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Why Christians Can Support Tighter Immigration Restrictions

July 13th, 2016 | 34 min read

By Guest Writer

Today we have another long-form piece, this one coming from Stephen Wolfe. I’m pleased to run this piece chiefly because Stephen does a good job of trying to focus the debate around the specific principles that undergird our thinking about an issue like immigration. Even if you disagree with his conclusions, I think you’ll find that this piece raises new questions and issues that should help enrich your thinking about the issue. Again, if you want a print-friendly version of the essay, simply click that green button on the left side of the post. 

And now, here is Stephen:

The success of the Brexit campaign, driven largely by a rejection of the EU immigration policies and handling of the migration crisis, has shattered the hopes of progressives that xenophobia is a thing of the past—a hope that the older generation’s prejudice would give way, through natural attrition, to a new common humanity and cosmopolitan view of human relations, built on universal rights, negative liberty, and common human interest.

Donald Trump, likewise, has found success in promising to “make America great again” through various vague and unlikely policies, including building a wall on the US-Mexico border, generously funded by the Mexican government, and limiting immigration from select countries that tend to produce Islamic terrorists. The Western ruling class has expressed public outrage over these developments, condemning them as xenophobic, racist, and bigoted.  

Christian leaders have also joined the criticism. Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore claims that support for Trump “cast[s] a light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country.” According to Moore, there are gospel implications in immigration, and white American Christians need to remind themselves that “the man on the throne in heaven is a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking foreigner.” Moore repeatedly states that evangelical political engagement must be part of the Gospel witness, for the Gospel, he says, “reshapes” political engagement. Everything should be viewed through the “grid” of the Gospel. For Moore, the ecclesial community is the model for the civil community.

In similar fashion, English theologian John Milbank argued after the Brexit vote that “Christians are duty bound for theological and historical reasons to support [Remain].” He added that the “deep ancient character” of Britain is “Jacobite,” “high tory,” and “socialist.” Milbank is joined by others who see racist, bigoted, xenophobic, and reactionary nativist motivations in the Brexit. Indeed, those concerned with immigration and multiculturalism tended to vote to leave the EU, reaching the second-highest in importance overall, even among Labour party voters for Leave. Those who voted to remain had the economic impact most in mind.

If Brexit is any indication of the future, then the world is on the brink of a long war between the nationalist and the cosmopolitan. On one side is the defender of geo-cultural sovereignty seeking the protection of a particular culture and way of life through, amongst other things, restrictive immigration policies. On the other is the more globally minded cosmopolitan who sees less importance in the protection of local particularities and sees no threat to the local from the foreignness of foreigners. They, therefore, seek to maintain free trade, free labor movement, and the flow of migrant workers for an aging Europe. This unavoidable clash of ideology and sentiment ensures that questions of place and identity and how immigration affects them will be at the forefront of the Western public mind for some time to come.

This raises the question: What should Christians think of immigration? This essay argues that Christians can in principle support complete and selective restrictions on immigration. The foundation of the first part of my argument is that the Gospel, as the supernatural message of redemption and reconciliation of God and man in Christ, has nothing unique to say about immigration policy, since the question of immigration is a question arising and answered by analyzing the nature and constitution of civil community.

The principle end of political action, whether by Christians or non-Christians, is the establishment and sustainment of the necessary conditions of social life in accordance with natural principles and in light of the fundamental features of human beings. That is, politics is the art of implementing public policy conducive to peaceful, harmonious, and mutually beneficial human social relations. The essential conditions of a just social order were not altered by Christ’s coming. Indeed, they have remained the same from the beginning. So if geo-cultural sovereignty—the right of a people to identify their particular way of being with a particular place—contributes to human flourishing and immigration undermines this sovereignty, then restricting immigration partly or completely can be necessary and just.

What we find in both classical and Christian authors is a stress on the importance of similar people—people common in customs, traditions, and heritage—in constituting a complete civil community, a community of people sharing life together. There is, then, nothing sinful or “unchristian” in advocating and implementing restrictions in immigration, in holding to a strict citizen/foreigner distinction, and in stressing the importance of local sovereignty of cultural expression.  

There are no gospel implications for immigration.

It is widely recognized in the Reformed tradition that Christ in his coming instituted no change in the standard of righteousness of the created order. Calvin states that Christ “intended no correction in the precepts of the law….From no other source do the Apostles, as well as Christ himself, draw and rules for a devout life….We must not imagine Christ to be a new legislator, who adds anything to the eternal righteousness of his Father.” (Commentary on Matthew 5:21). Christ neither abrogated the natural law, nor added any new precept to it.

