The Nation's Pulse

Episcopal Bishops for Open Borders?

A strange experience in the Arizona desert.

By 9.29.10

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Episcopal Church bishops are always susceptible to caricature, and their recent "pastoral letter" on immigration is no exception. The 2 million member denomination's House of Bishops recently met in Arizona, the troubled front line for immigration controversies. About 60 bishops symbolically met near the Mexican border carrying white crosses representing illegals who had died locally of exposure while trekking through the desert. Later joined by another 60 fellow bishops in Phoenix, they seemingly urged a U.S. policy of virtual open borders.

"Ours is a migratory world in which many people move across borders to escape poverty, hunger, injustice and violence," the bishops observed. "We categorically reject efforts to criminalize undocumented migrants and immigrants, and deplore the separation of families and the unnecessary incarceration of undocumented workers. Since, as we are convinced, it is natural to seek gainful employment to sustain oneself and one's family, we cannot agree that the efforts of undocumented workers to feed and shelter their households through honest labor are criminal."

Later in the bishops' letter they approvingly cite border enforcement against migrating "drug traffickers," "terrorists," and undefined "other criminals." But presumably everybody else in the world has an intrinsic right to move to the U.S. with full access to the social services offered to U.S. citizens. The bishops professed that "inhumane policies directed against undocumented persons (raids, separation of families, denial of health services) are intolerable on religious and humanitarian grounds." Indeed, "our gracious welcome of immigrants, documented or undocumented, is a reflection of God's grace poured out on us and on all."

Like many Mainline Protestant elites who blithely have not yet realized their own cultural marginalization, the Episcopal bishops often conflate themselves and their own churches with America as a nation, including its government and culture. The Gospel commands the Church to offer its message ministry to all persons, from sanctified saints to incarcerated murderers. But the Gospel does not command the U.S. government, or any earthly civil regime, to offer universal hospitality. 

Speaking of their experience in the desert, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori chimed that "it will help us to reduce both our own caricatures and prejudices and maybe do the same for others." It's not clear to which "caricatures" she was referring, but likely it did not apply to negative caricatures about the defenders of Arizona's attempted immigration law enforcement, which Arizona's' bishop naturally has denounced. The pastoral letter from the full House of Bishops darkly noted that "racism and bigotry impact debates over migration and immigration" and condemned any purported "racial profiling in the arrest of persons suspected of being undocumented." But, of course, the bishops seem to oppose any immigration related law enforcement except when involving drug trafficking, terrorism or "other criminals."

The bishops' overall tone towards immigration was one of guilt and repentance for alleged national sins, not only for persecution of today's illegal immigrants, but even for more longstanding historical injustices. After the march in the desert, Bishop Assistant Carol Gallagher of North Dakota told Episcopal News Service: "I'm aware that this was Mexican territory. The people haven't changed, the border changed. The politics changed." The House of Bishops' accompanying "resource" document confesses to the Episcopal Church's "past complicity in imperialist policies" by the U.S. Although not yet advocating that the Southwest U.S. be returned to Mexico, in a return to the pre-Mexican American War status quo, the Episcopal Bishops no doubt aspire to some endlessly ongoing reparation by the U.S. towards Mexico.

Although the bishops claimed they do not "discount the concerns of our fellow citizens regarding the danger uncontrolled immigration poses to our safety and economic well-being," in fact they do. Essentially such concerns should surrender to a "broader context of a national commitment and covenant to inclusion and fellowship across all lines for the sake of the common good." We must "remember that the good of a nation lies beyond its own self-interest, toward a vision of a humanity restored in Jesus Christ," the bishops admonished, though typically it is only the U.S. that is called to self-denial, while other nations are portrayed mostly as aggrieved victims.

In their accompanying immigration "resource," the bishops acknowledge a "national covenant" obliging the U.S. bishops hypothetically to respect their fellow citizens worried about law enforcement, social service costs, and job loss. But they seem to believe such national loyalties are subordinate to an undefined "common good that reaches beyond private interests, transcends sectarian commitments, and offers human solidarity," according to a quote they employ from liberal United Church of Christ theologian Walter Brueggemann. Of course, the bishops do not consider the costs of unregulated immigration that are immeasurable materially. Nor do they ponder the potential negative impact on immigrants themselves and their originating nations.

Like most on the Religious Left, the Episcopal Bishops seem uncomfortable with national sovereignty in the political sphere, just as the Religious Left is often theologically uncomfortable with Christianity's exclusivist truth claims, or the expectation of monogamy in traditional marriage, and the loyalties inherent to traditional families. Their vague political and theological universalism ultimately derides nearly all skeptics as bigots, while envisioning an unlikely and unappealing world without meaningful loyalties. A more traditional Christian understanding of the common good recognizes that universal love is only reached, if at all, incrementally through the particular attachments of family and nation. These Episcopal bishops, busy with desert photo ops and polemical news releases, are anxious to make sweeping utopian claims, without a clear constituency or audience.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.