immediate previous incumbents in the White House also used executive orders to effect changes in both refugee policy and the nation’s immigration procedures. We need to take a close look at exactly what the President signed into effect on Friday afternoon.Show Full Transcript
In the first place, his executive order halts all refugee admissions for 120 days beginning immediately. Now remember back when President Trump was running for office, he promised what he called “extreme vetting.” Now many people in the United States State Department and elsewhere in the government insisted that refugees are already subject to extreme vetting, but President Trump, then running as a candidate, made very clear he did not believe the vetting was substantial or thorough enough.
While it is true that no refugee from these countries has conducted a terrorist attack on the United States in recent years, the reality is that it’s a very different picture in Europe, where there have been several very lethal attacks undertaken by those who enter those European nations under recent refugee status. We also have the reality that the Islamic State and other terror organizations have announced that they intend to use refugees in order to conduct similar attacks.
The Trump executive order would also put a cap of 50,000 in terms of total refugees per year to be resettled in the United States. That’s a drop, a significant drop, from the number of over 100,000 that had been set by President Barack Obama. But David French of National Review magazine very importantly points out that that figure was only fairly recently increased by President Obama, and the 50,000 figure that President Trump has proposed in this policy will be roughly the number that occurred during the presidencies of George W. Bush and most of the years of the presidency of President Barack Obama. As David French points out, the departure in terms of policy is not so much Donald Trump’s contraction of the number, but Barack Obama’s escalation of the figure.
The President also announced on Friday an immediate ban on persons coming for the next 90 days from seven specific nations: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen—all of them are areas with intense terrorist activity and none of those comes as a surprise. The President announced that this 90 day hold was necessary because of the need for further “information to adjudicate the individual cases that will come before authorities.”
We need to note that the executive order grants specific authority for exemption to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security. We also need to look at the fact that Syria stands at the very center of this issue—there are seven nations on that list, but one stands out most urgently. Syria, torn apart by civil war, represents the largest and most urgent refugee crisis at present. We’re talking about something like 4 million displaced persons that represents one of the biggest refugee crises in modern world history. And we also need to observe that President Barack Obama stands as holding a unique responsibility for that humanitarian crisis. It was President Obama during his second terms who infamously drew a red line when it came to Syria only to allow Bashar Assad and others to cross that red line. The humanitarian crisis is at least in part due to decisions made by the American government under the leadership of President Obama.
The scale of the crisis actually doesn’t meet the scale of the controversy and debate in the United States. President Obama in terms of his administration made the decision in the last year of his presidency to raise the number of Syrian refugees to 13,000 per year. But when you’re looking at millions of persons displaced and also now functioning as refugees, 13,000 is more a symbolic act than anything else. European nations have borne the major responsibility, but both of those nations also recognize that they are absolutely incapable of handling the total exodus of refugees from Syria, and add to that so many refugees coming from other parts of the world.
Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in 2016, at least in part because a significant number of the American people, if not a majority, clearly believe that the vetting process for refugees is not sufficiently thorough. They do not have confidence in the process. Advocating this particular dimension of President Trump’s executive order, David French made the point that when we know our enemy wants to strike America and its allies through the refugee population and when we know that they have succeeded in Europe, as he says, “a pause is again not just prudent but arguably necessary.”
A good deal of the controversy is also due to references to the religious identity of these refugees and potential immigrants. For this Donald Trump bears at least some responsibility for the kind of statement he made during the campaign when he pledged at least at one point a complete end to Muslim immigration. We need to note that the executive orders that were signed on Friday do not in any way represent a total end to Muslim immigration. There are at least 30 other nations with massive Muslim populations that are not included in those seven nations that were stipulated in the executive order. But there’s also been a great deal of confusion about religious liberty and religious freedom as it relates to this kind of policy. Some Americans on reflex simply assume that religion cannot be a part of American immigration policy. But right now, as David French points out, it is very much a part of that policy by force of law.
If one were dependent only on the mainstream media for the coverage of the executive order and its meaning in this regard, we might quickly come to the conclusion as many in the media have reported that President Trump had singled out Muslims for exclusion and Christians for inclusion. But the thing to note is that current INS policy, current force of law in the United States as adopted by Congress, makes very clear that religious minorities are to be factored in, sometimes even with preference when it comes to immigration and refugee policy. That stands in contrast to many of the policies of President Obama because it appeared very difficult for Christians suffering persecution in these majority Muslim nations to gain status, that is refugee status, or privileged immigration status to come to the United States.
In this sense we have to note very carefully that the administration’s policy handed down on Friday is a considerable walk back from the total ban on Muslim immigration the President talked about on the campaign trail. You simply look at these seven countries; they have very sizable Muslim populations, and of course they’re on this list very clearly because of their identification with terrorist threats. But there are other majority Muslim nations that aren’t on this list, and of course an even larger number of nations with massive Muslim populations that are not currently affected by this policy.