Francis Turretin argues that the natural law is complete, universal and immutable.

We cannot conform ourselves to the image of God except by regulating our lives in accordance with the precepts of this law….The moral law is the same as to substance with the natural, which is immutable and founded upon the rational nature; both because the sum of the law (which is exhausted by the love of God and of our neighbor) is impressed upon man by nature and because all its precepts are derived from the light of nature and nothing is found in them which is not taught by sound reason; nothing which does not pertain to all nations in every age; nothing with it is not necessary for human nature to follow in order to attain its end. (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 11.2.1617).

Turretin later states that “civil power is earthly and natural” (18.29.16). Samuel Rutherford argued in Lex, Rex, that “as domestic society is by nature’s instinct, so is civil society natural.” What this means is that the essential conditions for a just civil order are dictated by nature (or the created order). As such, they are immutable and Christ did not change them. As Phillip Melanchthon wrote “For Christ did not come into the world to teach precepts about morals, which man already knew by reason, but to forgive sins, in order that he may give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him” (Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics).

Therefore, anything that was natural to civil community prior to the coming of Christ remains part of civil community today. The Gospel, as the supernatural revelation of the means of redemption, dictates nothing new with regard to the essential conditions of civil life. Nor does the Gospel, contrary to Moore, “reshape” Christian political engagement. Hence, what constitutes just civil order is not discovered by looking at the Gospel, but by looking at the natural law.

The Gospel, as the means through which one is reconciled to God, is only corrective, not transformational, of one’s typical civil life. As I documented here, Reformed theologians have always been (until perhaps the 20th century) positive concerning fallen man’s ability to achieve a degree of civil righteousness. Herman Bavinck even said, “The doctrine of the incapacity for good is a religious confession. In light of the standard people usually follow in their daily life or in philosophic ethics, one can wholeheartedly admit that much of what people do is good and beautiful” (Reformed Dogmatics, 3.123).

Johannes Althusius, an important Reformed political theorist of the 17th century, wrote, “In political life even an infidel may be called just, innocent, and upright because of [their external and civil life of words, deeds and works], since they have “natural knowledge of and inclination towards the (Ten Commandments)” (Politica). The Gospel was not meant to upend the typical convert’s life in the civil community.

If it is the case that fallen, unregenerate man can attain civil righteousness (worthy of praise among men, even from the regenerate) and if regeneration necessarily effects a radical change in the one regenerated, then the principle effect of regeneration cannot be civil righteousness, political, social, or anything related to the basic elements of civil or domestic life. The principle effect must be something else. It must be, then, the restoration of one’s immediate relationship to God, one’s orientation to the spiritual (yet-to-be-visible) kingdom of God, and true worship of God. In short, the principle effect is the adventitious infusing of heavenly gifts and the outward change in religion. The Gospel then is not essentially political, social, or anything earthly other than the true public worship of God.

The importance of identifying the principle effect of the Gospel is crucial to understand what can be outwardly “gospel-driven.” Everything one does ought to be gospel-driven in the sense that all actions ought to be performed according to the essential internal spiritual principle, namely, the conscious, internal motivation for God’s glory in the action. The outward action itself need not be anything uniquely Christian. A good work is ultimately good when the external action itself conforms to the natural law and the person intends through it the glory of God. (See Turretin’s Institutes 10.5 for more on this).

Calvin said, “It is, in short, a general truth, that what we do is approved by God, if our object be to serve him, and if we are not influenced by a regard to man alone” (see here). So what can be outwardly “gospel-driven” is only the public worship of God. Nothing else related to the basic conditions of a just civil community can be outwardly “gospel-driven.” In other words, again, the Gospel did not add anything to civic ethics; it affirms the natural order without altering it.

We must conclude, then, that if there is something about the natural civil community that could justify restrictions on immigration, then Christians can support restrictions on immigration. The Gospel has nothing new or unique to say about the matter.

Classical Authors on Citizens and Foreigners

The Reformers of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods drew from classical sources throughout their works. They regularly appealed to the “universal consent of the nations” in support of natural theology and natural law, not simply for the nations’ formal acceptance of natural theology and natural law, but for their seemingly universal agreement on conclusions, such as the obligation to worship and obey God, the obedience of children to their parents, and the injustice of theft.

Since Reformed theologians were relatively positive concerning fallen man’s ability to implement justice in the civil realm, the universal consent of the nations carried much weight. If the nations sought civil solidarity through a shared, particular conception of the good life and sharply distinguished between citizen and foreigner, then there is good justification to do the same in our communities.

