Perspectives on Immigration: cultural concerns

Immigration reform is an issue making headlines in our nation. Both sides of the political aisle discuss and debate the best way forward for the nation, while seeking to preserve both the laws of our land and the dignity of those seeking to live, work, raise families, and in their own way, experience the American Dream. As citizens of the United States, and as Ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, followers of Jesus bear are compelled to respond to Immigration in a way that redemptively pursues dignity and justice. However, just as members of Congress disagree on the best way forward, members of the Body of Christ also disagree on how to respond to the concerns raised by Immigration.  This series of posts has endeavored to explore the diversity of perspective within the Christian community on three of the primary concerns:

Economic Concerns:

Security Concerns:

This final post will explore what is perhaps the most divisive of the three:

  • Do Immigrants threaten the cohesiveness of American culture?

The arrival of people from another country can often raise concerns. They are “other” than we are, with looks, languages, and customs unfamiliar. Responses range from acceptance and assimilation, to hostile rejection. Once again, the Christian community has responded in possibly the most divisive ways on this concern. Some claim as James Edwards, “The greatest harm posed by immigration today…may be our ability to preserve a sense of common culture and community in a rapidly changing world.” Edwards goes on to cite passages from Leviticus and Numbers that taught the Hebrew nation to require resident aliens to forsake their native cultures and adopt the customs of the Hebrews. In a cautionary tone, Edwards cites Deuteronomy 28:43-44: “The alien who lives among you will rise above you higher and higher, but you will sink lower and lower. He will lend to you, but you will not lend to him. He will be the head, but you will be the tail.” [1] Evangelical and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan infamously wrote that immigrants are “polluting our culture”. [2]

Other Christians however, understand the arrival of immigrants as a way for American culture to be enhanced and enlarged. Sorens and Hwann observe several ways God works through the cultural differences brought by immigrants to aid us all in realizing an expanded American vision. [3] We are a nation struggling in our family relationships, with generation and communication gaps making it difficult to understand one another. Asian immigrants bring strong intergenerational values, and their sense of honor is a welcome lesson in respect for many Americans. Latino cultures treat cousins, aunts, and uncles as immediate family. Refugees can teach a pampered culture the reality of life’s fragility and the overcoming power of the human spirit. Powerful lessons of generosity are learned from Africans who will insist on feeding you out of a sense of hospitality, even if the meal uses all the food they have.

In the realms of art, we have so much to learn from immigrants. The influx of ethnic cooking on its own allows one to take a culinary trip around the world while never leaving US borders. Immigrants from Jackie Chan to Selma Heyek have entertained us, and American music benefits from immigrants ranging from Gloria Estefan to John Lennon.

Additionally, men and women of faith can also see in this cultural diversity a valuable opportunity to advance the Kingdom of God. Often, our interactions with immigrants will reveal different ways of worship, and new expressions of Christian faith. One must keep in mind that many immigrants, particularly those coming to America from Latino nations and from Korea, are Christian. While it may in fact be true that some customs, tastes, beliefs, and practices are “foreign” to God’s Word, rather than withdrawing for fear that immigrants do not share our values, perhaps it is our responsibility to demonstrate in real-life relationships what our values are to our new neighbors.

Where then does the disparity between Christians come from? Unfortunately, data from the 2006 Pew survey on Religion and Public life shows that 63% of white evangelicals see immigrants as a threat to US customs and values. 64% of white evangelicals see immigrants as a burden on society. In contrast, mainline Protestants and Catholics report more favorable attitudes toward immigrants.  [4] One study suggests a reason for the negative posture of white evangelicals is the presence of an intertwined religious and national identity. The study, entitled “Divine Boundaries”, was conducted by a team of researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and The Ohio State University, combined observations from the Pew study and the Congressional Election Survey of 2008. Their aim was to understand better the connections between people’s religious experiences and beliefs, and their attitudes toward immigrants. The analysis yielded three important observations,