As we try to think intelligently about these issues, we have to make at least a couple of very key distinctions. One is the distinction between immigration policy and refugee policy. They are clearly related, but they are not one and the same. The other distinction is between the policy itself, the text of the executive order, and the means of its implementation, or to look at it perhaps even deeper, the intent of the executive order and the reality of its implementation. A great deal of the controversy about the implementation occurred over the last couple of days has been in the immediacy of the order and its effect, and the fact that the ban, or at least this probationary period, has included those who might hold visas or even green cards, and it also includes at least some who might need refuge from those in those countries because of their friendship with the United States of America, in particular those who had helped the United States forces by means of being translators or serving in other capacities.
Questions will also be raised about the fact that so many people were effectively trapped for some time in airports because the ban took such immediate effect. And that included persons who were in circuit, that is in movement towards either refugee or immigration status, or at least entry into the United States by legal means. They left their countries expecting to be admitted only to find themselves rejected for admission once they reached an American point of entry, most often in an airport. Very serious questions will be asked concerning the implementation even by people who give basic support to the policy. But the policy is paramount. That’s what’s most important. We need to recognize that there is a great deal of media attention right now, and we should frankly expect this, to the persons who are so disappointed, to those whose life plans have been changed, even hopes crushed by this policy announcement that came down by the President’s executive order on Friday.
But we also have to recognize as much as we need to pay heed to this human hurt and human suffering, that any immigration policy and specifically any change in immigration policy will come as an advantage to some and a disadvantage to others, and there will always be human hurt and human anguish on the part of those who clearly had hoped to come to the United States of America. But that leads to the larger moral question that Christians must seriously ponder, and that is, what should be our understanding of a Christian approach to immigration and refugee policy? These questions, as we’ve just said fairly separate questions, are both not easily answered.
Turning first to immigration policy, every single nation, if it is going to survive, if it is going to thrive as a culture and as a society, certainly as a government of laws, has to have adequate and responsible immigration laws and policies, and it has to enforce them.
No nation, and this includes even a nation as powerful and as wealthy as the United States of America, can have what’s in effect an all-comers policy. No nation, if it is going to be a responsible nation concerned with the security of its own society and people, can have open borders and no concern for those borders and can have unrestricted immigration. The entire system of laws in this country concerning our borders and entry into the country is a part of the government’s responsibility to keep the nation secure.
It’s one of the perhaps expected ironies of our current situation when you look at the last couple of days of controversy that many of the people who have gone to the streets or to the airports to protest the President’s executive order actually clearly have no idea about what the current law and policy of the United States is when it comes to immigration and refugee policy. They don’t like the executive order, partly because it came from President Donald J. Trump, but they probably wouldn’t like our nation’s current immigration laws either. And frankly, there’s something of a bipartisan dissatisfaction with the laws as they currently stand. But as you might expect, the polarization in our political system has also lead to a polarization on these issues.
We’re also told that America is a nation of immigrants and by definition and also by history, of course it is. But we need to take a closer look at what those waves of immigration that have so shaped America really did represent. Beginning especially in the 19th century and in the 20th century, there were huge waves of immigration, first of all, primarily from Europe. These included not only the waves of immigration that came originally from England and other nations involved in the age of exploration, but later also coming from nations such as Ireland and Italy. Those waves of immigration, especially to America’s urban cities on the East Coast represented some of the most formidable and forceful developments in terms of American history. Next, we look at waves of immigration from central and northern Europe, and you can look at particular states. Take the state of Minnesota for example, where there was a considerable influx of persons who came family by family as well as person by person from Scandinavia. We also have to look at the fact that successive waves of immigration came from Asia, particularly reshaping the American West Coast and its major cities during the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th century and even into our present times. And then we have after that waves of immigration from Central and Latin America and most particularly over the course of the last generation or so from the nation of Mexico. America’s Hispanic population is burgeoning and at least part of that has been an influx of immigration, both documented and undocumented, that is to say legal and illegal, in terms of entry into this country.
One of the most important observations to make about America as a nation of immigrants is that virtually all of those successive waves of immigration represented persons who wanted to come and join the American project. They wanted to be Americans, not just to live in America.
That’s what creates a particular tension point in terms of the President’s executive orders and the larger issue of immigration and refugees coming from predominantly Muslim countries. All we have to do to understand the problem is to look to major European cities and in particular the nations such as, just to give two examples, France and Belgium—you could also add the Netherlands and the United Kingdom to the list; frankly, you could add most of the nations that are currently in the European Economic Union. The significant issue to observe here is that even though some who are coming in terms of these waves of Muslim immigration intend to join these communities and these cultures, the reality is that the majority of these immigrants and Muslims have not been assimilated into the cultures. To put it in terms of the American experiment, we have to be very careful that we do not reshape America by creating a population that does not intend, even though they are resident in this country, to be a part of the American project.