Cicero, in De Officiis, states that there ought to be a “distinction between citizens and foreigners” (I.41), which, though not destroying the “common solidarity of the human race” (III.6), entails a “duty of a foreigner and a temporary resident to do nothing beyond his own business, not to pry into the concerns of other people, and, least of all, to be meddlesome in the affairs of the state in which he is an alien” (I.34). Though Cicero chastises those who want to “prohibit foreigners from living in the city” (III.11), he still insists on a distinction of privileges. And his point is less about immigration policy than it is the difficulty of expelling legal and temporary foreign residents from Rome.

Cicero also writes of the “degrees of relationship among men” (I.17). He writes, “there is a nearer relation [than “the tie of common humanity”] of race, nation, and language [eiusdem gentis, nationis, linguae or “same people, tribe, and tongue”], which brings men into very close community of feeling. It is a still more intimate bond to belong to the same city; for the inhabitants of a city have in common among themselves forum, temples, public walks, streets, laws, rights, courts, modes and places of voting, beside companionships and intimacies, engagements and contracts, of many with many.” Cicero recognizes the natural intimacy, shared affections, and common bond that arise when sharing an interconnected place, way of life and common heritage and genealogy.

In his Politics (3.9), Aristotle argues that “the city exists not only for the sake of living but rather primarily for the sake of living well.” A collection of households coming together for the sake of living forms only “a defensive alliance merely for assistance against those committing injustice” and for securing the ease of economic exchange. Such living is like an alliance between states: Each leaves the others alone, exchanges goods, and comes to their defense from foreign attackers.

But for Aristotle, a true community cannot be one in which each household is like a country, each having its own unique way of life and conception of the good life separate and incompatible with the others. A true community rather is one in which households seek a “complete and self-sufficient life” by rising above mere utility by forming a shared life in common—a life together in particularities rooted in local heritage, tradition, and custom. For “the city is a community of similar persons, for the sake of a life that is the best possible” (7.8).

The true city is “the community in living well both of households and families [or extended families] for the sake of a complete and self-sufficient life,” arising from intermarriage, festivals and the “pastimes of living together.” It is “the work of affection; for affection is the intentional choice of living together.” A true city is one in which the people have a common genealogy and shared customs, habits, and affections—all for the sake of “noble actions, not for the sake of living together.” Aristotle sees the complete city as having a unique set of social expectations, cultural events, and understandings of the good life that unite the people in affection. In short, a complete and shared life in common is constituted by particulars transmitted through generations as heritage.

Edmund Burke, perhaps following Aristotle, similarly wrote,

Society is indeed a contract…but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is…a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. It…[is] a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

What unites a people together to form a true civil community—one in which people share life together and live well—is not people sharing a tacit economic contract or defensive alliance or a mutually understood tolerance, but one held together by affections rooted in particulars and developed, passed down, and instilled as our way of the good life. It makes possible the form of patriotism described by George Orwell in “Notes on Nationalism”: “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people”.

This distinction between living and living well is related to Aristotle’s view of friendship. There are three types of friendship for Aristotle: those based on pleasure, utility, or virtue. The latter two are the most relevant for our purposes. The friendship based on utility is an association in which both parties are “useful to one another.” They “do not love each other in themselves, but only insofar as they come to have something good from the other” (Nic. Ethics 8.l3). These relationships quickly “dissolve…at the same time as the advantage ceases, for they were friends not to each other but to the profit involved” (8.4). The friendship based on virtue is for those who are “good and alike in point of virtue,” a friendship developed by “passage of time and the habits formed by living together” (8.3). This friendship transcends utility. It is friendship that exists in the absence of utility—friendship as an end in itself.

Aristotle does not directly connect his view of friendship with the civil community. He knows from common sense that no one can have this sort of friendship with all people in their civil community. But the basis of these types of friendships are analogous to types of relations between households (or persons in the modern context). The defensive and economic alliance for merely living is similar to friendship based on utility. The community for living well is similar to friendship as an end in itself based on similar conceptions of the good.

Just as with friendships based on utility, associations based on mere economic utility, business contracts, or defensive alliances are fickle—one can, when able, quickly disregard such alliances when circumstances have changed. There is no connection between persons, only a connection between wealth, labor, capital, land, and any other useful resource. All relations are terminated when the usefulness of the relationship has ended. Further, the defensive alliance, especially in our modern world, is not merely a defense against someone’s physical aggression, but also a defense against another’s judgment: all agree to let everyone define for him or herself the content of the good life and prosecute or shame those who would question another’s conclusions. This type of defensive alliance ensures that each individual is an island to himself on the nature of the good life, and anyone who questions their conclusions have violated the terms of the alliance.

