Enlightenment in the 21st Century — Reading #3

You can fight for liberal values without being liberal on immigration

James Kirchick

Washington Post | March 8, 2018


[1] In this age of noisy populist movements, many commentators tend to see anti-immigration sentiment as a threat to democracy itself. “The Muslim ban will make us less safe; worse, it erodes our democracy,” wrote retired CIA officer Glenn Carle last year after President Trump tried to restrict entry to the United States by citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries. In Britain, the archbishop of Canterbury associates Trump and Brexit, phenomena largely driven by opposition to immigration, as part of a “nationalist, populist or even fascist tradition of politics.”


[2] And in his new book, “Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy,” Sasha Polakow-Suransky argues that restricting immigration inevitably leads to the death of democracy itself. “What if, in reaction to the challenges of mass migration, liberal democracies abandon their constitutional principles and adopt exclusionary policies that erode their long-standing commitment to human rights?” he asks. “There could come a day when, even in wealthy Western nations, liberal democracy ceases to be the only game in town.”


[3] But do these arguments really make sense? The conflation of liberal values (in the classical sense of the term) with a liberal stance on immigration mistakes a policy preference (one I happen to share) for a first principle. An economic migrant wanting to enter a country does not have a “right” to do so in the same way that a citizen of that country has a right to free speech. If 99.9 percent of a country’s population wanted to abridge the free speech rights of a particularly unpopular citizen, or deny him legal representation before a court of law, it would be a clear violation of liberal democratic principles to follow through on their desires.


[4] The same can hardly be said of policies that restrict (or even shut down entirely) immigration. A liberal immigration regime is not a prerequisite of a democratic society, yet such a society is almost unimaginable without press freedom, judicial independence or representative government. If anything, it is the failure of elites to recognize this distinction— and not restrictions on immigration— that may ultimately lead to the death of democracy.


[5] Leaders such as Trump, Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban should worry supporters of liberal democracy not for their opposition to immigration but rather because they are hostile to basic liberal values, including pluralism, a free press, separation of powers and democratic alliances. Immigration policies widely derided as “populist” (which, in the U.S. context, can include the mere enforcement of existing immigration law) are actually quite popular. (They often also happen to be legal.) There is nothing unconstitutional or undemocratic, for example, in Trump’s travel ban, falsely dubbed a “Muslim ban” by liberal activists in spite of its inapplicability to the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. What “erodes our democracy” is not Trump’s ban— however misguided— but criminalizing the policy preferences of a democratically elected president.


[6] Today, many on the left seem to believe that the very concept of borders is immoral and should not exist. Etiquette now dictates that one refer to immigrants who entered the United States illegally as “undocumented” rather than “illegal”— as if the only problem with their status is the absence of citizenship papers. Meanwhile, in the debate over so-called sanctuary cities, activists egg on municipalities to defy federal immigration officials in open defiance of the rule of law. 


[7] Unable to achieve a compromise that would grant legal status to the 11 million people currently residing in the country illegally, some now advocate piecemeal policies that would eliminate any meaningful distinctions between citizens and non-citizens. Last year, the City Council in College Park, Md., barely voted down an initiative to grant non-citizens the right to vote in local elections. A commentator on NBCNews.com goes a step further, arguing that all immigrants be given the vote in elections at every level, including federal. 


[8] Liberals who seriously want to defend liberal democracy should stop condemning those who disagree with them on immigration. Uncritical support for wide-open borders is a major reason for the collapse of social democracy in Europe, as traditional center-left voters have flocked to populist, anti-immigration parties, which are often the only ones offering reasonable limits on immigration. 


[9] This has been the case in Germany, where the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany is the biggest opposition party in parliament, and Italy, where voters flocked to parties promising to deport illegal immigrants. Voters don’t necessarily support these parties’ worrisome views on Russia, judicial independence, press freedom or NATO, but they tend to give much higher priority to concrete, migration-related issues (including crime and national identity). A Chatham House poll conducted in December 2016 and January 2017 , for instance, found that majorities in 8 out of 10 European countries (including 71 percent in Poland and 53 percent in Germany) support banning all Muslim immigration — the same proposal Trump made during his campaign. 


[10] Addressing such concerns doesn’t mean that those of us who favor immigration must automatically approve sealing off all borders. It does mean that we need to make some serious concessions. For if every move to restrict immigration (like abolishing the visa lottery) or strengthen borders (building a wall) or discourage further migratory waves (such as Denmark’s seizing valuables worth more than $1,500 from migrants) is portrayed as a concession to fascism, then the only people who benefit will be fascists. Liberal democracy has enough enemies at the moment. Liberal democrats should stop making new ones.

Susan Jacoby

Forward to Andrew Seidel’s

The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American


[1] Andrew Seidel’s The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American could hardly arrive at a more propitious moment, as a nation based upon the world’s first secular Constitution— a document that never mentions any god and derives its authority from “We the People”— must cope on a daily basis with an administration in thrall to what is best described as Christian nationalism. President Donald J. Trump never displayed any intense interest in religion of any kind in his public persona before he began running for the nation’s highest office. But he owes his election to far-right Christian nationalists, whom he has rewarded with an unprecedented number of cabinet appointments and judgeships galore (the latter certain to outlast Trump). 