It is not just what is often called radical Islam, it is classical Islam, it is the Islam believed by the vast majority of Muslims around the world that requires that every Muslim seek to bring every nation under the law of the Quran, under Sharia law. And furthermore, in nations that have a Muslim domination, Christians and other religious minorities are forced into what is called, in terms of Muslim theology, dhimmitude, that is a submission to the majority Muslim population.
Just to take the nation of France as one example, it is now abundantly clear that there are entire districts and cities such as Paris where there is a very large Muslim immigrant population that intends to live in France but does not in any sense intend to be French. They actually look at France and they look at French culture and the larger European project as being despicable and decadent. A significant number of intellectuals with some influence in nations such as France are warning that political correctness has now brought about a situation in which France cannot reasonably actually discuss its own cultural and national survival.
It’s very difficult to know exactly what kind of policy the United States of America should have when it comes to Muslim immigration. But it’s simply intellectually dishonest to say that it is not a consideration and there are not very legitimate fears when it comes to what it might mean if entire neighborhoods and districts of American cities were to begin to resemble what we see in much of Europe. The President’s executive order actually addressed a very small part of American refugee and immigration policy. We face the need as a nation for comprehensive immigration reform, but make no mistake, that might be politically speaking almost impossible. That’s a shame. But it’s also a reality. Major attempts at bipartisan immigration reform on a comprehensive scale have not only failed politically, but even when they have successfully been passed into legislation such as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act that was passed during the 1980s and signed into law by President Reagan, a retrospective analysis indicates that the changes in the law did not achieve the goals that were set and hope for.
Again, one of the reasons that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States is the widespread awareness on the part of Americans that this nation does not at present enforce the immigration laws that are even right now on the books. We should make no mistake, that the United States of America, remember that nation of immigrants, still very much needs immigrants. But we need immigrants and those coming into this country who very much intend heart and soul to become a part of the American project, not only to live in America, but to be Americans. We need immigration reform that takes those economic considerations into place that also recognizes that we need the increased birthrate and population that comes by means of legal immigration and we should also without apology call for comprehensive immigration reform that would change the situation, which at present means that the United States of America by our laws does not even act to our own advantage in terms of allowing persons to stay in this country and come to this country who have demonstrated abilities and talents that we need.
Clearly there are massive human rights and human dignity concerns at stake here. But we also have to be very careful how we speak and how we think about these issues. For example, over the last couple of days, many people holding elective office on the one hand and simply protesting in airports and other places on the other hand have spoken as if every single human being on the planet is to be recognized as possessing the rights that are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, protected and enforced by the United States government. That’s manifest nonsense. It’s not only utopianism, it undermines the very concept of what it means to be a citizen of the United States of America. If the United States is obligated to every person around the world in the same way it is to its citizens, then citizenship means nothing at all.
For Christians, the human rights and human dignity issues are paramount. Love of God and love of neighbor means that we understand that even if every person on the earth is not a fellow citizen with us, they are our neighbors and to them we owe some obligation. The question is what kind of obligation? And the Christian responsibility is to think through very carefully what will actually help and not hurt. There’s a moral principle here in terms of what is proximate or who is proximate to us. I think it’s fairly evident that most Christians grounded in the gospel and in Scripture would basically know what to do when we see a person in need before us, in our own community, or right before our eyes, or within the orbit of the ministry of our church. Even closer, we understand how we are to respond if a child needs food or someone needs medical care. We understand then what to do. And we also recognize that the Bible tells us we are commanded to pay heed to the widow and the orphan and the alien in our midst. But that’s a very different thing than bringing all aliens into our midst, which is an actual moral and demographic impossibility.
Of course, the church must respond to the refugee crisis with compassion and with ministry, with assistance and with care. But it is not clear that we will actually render the best humanitarian service by bringing persons to the United States of America if we are unwilling to address the crisis that has created the humanitarian disaster in the first place. Given the scale of the crisis we face, we need to recognize that the shift in the numbers from President Obama to President Trump, even given the announcement made on Friday, is still a very tiny slice of a very tiny number over against the humanitarian crisis that looms over the entire world, centered in terms of right now the most urgent nation of Syria.
Finally, as Christians are trying to think intelligently and faithfully about these issues from a biblical worldview perspective grounded in the gospel, we have to make the crucial distinction between the role of the government and the role of the church. Let’s put it this way: the church does not have the responsibility given by God to defend the nation and to establish its immigration laws. But at the same time, the state is not given the authority to tell the church to whom we can and cannot minister. Get ready for this controversy to grow even hotter as it moves not only into the court of public opinion, but also into the courts. These arguments have been in one sense delayed for some time. They can be delayed no longer.