But a true community is one in which households share a life in common rooted in a shared conception of the good life. Essential to this is custom and tradition: the embodied practices, expectations, and affections by which people are able to relate to one another in ways greater than utility, in a way that connects generations to a quasi-spiritual bond.

The dead, living, and yet to be born constitute a type of community: the wisdom of the dead made visual in concrete forms in the customs and manners of human interaction and in the developed environment, providing the assurance of hope that future generations will enjoy the same rights, duties, and privileges and see their progeny as well through what remains. Communities that see themselves as generational partners in every virtue and all perfection are more than imagined communities by its living members. These communities ornament reality with concrete set of manners, expectations, monuments, architectural achievement, public events, sacred sites, etc. that raise people’s relationships above mere utility and above the mere present, acknowledging the gifts from the past and accepting the duty to give oneself to the future. A life shared together in common through a set of particulars is a community in which one’s relationship with all others approaches a type of friendship or, at least, achieves a bond that constitutes a shared sense of “we” across time and treats participation in this transcendent community as an end in itself.

Christian Theologians on Our Natural Bond with Our Neighbors

Distinguishing degrees of relationships among men is common in the Christian tradition. Augustine, for example, argued that “since one cannot help everyone, one has to be concerned with those who by reason of place, time, and circumstances, are by some chance more tightly bound to you.” (De Doctrina Christiana, 1.28). Thomas Aquinas similarly states, “We ought out of charity to love those who are more closely united to us more, both because our love for them is more intense, and because there are more reasons for loving them….In matters pertaining to nature we should love our kindred most, in matters concerning relations between citizens, we should prefer our fellow-citizens, and on the battlefield our fellow-soldiers.” (Summa Theologica 2-2.26.8). These theologians affirmed, consistent with the classical authors, that Christians can distinguish the intensity of care and affection for others based on our natural bond with them.

In the Reformed political work Politica (which influenced Samuel Rutherford, Gisbertus Voetius, G. W. Leibniz, and others), Althusius defines politics as “the art of associating (consociandi) men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them.” What is achieved is “happy symbiosis [life together];” that is, the pledge of each community member “to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of life.” Althusius never states that the Gospel drives politics or policy, though he regularly mentions the Decalogue. For Althusius, the Gospel, apart from any restorative or corrective effects it may have, has no direct relevance for politics other than the civil protection of proper worship. The principle end of politics is the establishment and the maintenance of civil order, peace and harmony among men, and the ability to quietly worship properly. Althusius recognizes no change from the coming of Christ in the essential nature of civil community, nor any change in the relevance of natural law and the Decalogue in civil community.  

Althusius also distinguishes citizen and foreigner. He writes,

Differing from citizens, however, are foreigners, outsiders, aliens, and strangers whose duty it is to mind their own business, make no strange inquiries, not even to be curious in a foreign commonwealth, but to adapt themselves, as far as good conscience permits, to the customs of the place and city where they live in order that they may not be a scandal to others. (5.11)

Foreigners, which in this case probably means resident aliens, are to be quiet and mind their own business—to see themselves as guests of a unique place whose customs are not to be mocked or undermined. They even ought to conform to the customs of the place.

But why would a civil community want foreigners to do this? He later writes,

The rights of the city, its privileges, statutes, and benefits, which make a city great and celebrated, are also communicated by the citizens. They are shared with the people in the suburbs, outposts, and surrounding villages, but not with travelers and foreigners. For citizens enjoy the same laws, the same religion, and the same language, speech, judgment under the law, discipline, customs, money, measures, weights, and so forth. They enjoy these not in such manner that each is like himself alone, but that all are like each other. (6.39)

Foreigners are excluded because they are not like the citizens. The citizens share various particulars, making all “like each other.” They are similar persons. The shared particulars of each city’s way of life are not universal; they could be otherwise. Hence, they are not, in themselves, good. Just customs are only relatively good. But it is from particulars that a great city is made and celebrated. What provides character and uniqueness are the surface concepts, the superficial things of a place. For as Roger Scruton reminds us, “It is on the surface that we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by the social interaction which we, as appearances, also create. It is in this top-soil that the seeds of human happiness are sown” (Modern Philosophy, 244).

Just as a building without its façade becomes almost unrecognizable and dull, a city without its unique particular ways of being and shared life is almost unlivable. The greatness of any city and its people is found in those adornments and ornaments without which the place would lose its city. The degree of importance for particulars inevitably makes the foreigner out of place, as if in a perpetual state of uncanniness. Foreigners are foreign because they do not and in most cases cannot, without considerable time and effort, embody the way of life in their new setting.