[2] Who will ever forget former attorney general Jeff Sessions’s biblical rationalization for Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents? Sessions turned to a passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, in which Christianity’s first great proselytizer admonished every soul to be “subject to the governing authorities; because there is no authority except that which God has established.” (A federal judge thought otherwise, however, and ordered the government to reunite the families—thereby deciding that the Constitution, not a first-century evangelist, is a higher authority on the making of public policy.) And let us not overlook Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, who was raised a strict Calvinist and has devoted much of her lifetime and her family’s fortune to promoting private over public schools. When DeVos made a trip to New York City, which has the nation’s largest public-school system, she did not visit a single public school but put in an appearance at two Orthodox Jewish schools and a fundraising banquet where she was introduced by New York’s Roman Catholic cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan. Above all, there is Vice President Mike Pence (who, presiding over an evenly divided Senate, cast the deciding vote for DeVos’s confirmation), whose far-right evangelical rectitude is so stringent that he will not attend any event if alcohol is served unless he is accompanied by his wife. Nor will he dine alone with a woman except his wife— even for business purposes.


[3] Indeed, Trump chose Pence as his running mate precisely because he does wear his moral purity (as defined by the religious right) on his sleeve and therefore provides an antidote to the president’s record of well- publicized serial affairs and serial marriages. I would be remiss, given the head-spinning turnover of Trump appointees, not to mention the possibility that any cabinet member might be gone by the time Seidel’s book is published. Pence will definitely be around, since presidents cannot fire their elected vice presidents. In any case, it is assured that any new Trump appointees, given their boss’s immense political debt to the religious right, will continue their attempts to privilege religion, especially Christianity, in as many public programs as possible.  

[4] This political environment, in which the separation of church and state is treated as a kind of heresy rather than the real rock upon which our government stands, is what makes the timing of Seidel’s book so fortuitous. 


[5] As an attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an organization dedicated to battling all attempts to breach the wall of separation between church and state, Seidel is well acquainted with the legal and political battles over the entanglement of religion and government, ranging from Washington to small towns across the nation. The great virtue of his book, however, is that he focuses not on the individual battles but on the overarching myth that the United States is a nation founded not on Enlightenment values and our secular Constitution but on “Judeo-Christian values” as embodied in the Bible. 


[6] Seidel makes a powerful argument that the term “Judeo-Christian” is basically a twentieth-century, post-Holocaust, made-in-America formulation designed to sound more inclusive than it is for those who really pay attention only to the “Christian” half of the hyphenated fabrication. This subject is seldom discussed, because it can make both Christians and Jews uncomfortable in a society wishing to pretend that all religions (and ethnic backgrounds) are equal. What makes a believing Jew a Jew and a believing Christian a Christian is that the former does not acknowledge Jesus as the son of God, God, or the Messiah and the latter does.


[7] Or, as Philip Roth noted in a speech 1961, “The fact is that, if one is committed to being a Jew, then he believes that on the most serious questions pertaining to man’s survival— understanding the past, imagining the future, discovering the relationship between God and humanity— he is right and the Christians are wrong.” Seidel, who, like many freethinkers of many generations, has taken the trouble to learn a great deal about various religions and their sacred books, takes pains to discuss the ways in which the Ten Commandments (which actually are a part of shared Judeo-Christian tradition) emphatically do not form the basis of American law. If the founding fathers had observed the first commandment’s prohibition against graven images, for example, we would have no portraits to tell us what these august “Judeo-Christians” looked like. Just kidding. The founders— all of Christian descent, insofar as genealogical research reveals— were mainly deists. They believed in a divinity (often called Providence) who set the universe in motion but subsequently takes no part in the affairs of men. Many of these deists were freethinkers who might call themselves agnostics or atheists today but who definitely did not believe in the civil primacy of any religion. (The word “agnostic” was not coined until the nineteenth century. Some of the most prominent deists among the founders, like Thomas Jefferson, were called atheists by their contemporary political opponents because deists rejected the supernatural and did not belong to any church.)


[8] The essential argument of The Founding Myth is that one might as well describe the United States as a nation founded on Hammurabic-Judeo-Christian-Hindu-Buddhist-Muslim-humanist values as on the values of the Hebrew and Christian bibles. This is, of course, a ridiculous statement— but not as obviously ridiculous to many Americans as a claim to national legitimacy based on the oxymoronic Judeo- Christianity. All religions and all societies have laws against murder, for instance, but the big problem—now playing out in the American debate over legal abortion and physician-assisted suicide— is that different religions and different cultures define murder differently. You may think abortion is murder and I may think it is a legitimate medical choice, but the commandments handed down on Sinai will not help us resolve the question of how this issue is to be decided in a modern democratic society defined by religious pluralism.


[9] Another important point of The Founding Myth is that many of the pieties Americans now take for granted and attribute to the founders are really artifacts of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I know, from having spoken at many universities throughout the nation during the past twenty years, that large numbers of students attribute the Pledge of Allegiance to the revolutionary era. In fact, the pledge was written in 1892, and the phrase “under God” was not added until 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era. The addition was intended to draw a distinction between pious America and atheistic communism. I well remember the nuns in my parochial school telling us that Russian children could be shot for simply saying the word “God.” Seidel recounts the history of the relatively recent origins of the public sanctimony that many Americans now take for granted, including the routine use of the phrase “God bless America” at the end of presidential speeches—something that was not a commonplace when I was growing up in the 1950s.


[10] The entire book is on solid legal ground because of Seidel’s experience as an attorney fighting attempts to introduce religion into public institutions—from the promotion of Bible-reading in public schools to attempts by many right-wing religious groups to obtain public funds for faith-based institutions. The author recounts the legal issues in a lively, lucid fashion accessible to readers unfamiliar with the fine points of either the Bible or the Constitution. Above all, he makes the vital point that when faith is politically weaponized, religion itself is “weakened and tainted.” He recalls Benjamin’s Franklin’s argument—as incisive today as it was more than 200 years ago— that when “a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support [it], so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”