By Miles Smith
Last week, reputable reports appeared that the United States government had begun forcibly separating children from their parents at the border and even at installations within the United States. An op-ed at the Los Angeles Times by Colleen Kraft detailed the government’s decision. From October 2017 to the spring of 2018, “the federal government has separated more than 700 children from their parents as they entered the United States, according to Office of Refugee Resettlement data reviewed by the New York Times.”
The reason given by the officials at the Department of Homeland Security, that they were “protecting the best interests of minor children,” would be laughable if the reality of children being taken away from their parents were not now a reality in the United States. Kraft argued that “the White House has vocally supported the idea of family separation as a deterrent to keep migrant families from the U.S. border,” a notion that would be easier to disprove if the Trump Administration had not made anti-Latino statements a rhetorical staple. Evangelicals supporting Trump—largely Pentecostals, Charismatics, and the sizeable and powerful anti-Calvinist wing of the SBC—have offered no public condemnations.
A report by Pew released this week noted that self-identified Evangelicals were the least likely group to believe the United States government had a moral—what might better be called natural—duty to accept immigrants.
Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, went on television and obfuscated the issue when he said that “God is not necessarily an open borders guy.” The worrisome issue for most Christians invested in the issue has never been their support for open borders, but breaking up families.
The federal state’s inability to deal competently with the issue of immigration has been regularly proven. Both the Obama and Trump administrations cravenly disregarded the statues of children and preservation of families. But the Trump administration seems to relish indifference to concerns about DACA and the status of children of immigrants who may or may not be United States citizens. Some conservative commentators try to counter accusations that the government has little knowledge of what actually happens to children separated from their parents. Yet even Rich Lowry of National Review conceded that “there’s some factual basis for the claim” that the federal government lost some children it took into custody at the border.
Conservative Christians enjoy a robust historical intellectual tradition that spells out the long-held Christian practice of not separating children from their parents. Thomas’s Summa is a good place to start. But my reason for writing is less to walk through the historic defenses of the preservation of the family and more to use this space to warn against the consequences of silence. The ERLC and the Roman Catholic Church have spoken creditably on the issue. My own tribe is rather smaller. Conservative Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians lack the large and powerful extra-ecclesial institutions of Baptists and Roman Catholics. But confessional or magisterial Protestant laypeople should speak on the issue if for no other reason than to show conservative Protestants how far they have diverged from historic Christianity by supporting ad nauseum the policies of the Trump White House.
My own introduction to the seriousness of Evangelical silence on the issue of separating children from their parents stems from the fact that I am a historian of the American South in the nineteenth century; that is, a history often of slavery, and occasionally the Confederacy.
During the summer of 2017, Americans journalists weighed in on the question of Confederate statuary that pepper the landscape of southern cities. I watched with considerable personal interest. I was reared in Salisbury, North Carolina, educated in Charleston, South Carolina, and live in Norfolk, Virginia. In each of those municipalities, statues commemorating prominent Confederates are Confederate soldiers stand in prominent public spaces. The debate in print and in telemedia proved far-ranging.
I read Adam Serwer’s vehement denunciation of Robert E. Lee at The Atlantic with particular interest, largely for the range of accusations he brought against the Confederate general. Among Serwer’s accusations was one indictment of Lee I could not remotely justify, or morally equivocate on. Robert E. Lee forcefully, even violently, separated children from parents, breaking one of the oldest laws of nature.
Serwer, quoting historians Elizabeth Brown Pryor and Eric Foner, made his case devastatingly clear. “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.”’ Serwer rightly noted that “the separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery,” and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”’
The trauma of rupturing families, Serwer wrote, “lasted lifetimes for the enslaved…the war, thousands of the emancipated searched desperately for kin lost to the market for human flesh, fruitlessly for most.” Serwer quoted Freedman’s Bureau official from Eric Foner’s Reconstruction who noted to emancipated people of color, the “work of emancipation was incomplete until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited.”
I recalled being assigned Eugene D. Genovese’s A Consuming Fire during my MA thesis. In that short work, Genovese recounted how Christians southerners dealt with the aftermath of their defeat in the Civil War. How could they, who believed they were a particularly Christian people, blessed by God and ostensibly protected by him, be defeated in battle? Various reasons were offered. Some seemed more plausible than other. They argued in the years before the War that God affirmed their slaveholding, and few reconsidered their initial belief that slaveholding was intrinsically sinful. God must have judged them for failing to fulfill their duties as Christian slaveholders. For what particular failure did God allow such a terrible judgement? To a man (and occasionally a woman), they agreed: God judged the slave South for breaking up slave families and forcibly separating slave children from their parents.