Immigration and Christianity

Since the Gospel has nothing to say about immigration, there is no uniquely Christian view on the matter. Immigration is a human question. More precisely, it is a question related to the principles and ends of civil community, and this community, if we agree with those quoted and discussed above, is one that achieves its greatness and completeness through “similar persons” living a shared life together in particulars—a type of sensus communis on which the members of a community ground their shared agreement on judgments of social expectations, manners, architecture, dress, speech, and art and on which they share reverence for certain places and times. These are the “social facts” of a society, as Emile Durkheim called them: “every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society…existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations” (Rule of Soc. Method).

The shared life is an embodied way of life in which one pre-reflectively moves, dresses, interacts, relates, follows rules, approves, disapproves, judges, and honors in one’s world. Edmund Husserl called this the lebenswelt, the life-world: “all of us together, belong to the world as living with one another in the world; and the world is our world, valid for our consciousness as existing precisely through this ‘living together.’ We, as living in wakeful world-consciousness, are constantly active on the basis of our passive having of the world” (Crisis of European Sciences, 108). This life-world includes (or perhaps fundamentally is) a phenomenology of place—a sense of the rightness of certain aesthetics, moods, activities, manners, and ways of being in the places in a community.

Learning what is right in one’s community comes from the necessary instillation of prejudice during the formative years of one’s childhood and young adulthood. Our parents, teachers, and peers trained us how to be in the library, schools, playground, grocery store, schoolyard, church, the front and backyards, street, etc. The list could go on and on and even include the variations of appropriate conduct in each room of one’s house. No one reasoned us into these ways of being, and even into adulthood we continue to assume the correct or right ways for each place without reflective thought. We have been brought into a way of life through authority, and these places and their socially prescribed rightness collectively constitute our world. Rightness is then a type of prejudice, or “opinions adopted without examination,” which Joseph de Maistre considers “the real basis of [man’s] happiness.” (Study on Sovereignty).

We are so extensively formed by preset social duties that we get by without providing ourselves and others a reason for the things we’re doing. And the call to conscientious reflection on our actions arises only when confronted by another to give an account for them, usually because we have violated our duties. In our everydayness we move in confidence, knowing that the absence of another’s judgement despite its possibility (which is crucial for confidence) means that one is doing what he can or ought to do. “Prejudice,” says Burke, “renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”

Most of what we do in public are not, precisely speaking, moral acts. The shared manners, gestures, means and avenues of movement, processes of exchange, and expressions of care and concern are all, apart from shared expectations, arbitrary and meaningless. Our feeling, attachment, connection, and reverence towards places and things are not, upon intentional reflection, in these places and things in any purely objective sense. But these things whose meanings vanish upon examination make living life well together possible. For as Scruton said, “it is on the surface that we live and act.” Our attachment to people, places and things—the phenomenon of our subjectivity uniting or attaching to objects and other subjects—provide man with a sense of what right looks like and what is proper decorum, appropriate dress for some event, and manners and activity suitable for each place (e.g., the park verses the library or church). The confidence we have in dressing a certain way for particular events, for example, is possible only by a shared expectation of dress.

Indeed, community expectations on matters that could theoretically permit a myriad of possibilities provide security, confidence, and, in a sense, the freedom to act in public. None of this common knowledge and sentiments are in themselves good, but they are good relative to a shared conception and expectation of the community.

Expectation is the efficient cause of culture. Rather than being pure disconnected individuals, we are for-others beings. Most people spend a significant amount of time ensuring their proper appearance and manners in public, such as hair styling, choosing clothes, and washing one’s car.  These activities are for others. And each of us expects others to be a certain way in the context in which we share. There is a public or general will, irreducible to any individual or anything concrete and obvious, that compels us to conform. Feeling the force of community and translating it into duty is a basic structure of human being. Without expectation—your expectation of others and their expectation for you—culture cannot arise. And fulfilling expectation is the means by which one is recognized as an individual, as I argued elsewhere.

Further, our freedom to do most of what we do essentially relies on our anticipation that others will follow the rules, customs, and traditions of the community. Not cutting in line, for example, a convention children must be trained to follow, makes all sorts of practices possible, such as buying food in a supermarket. If no one followed that convention, the freedom to purchase food in such a setting is impossible. If no one followed traffic laws, movement on the road would be impossible. If libraries were confused for playgrounds, quiet study or enjoyable reading is impossible. It is our anticipation that people in the community follow the rules that gives us the freedom to do things. Any set of practices, events, or manners that we identify as part of culture is possible only because we expect others to abide by certain rules. Expectation makes possible the anticipation of right conduct, which ensures the freedom to act.

