Ethics without Political Science

[1] Denominational statements such as the ELCA's recent one on immigration are, to be honest, rarely very interesting. The constraints of the genre are simply too restrictive — one can hardly, in a half dozen pages, produce both a sophisticated statement of theological principle as well as an appropriately careful policy analysis. One hesitates, therefore, to be overly critical.

Ethics Without Political Science by Peter C. Meilaender

[2] Nevertheless, the ELCA's new resolution on immigration is disappointing in certain respects. Because the theology of such statements seldom contains anything very controversial — who, for instance, wishes to deny that humans "are created to live together with God and one another in love and freedom," or that governments should "serve the common good"? — I often find it helpful to begin by looking at their conclusions. These policy recommendations are frequently more indicative of the authors' intentions than is their stated theological rationale. If we consider the ELCA resolution in this manner, we notice immediately the most striking characteristic of its recommendations: they are markedly one-sided, focused entirely on pro-immigration and pro-immigrant policies. The first recommendation, for example, begins by proclaiming, "This church urges the United States government to prioritize family reunification." This is a somewhat puzzling statement, since U.S. immigration law already gives heavy priority to family reunification — indeed, critics of the law frequently accuse it of giving too much weight to family reunification and too little to skills in high economic demand. Perhaps the authors were here thinking specifically of illegal immigrants — though if so, the decision to lead off with a recommendation to encourage family reunification for illegal immigrants would in itself be a telling choice.

[3] The statement continues in a similar vein. It includes recommendations to facilitate immigration streams, to ensure workplace protections for immigrant workers, and to guarantee immigrants a range of legal rights such as those to counsel and judicial review. It calls for amnesty for long-term resident aliens; for alternatives to current enforcement procedures involving detention, workplace raids, and border fence-building; and for increased refugee admissions. Its only recommendation that would be at home in a standard list of "restrictionist" proposals would be the call to implement a "secure, efficient, mandatory, and enforceable means of verifying a job applicant's eligibility to work in the United States."

[4] It is noteworthy that this consistent bias appears even where one expects a different note to be struck. The third recommendation, for instance, is to "establish just and humane enforcement." Ah, thinks the reader, now we are going to see a concern for effective border security, balancing the preceding pro-immigrant positions. But no. After an opening sentence recognizing that "governing authorities have the responsibility to protect the nation's borders and maintain its security," every recommendation in the subsequent paragraph is a criticism of current enforcement efforts, from the initial suggestion that existing methods for detecting workplace violations are inappropriate to the concluding call for a moratorium on fence-building. The paragraph expresses considerable sympathy for the plight of those against whom enforcement measures are directed, but no interest in how the border might be more effectively secured. A similar move occurs in the fifth recommendation, which begins by saying, "Immigration and refugee laws and their reform should not be considered in isolation from United States foreign policy and globalization issues." This sounds like an opening to raise concerns about immigration and national security in the context of the global war against terrorism. But, again, no — the paragraph turns out to be largely a call for various sorts of foreign aid, in cooperation with a range of international institutions. It ends, even, by indicating that the ELCA "especially" defends "the right to migrate to support oneself or one's family" — an assertion of right that, if taken at face value, has extremely far-reaching implications.

[5] My point in thus emphasizing the document's bias is not to disagree with all of these positions. To the contrary, I think (to indicate some points of convergence) that family reunification deserves its important place in American immigration law. I have also argued elsewhere in favor of amnesty for long-term illegal residents (though only in conjunction with, and preferably following, improved border enforcement). I am alarmed by recent reports exposing abuses in our immigrant detention system. I also think that the issue of refugees poses a sharper moral dilemma than is often recognized. Nevertheless, I am deeply concerned about the effects of large-scale immigration on the economic welfare of middle- and lower-class citizens, the cohesiveness of our national culture, and (with respect to illegal immigration) the rule of law. Millions of my fellow Americans share these concerns. It is disappointing that the ELCA's resolution seems to think they can be so readily ignored. For example, the resolution is critical of "enforcement-only approaches" to immigration. But what of "enforcement-first" approaches? Some of the most promising compromise proposals aiming at immigration reform seek to pair improved border security — once security benchmarks have been met — with the possibility of amnesty for illegals, or increases in the number of work visas made available. I regard proposals of this sort as quite reasonable. Would they pass muster with the ELCA?

[6] Informed by this consideration of the statement's policy recommendations, we can return to its theological premises. In their breadth and generality, these are largely unobjectionable. Still, having noticed the consistent bias of the resolution's conclusions, we may be in a better position to observe one tell-tale, problematic feature of its opening principles.

[7] I have in mind less what the statement says than what it does not say. It lacks, I think, an adequate theory of the state, and of the purposes of temporal government. The statement begins by referring to the ELCA's 1998 message on immigration, with its core commitments to hospitality and identification with the vulnerable stranger. Then — almost as a kind of afterthought — it continues, "Not cited in the 1998 message but also relevant is [sic] Romans 13:1-7 and related Lutheran interpretations of the role and authority of government." While the tacked-on quality of this remark is not reassuring, the statement does proceed, after a paragraph on the implications of human creation in the image of God, to elaborate briefly on the "role and authority of government." What it says on this topic is reasonable enough. "God appoints and authorizes governments to preserve the created order and serve the common good, primarily through the exercise of judgment between right and wrong, good and bad." And again: "Governing authorities are to seek justice, foster peace, protect people, and support their well-being."


[8] I certainly agree with these statements. It is hard to know who would disagree with them (though hard also to know how they would generate any particular position on immigration). But more needs to be said than this. Missing from the paragraph is any reference to or discussion of government's representative character. Any specific government represents a particular people, a body of citizens for whose interests it is responsible. It is obligated to serve those interests. Doing so is its very reason for existence. It is not similarly obligated to serve the interests of others. In the eyes of government, the interests of non-citizens do not and should not carry equal weight with those of citizens. Instead of recognizing this critical fact, the ELCA resolution actually blurs it. It emphasizes that "governments are to serve the global common good." While it is true that we should seek to avoid harming other peoples, and often should offer them positive forms of assistance, it ought to be clear that the latter is nevertheless a subordinate responsibility. One would therefore like to see its expression balanced by a clear affirmation of government's primary responsibility: to serve the good of its own people. Lacking such an affirmation, we are left with an excessively vague sense that the purpose of government is simply to pursue justice in the abstract. This is ethics, so to speak, unmoored from political science. But both are required to produce adequate Christian reflection upon public policy.

Peter C. Meilaender is Associate Professor of Political Science at Houghton College, Houghton, New York. He is the author of Toward a Theory of Immigration (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).



© April 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 4