The fracturing of the black family and more specifically the forcible removal of children from their parents left a moral, social, and spiritual legacy that haunts the United States even now. Southern slaveholders were not ignorant of the effects of breaking up families, nor was it considered morally ambiguous. Even in the nineteenth century, slaveholders warned against the practice.
John Hersey, an Alabama Methodist, argued that “not even the most despotic of kings in Europe would dare to claim the right to break up families to break up families,” and to separate “husbands and wives, parents and children, away from each other.” George D. Armstrong, minister of Norfolk’s First Presbyterian Church, unintentionally indicted himself and his congregation when he said that his elders never had to discipline slaveholders for such an obvious breach of the church’s confession because no member of his congregation would commit such an egregious wrong.
A North Carolinian argued in a pro-slavery tract that rumors of separating children reported in the northern press could not be true because of how evil such a thing would actually be if it were a regular occurrence. For too many “involuntary separations occurred daily among free whites. How then could slaveholders support something as grotesque as using the state to forcibly separate children from their parents?” Thomas RR Cobb, a churchgoing Baptist, argued that slaveholders must provide, protect, and secure slave families just as they would their own. He pronounced the legal indifference to preserving slave families and slave marriages as a great evil.
Presbyterians especially saw the preservation of the slave family as not only a duty assigned by natural law, but a duty assigned by the confessions of the Presbyterian Church. Charles Colcock Jones, a Georgia Presbyterian, especially condemned the breaking of family ties and vehemently denounced separating children from their parents. Kentucky Presbyterian minister Robert Breckenridge called the abrogation of the parental rights of enslaved people of color “hell upon earth.” George Sawyer, another pro-slavery religious thinker, made it clear to his readers that not only the interest of society and the state, but “humanity and duty, plead against the separation of husband and wife, parent and child, and the breaking up of families.”
John S. Wise, son of a governor of Virginia and himself a former Confederate soldier, recounted getting physically ill at the sight of a slave family getting broken up. H.N. McTyeire dealt with the issue of criminality when he noted that unless a slave committed a violent criminal act against another person, separating them from their families was “inexcusable.” Christian masters naturally knew and understood their duties to enslaved families they owned. “Christian masters,” McTyeire stated, “know their duty in this thing, and are doing it. They part with other property to save their servants; and, if compelled to part with them, willingly sacrifice upon their market value to secure for them good homes and keep them in families.” H.W. Milburn, a pro-slavery minister serving in Alabama, nonetheless argued that such “rendering asunder of the holiest bonds of our nature should not be allowed, cannot without incurring the dread anathema of a Christian civilization and the righteous indignation of God.”
It is important to remember that these southern divines warned against breaking up families of humans they often argued were entirely incapable of ever being citizens of the United States. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney made that clear in the Dred Scott case when he ruled that blacks, free or slave, had no rights which white Americans were bound to uphold.
But American law has never asserted that immigrants and asylum seekers had no rights. And many people at the border are not simply economic immigrants, but families fleeing repressive regimes and civil war. There is a pernicious rumor that all immigrants at the southern border of the United States are Mexicans, and specifically Mexicans somehow connected with organized crime. In fact Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans attempt to reach the United States annually. And the governments of Guatemala and Nicaragua in particularly have historically egregious human rights records, so much so that the United States funded their overthrow (and did not blame or demonize their citizenry for seeking a better life in the United States, nor break up families that did so).
Thirty years ago, conservative Christians supported a president who argued that “illegal immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our workforce. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status.”
That some of the same names who applauded Reagan’s more beneficent policy now coddle up to Trump’s (and formerly Obama’s) brutal indifference exposes them as nothing better than political hacks seeking power and prominence all the while perjuring their ordination vows to be faithful to Christian practice instead of the American executive.
Nothing I have written here is a policy recommendation. I have not proof-texted a defense or indictment of any particular policy. Still, it’s important to note that even pro-slavery Christians in the slaveholding South took separating children from their parents seriously enough to publicly and regularly denounce the practice, in print and vocally in their churches. Nor were those denunciations made by theological progressives. Most of the aforementioned ministers were conservative southern Protestants. If men who continually condoned the maintenance of brutal human bondage warned against breaking up families, surely conservative Protestants in 2018 can easily do likewise.
Dr. Miles Smith IV is assistant professor in the Department of Government, History, and Criminal Justice at Regent University.