These shared expectations of behavior, public presence, and public decorum satisfy man’s desire for agreement on particulars. Immanuel Kant hit on an important truth when he argued that one’s act of judgment always already assumes a universal sensus communis in which one weighs in his judgment the “possible judgment of others” (Critique of Judgment, 40). Kant, of course, despised prejudice and thought of the “others” as the entire human race, but when man is viewed as embedded in a local way of life—as one having a life-world—one’s world is localized such that the “other” is a localized other, not the entire human race. In other words, one seeks agreement from his fellowmen within his own particular dwelling—his “little platoon,” as Burke called it. Humans are agreement-seekers in all areas of life.

The point is that what brings people together is a shared common, though particular, sense of what is right. And what is right (what could be legitimately otherwise) and what is moral (what could not be legitimately otherwise) are in an important sense inseparable. This occurs when the “habitual practice of ethical living (das Sittliche) appears as a second nature which…is the soul of custom (Sitte) permeating it through and through,” says Hegel (Phil. of Right, §151). The sittliche is identified with the sitte, just as the ἠθικός (ethics) is with the ἦθος (ethos of a people).

Customs as man’s second nature do not destroy the first nature of man. Rather customs actualize and constitute ethical life by making possible a life-world—people living together sharing the same judgments of conduct, appearance, relationships, place, and sacrality. If my analysis of man is correct, this inseparability is necessary for a good civil community, though it must be managed properly by civil leaders. Undermining custom impoverishes people’s world.

Living well, sharing life together, and happy symbiosis are possible when communities have strong connections with particulars. When particulars are rejected on account of their could-be-otherwise status for universals or abstractions it risks significant civil disturbance, as Hegel said of the French Revolution: “The will of its re-founders was to give it what they alleged was a purely rational basis, but it was only abstractions that were being used; the Idea was lacking; and the experiment ended in the maximum of frightfulness and terror” (Phil. Of Right, §258). Those “constructs” of civil life, as they are often called today and denounced as arbitrary, are that which hold a people together. To make war against customs, is to seek the destruction of community. It is a war against that necessary feature of man’s faculty of judgment—the agreement-seeking nature of every human judgment, a judgment not merely for oneself but for others.

The popularity of cosmopolitanism today is part of the modern flight from reality. That there is a duty to love all men, regardless of the differences, is no doubt true. But the basis of this love for all men is not an abstraction. For, as David Hume says, “there is no such passion in human minds, as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, of services, or of relation to ourself” (III.II.I).  In other words, we do not love all on account some affection we have for a concept. Rather our love for mankind is founded on our encounter with a being with whom we share essential qualities, prompting us to regard the other with respect and with a basic affection that cares for and seeks his or her well-being. But this affection increases when the other’s relation to ourselves increases. Hume writes,

Nature has preserv’d a great resemblance among all human creatures, and that we never remark any passion or principle in others, of which, in some degree or other, we may not find a parallel in ourselves….There is a very remarkable resemblance, which preserves itself amidst all their variety; and this resemblance must very much contribute to make us enter into the sentiments of others, and embrace them with facility and pleasure. Accordingly we find, that where, beside the general resemblance of our natures, there is any peculiar similarity in our manners, or character, or country, or language, it facilitates the sympathy. The stronger the relation is betwixt ourselves and any object, the more easily does the imagination make the transition, and convey to the related idea the vivacity of conception, with which we always form the idea of our own person. (Treatise of Human Nature, II.I.XI)  

There is a love for all, regardless of culture, but only on the basis of sharing the essential properties of humankind. The more two people share in the accidental features of human existence (culture, manners, language, country etc), the more affection is possible between them. Put simply, the greater the similarity between two people the easier and more natural is the transition to great affection and obligations. And custom has an important role in social affections: “Custom also, or acquaintance facilitates the entrance, and strengthens the conception of any object” (II.II.IV). Cosmopolitans have correctly identified those properties that bind all people together, but fail to see that the principle objects of affection binding people closely, intimately, and self-sacrificially are accidental, particular, and on the surface. The could-be-otherwise objects that one shares with his neighbor are the basis of robust solidarity and social affection.

It should not surprise us that cosmopolitans are just as tribal as those they denounce, as Ross Douthat has pointed out. Cosmopolitans are international tribalists. Those without the money, a unique type of education, and the generational connections necessary to join the international tribe, are national or local tribalists. Both are fulfilling for themselves a human need. Yet the international tribalists try with all their might to undermine national tribalism while keeping their own tribe exclusive and intact.