“First, is the finding that religious conservatism is linked to more negative attitudes about immigrants. Evangelical Protestants display more negative opinions about immigrants than do mainline Protestants or Catholics. Second, this opposition is particularly pronounced with respect to cultural concerns. Third, the cultural opposition to immigrants appears to be rooted in a particular understanding of America’s origins as Christian nation. This belief, which we label Christian nationalism, finds its adherents most strongly among Evangelical Protestants, making them least likely to be favorable toward immigrants.”  [5]

This study provides insight into why some Christians strongly support immigration reform, while others support a more restricted approach on the same issue. The presence of “Christian Nationalism” among white, conservative Evangelicals presents a distorted understanding of one’s identity as an American citizen, and as a Christian. From a citizenship perspective, one must believe America’s “common culture”, as James Edwards refers to it, encompasses what Samuel Huntington describes as “its Anglo-Protestant beliefs and values, the English language, and the legacy of Western European culture.” [6] How can one observe the vast diversity of America’s “melting pot” identity and not see that Western European culture is one of many cultures by which Americans are defined? A trip across America is a trip around the world. Being “American” is an ever-changing identity of united diversity. Such an identity should reaffirm every citizen’s commitment to the motto stamped on every U.S. coin, E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.”

From a Christian perspective it is important that our identity arise from a biblical foundation. The scriptures teach that God’s people are to be identified by their citizenship in the Kingdom (Ephesians 2:18-20), and their love for God and neighbor (Mark 12:30-31). As such, an identity that finds its basis in racial or cultural superiority must be discarded. In addition, the notion of one’s religious identity being intertwined with one’s national identity is to fall prey to American Civil Religion, [7] or what the Divine Boundaries research team called the “ethnic myth… the belief that America is in a special covenant with God.” [8] Such a view may come from one’s upbringing or experiences, but it cannot be defended from scripture.

How then, can Christians preserve a sense of national pride, while remaining open to what can be learned and appreciated from other cultures? According to Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, one must remember, “God intended from the beginning that human beings would fill the earth with the processes, patterns, and products of cultural formation.” [9]

What’s Next?

Questions about immigration will continue and likely become even more poignant, as immigration reform and the DREAM act are key promises upon which President Obama was re-elected. Christians who both oppose and support tighter immigration laws will need to discuss their differences of opinion on immigration policies while keeping in mind their mandate to love, respect, and welcome immigrants personally. In conclusion, this statement from a resolution issued by the National Association of Evangelicals, could be a great place to begin for all Christians,

“While we recognize the rights of nations to regulate their borders, we believe this responsibility should be exercised with a concern for the entire human family in a spirit of generosity and compassion (Deut. 10:19, Lev. 19:34). As evangelicals responsible to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 22:39), we are called to show personal and corporate hospitality to those who seek a new life in our nation.” [10]

 


[1] Swain, Debating Immigration, 60-61

[2] Patrick J. Buchanan, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2006), 146.

[3] Sorens and Hwang, Welcoming The Stranger, 135

[4] Gregory A. Smith, Attitudes Toward Immigration: In the Pulpit and the Pew, April 26, 2006, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

[5] Eric L. McDaniel, Irfan Noorruddin, and Allison F. Shortle, “Divine Boundaries: How Religion Shapes Citizens’ Attitudes Toward Immigrants,” American Politics Research 39, no. 1 (2011): 226-227

[6] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, 1993), 40.

[7] Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 27

[8] McDaniel et.al, Divine Boundaries, 212, 222

[9] Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2002), 11.

[10]             “Immigration 2009,” National Association of Evangelicals, Summer 2009, accessed December 07, 2012, http://www.nae.net/fullresolutionlist/347-immigration-2009.

Kevin Glenn

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Dr. Kevin D. Glenn is a native of Central Florida, calling Auburndale his hometown (go Bloodhounds!). Kevin is a pastor with more than 23 years of church ministry experience, a contributor to local and national religious news outlets, a consultant to churches seeking healthy growth, and author of, Hand Over Fist: An Invitation to Christ-Centered Civility. Kevin is a graduate of Trinity College of Florida, Fuller Theological Seminary, and George Fox University, where he earned the Doctor of Ministry degree under the mentorship of Dr. Leonard Sweet. His hobbies include playing drums and guitar, fishing and being a fanatical Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan. He lives in Columbia, Missouri with his wife of 21 years and their two children

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