Implications for Immigration

The implications for the question of immigration and the status of foreigners in any community are numerous and extensive and I will not attempt here to discuss all of them.

One of the consequences of injecting in a civil community through immigration a diversity of particulars (found in the various ways of life among immigrants), is that it necessarily forces the community, in the interest of civility, to recognized less and less the particulars that once bound the people. They increasingly recognize only universals and abstractions, such as negative liberties and human rights, that in themselves have no necessary particular expression. In the absence of a widespread and robust notion of the good, each person has the obligation to “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy declared (Casey decision, 1992), which is a tall order, since it assumes that each person’s small stock of reason has what it takes to recreate their world from scratch.

Since immigration brings about a clash of cultures and cultural confusion, though not always violent and often quiet, it encourages Kennedy’s form of individualism. Public space is no longer a place of conformity to a way of life, but becomes an arena of conflict, confusion, and insecurity. The demands upon the individual to form his or her world are tremendous. Immigration and especially multicultural communities necessitate this duty to authentic worldview formation, since mass immigration, in both the short and long terms, disrupts the transmission of social custom in the interest of tolerance, respect, and harmony. An amalgam of peoples in one place makes impossible the social enforcement of a shared way of life. The city devolves into an alliance to tolerant others’ existence and self-determined way of life.

As a result of dealing with the clash of cultures, the law through policing becomes the only means by which justice is enforced, since a culture of trust, authority, and expectations has been undermined. And law is no longer embodied, increasing the necessity of enforcement. The legal system becomes a mere brute force for compliance and a system for making claims against one another. Further, the law becomes the only boundary of acceptable conduct. The claim that “we do not do that here,” enforced through a sharp glance, a stern word, or through widely accepted authorities (e.g., elders and school teachers), is undermined. Without a shared sense of “we” the law has much to do.

Immigration also threatens the strength of a community’s shared sense of what is right.  What is “right” is what I called above the “surface concepts”—the appearances of things, such as the neatness of front yards, dress, manners, social cues, the setting of a dinner table, eating properly, the right word for the occasion, etc. All these appearances and many more form a public sense of decorum, ensuring confidence in action and a sense of belonging. Morality and custom are intertwined and, in our everyday lives, indistinguishable. This custom/morality unity, which most of human history shows to be fundamental to human society, explains why many are so wary of mass immigration, especially immigration from radically different cultures. Immigration introduces a clash that tends to tear apart morality and custom, resulting in the destruction of both. Publicly acceptable behavior becomes merely any behavior that fits within the confines of law. If one wants to revitalize the communal attitude and sentiment in the West, one must curtail, limit, or end immigration and reconnect custom and morality. Unfortunately, most who want some degree of social collectivism refuse to acknowledge the necessity of either.

Moreover, the civil friendship that is possible between two people of different cultures is typically only economic—a relationship built on utility. A community subjected to mass immigration must become a collection of people with a mutual alliance for trade and protection. Until a shared conception of life develops between culturally conflicting groups, the basis of association is a mutual desire for consumption, exchange, and money-making. The result is, as Robert Putnam has documented, that there is lower mutual trust, less mutual understanding, less civic engagement, and less substantial interaction. Indeed, the areas and countries with the highest mutual trust are those with the lowest levels of cultural diversity (mainly the Scandinavian countries, though that might be rapidly changing). The only engagement encouraged by immigration is economic engagement, and the increase in dissimilarities between people discourages any other form of engagement. The social customs in economic relations that dictated acceptable business practices, which served as extra-legal expectations and barriers to mischief, are undermined. The social capital that enforced decency in business relations, acceptable advertising, and appropriate products, all being difficult to regulate by law, no longer exist.

Immigration is best friends with the market society, a society in which the capitalist market rules and determines the way of life. It is not surprising that big business and their supporters support significant immigration. When the ability for local action to resist big-box stores is diminished by the breakdown of communication and, most importantly, the disaffection of people from their place and common identity, multinational corporations can easily dominate commerce. Exploitation and consumption become the chief end of public life. The landscape is littered with ugliness. Every view is a view of an advertisement. Highways have massive billboards stretching the advertising out so it would last as cars speed by. Without a common culture, uniting in the interest of collective action to preserve local business and beauty is difficult. Public space no longer captures people’s care, concern and affections.

But support for immigration is not only found in big business. One often missed consequence of mass migration is the power it gives the state. The civic or intermediated associations, so praised by Tocqueville as the element that held Americans together, are mediators between individual and state. Non-governmental charity organizations, churches, fraternities, clubs, private schools, and other associations engender allegiance, belonging, and commitment, and they establish norms of behavior and conditions for joining.  They are exclusive, and as such establish distinction, honor, and privilege while ensuring a commitment to duty. Civil society, at its best,  forms a collective sense of belonging and allegiance apart from the state. In more traditional societies and some modern ones, these intermediate authorities are more personal as in the cases of lesser nobility in a kingdom who stand between the king and the subject.

All these associations ensure that the individual’s relationship to the state in life is not immediate—that most areas of public life have allegiances to entities sovereign vis-à-vis the state. Mass and steady immigration, however, undermines these intermediate organizations and relations directly by undermining the exclusivity of and allegiance one has to civil society and indirectly by providing justifications for state or court action to destroy local statutes and practices that might exclude certain people. Eventually, the principle authority in all areas of life becomes the state, and individuals relate to one another only on the basis of their shared, immediate relationship to the state.

As a force against the power of intermediate organizations, as a force for undermining a robust and significantly sovereign civil society, and as a force for the predominance of economics, immigration is effective in eliminating mediate authorities and atomizing the populace. This, as Carl Jung argued, is the natural interest of the state: “The mass State has no intention of promoting mutual understanding and the relationship of man to man; it strives, rather, for atomization, for the psychic isolation of the individual. The more unrelated individuals are, the more consolidated the State becomes, and vice versa” (The Undiscovered Self). Both big business and the state love immigration for similar reasons. A society with relations based on people, places, and things, all connected with time immemorial and shared with the dead and conserved for the yet-to-be-born, prevent unrestrained consumption and disperses power to quasi-sovereign non-governmental organizations and authorities. Big business and the state have a mutual interest in destroying these organizations and authorities. Immigration is, for both, a means for consolidating power.


Much more could be said and many questions and issue are left unaddressed. This essay tried to show how a Christian could approach and address the question of immigration, concluding that Christians can reject support for immigration.

The principles described above do not necessitate a complete rejection of immigration, but do permit and in most cases necessitate limits on the level of immigration and require that one considers in the culture of potential immigrants. Mass immigration from a people-group that thoroughly rejects the very foundations of the political order of their would-be host or receiving country cannot be permitted. The same goes for a steady flow of these immigrants. Potential immigrants from similar cultures should receive priority, if not exclusive privileges for immigration. Furthermore, the number of immigrants, even from similar countries, should be limited to what the receiving country can assimilate, if assimilation is probable. Independent ethnic communities in a host or receiving country (as found in northern and southern Europe today) prevent proper assimilation and arise only from too much immigration. Those countries whose solidarity is based primarily on ethnicity (such as Japan) can and ought to be very restrictive.

The conclusions of this essay support those of Alastair Roberts who recently on this blog wrote,Resistance to undifferentiated and uncontrolled immigration—frequently confused with resistance to immigration as such—is widely attributed to racism, yet such resistance often arises, not primarily from hatred of persons from different countries themselves, but from recognition that such unmanaged immigration has a track record of eroding communal identities that support people’s belonging.” Whatever good there is in permitting immigration, this good conflicts with the human need to identify with a historical community whose objects of allegiance are those adornments so necessary and suitable to cover man’s natural naked, shivering existence—the particularities that are ours and constitute us and can be ours and not others’ only because they could be otherwise. These concrete objects, towards which a people focus and from which arises solidarity, need protection and conservation.

Recognizing that there is a basic, fundamental human need to dwell and belong incites the opposite of hatred. Only when we identify and reduce our way of life to the universal—to the only possible just way of life—do we insist that other people-groups conform to ours. Valuing particularism has the opposite effect: we leave other people-groups alone. As strangers, we mind our own business. Prizing and celebrating one’s own community for its particulars demands that we leave others’ to have their own.

The insistence on geo-cultural sovereignty recognizes that cultures flourish when they have a place of their own on and in which they can develop, improve and cultivate. This insistence respects culture more than multiculturalism, the latter inevitably diluting or disney-fying culture and privatizing it before the all-embracing state. Multiculturalism is culture-destroying and state-empowering. Protecting your own culture from outsiders does not require arrogance or a sense of superiority. Rather it recognizes a principle necessary for all cultures to flourish: Culture needs a place of its own to thrive.

Stephen Wolfe is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University. His research interests include the American founding, modernity, aesthetics, and politics, and meaningful work. He is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. You can read his blog here.