Over the weekend, I suggested that the text of the now infamous and widely criticized Executive Order on refugees was, as written, “neither insane nor obviously unChristian.”

This was prompted by observing a variety of responses to it which assumed, in the loudest possible terms, that it was both insane and obviously unChristian. So I thought I would say one or two things about my assessment of the EO, and our response to it, here.

  1. After reading a number of essays on the order, I am not prepared to revise my initial assessment that it is neither intrinsically insane nor obviously unChristian. Such a judgment is about the weakest and most denuded form of opinion one could offer: The latitude it allows is enormous, and deliberate. That I took that as my opening position says a good deal about my general impression of the state of discourse on the question. Still, I have been persuaded that there are reasonable ways of reading the refugee ban that acknowledge its shortcomings but do not, in substance, dismiss it whole-cloth.
  2. Even if the principle of the matter might survive, the rollout was a disastrous display of, as Yuval Levin aptly put it, “rank incompetence creating dangerous chaos.” This, I take to be widely agreed upon at this point; the confusion and the disruption to innocent parties that it introduced could have, and should have been avoided.
  3. Much good came from the outpouring of energy, especially the safe (even if incredibly painful and seriously delayed) arrival of those refugees into our country. Conor Friedersdorf’s point that the Trump Administration mitigated their action based on the outrage seems right; of course, the Trump Interpreter suggests that was the course of action all along.
  4. I’m not sure the conjunction of (1) and (2) generates the sort of enthusiasm needed to demonstrate against the document. While we like to think that the sufferings of refugees on our doorsteps and in our airports would be enough to move us into the streets on their behalf, it’s a lot easier — and more satisfying — to do so if we are convinced that we are locked in a broader struggle against a foe who might, if we are not careful, make our country more like 1938 Germany than 1950s America — even though both would be a step backward.
  5. Benjamin Wittes suggests that the document’s manifest incompetence is actually a sign of malevolence. I’m not sure he proves his case — but I’m also not sure what would be required for such a case to be proved. He suggests that the EO’s over- and under-inclusive marks out malice in the design; but pointing to the countries previous bad actors came from is no evidence for where they might come from in the future. On the over-inclusive side, he suggests that the EO will keep out thousands of innocent refugees on the odds that there are a handful of bad actors within them — and while that’s certainly true, it’s hardly a sign of malice. It may be that Trump’s calculus is that the harm such bad actors could inflict on American society is disproportionate to the duty required to receive refugees (during this period). I don’t agree with that — but it seems relatively easy to come up with explanations that are more plausible than malevolence for the errors and omissions in the document.
  6. One other point on that: As stated above, the implementation was indisputably incompetent. That alone seems to provide evidence, albeit retrospectively, that the original drafting was animated more by factors unrelated to malice than Witte allows. But as I say, assessing malice within an institutional context like this is nearly impossible.
  7. One way to assess malice would be to place the Administration in a broader narrative about their ends and aims. Trump said he would ban all Muslims during the campaign; and now that he’s banned some, we respond with all the indignation our priors allow and require. The prior narrative treats any evidence as further confirmation of its priors — and thus, we are led into exaggerated and distorted readings of what the EO actually does. Again, all that whips up the enthusiasm and activism necessary for the cause; but only at the cost of deepening the distrust of progressives (and the media) among those not sympathetic to their aims.
  8. Perhaps that should not matter —perhaps we already know what is afoot, and we need not read the text closely at all. But in these fraught times, it seems we could do with a good deal more nuanced parsing of our government’s actions. In an environment where our trust in public institutions and each other is plummeting, we cannot have too much care in how we measure and describe the realities we are depicting. The only way to seriously counteract the disease of hyperbole and lying that emanates from our White House is to remain scrupulous, as citizens, in our communication with one another.
  9. How we ought treat refugees is necessarily a remedial policy: It does nothing to address the underlying causes of refugees, as Michael Brendan Dougherty was banging on about last week. (It’s probably best just to follow him, now.) It is a policy for people whose lives are in the middle — who, having been displaced, find themselves placeless until their homes can be restored. As such, I think it is clear we have special obligations to those who have become refugees in part because of our country’s behaviors.
  10. But it is not obvious what those responsibilities require: While they might require allowing refugees to come, they might also require contributing to the stabilization of the region so that the refugees don’t have to leave in the first place. Only such a policy would almost certainly require further American entanglement in the region — and who has the political will these days for that? To even propose the thought is to raise the specter of ‘empire’ with many progressives, especially progressive Christians. The work of caring for refugees ‘on the way’ is important; but for most of us, that is where it stops.
  11. Consider, for a moment, the Christian political imagination on the matter of caring for refugees: In this case, it is entirely oriented toward welcoming them here — a policy, I note, I happen to agree with unreservedly. But I wonder why there is not more discussion about going there? I have occasionally wondered (privately) the past two years about the nature and extent of the duties on us as Christians here to protect Christian communities in the Middle East. One way of satisfying those duties would be to go to the Middle East, find a persecuted community, serve them and die with them. One’s life would not, I think, be in vain if one stood in solidarity with such Christians in this way, even if it would be decidedly odd and almost certainly met with skepticism. Another way of satisfying them would be to go and serve them by protecting them, as some private citizens have. Such an act would be a kind of vigilantism, which I am deeply opposed to; but if the state fails to protect its citizens, then it is possible that one could undertake such a form of resistance in a just way.
  12. I am not committed to either of those being either permissible or right. My point is only that our political imaginations about what it means to care for refugees are rather narrow.
  13. It is easy to depict those who want a careful, nuanced reading of both the EO and the Trump Administration’s actions as failing the commandment to ‘love thy neighbor.’ I was so accused, often, and I understand the impulse: Reasoning and the parsing of a statement seems like cold comfort when people are suffering. Yet the assertion that love obviously requires repudiating the EO in its substance simply begs the moral question: It claims to know in advance what the right path is, when that is precisely what is in dispute. For instance, a Trump supporter — and again, I hasten to assure you I am not a Trump supporter — could reasonably argue, it seems to me, that ‘extreme vetting’ is as good for refugees as it is for America. Specifically, if another 9–11 type event were to happen, and it were to be an asylum seeker that did it, the backlash would doubtlessly be even more intense. While the massive disruption refugees in the process now face is bad — really bad, and if it can be avoided, it should be — such disruption is also an almost inevitable consequence of any kind of policy change on immigration and, for those who are innocent, predominately temporary. As this line of reasoning would go, love requires allowing for some pain for the sake of the longer-term well-being of the person.
  14. None of that persuades me. It is not my argument. Nor have I heard Trump or any of his people make it. But it does not seem like a crazy argument, nor obviously unChristian. Policies are prudential efforts, and to dismiss the reasoning involved on grounds that the other person has not love — is the kind of moral reasoning which cannot secure a meaningful, lasting opposition to the policies it claims to oppose.
  15. It is now commonplace within the progressive Christian world to denounce any suggestion that our country might have special obligations to persecuted Christians. The EO itself didn’t say that, of course; Trump did, but Trump says almost anything to make his listening audience happy (and it was CBN he said it to). The ban allowed for the prioritization of individuals based on them being members of persecuted religious minorities. This seems just, and right.
  16. Yet I suspect in practice the EO would prioritize persecuted Christians, and so we might wonder whether this is allowable. And here, I see little reason why not. If refugee policy is remedial, then it is one way of redressing past injustices which our country was complicit in perpetuating or allowing. If those injustices had a disproportionate impact upon Christians in the Middle East, then it seems perfectly just to disproportionately extend remedy to those communities. (Note: the Yadizi may have been, in terms of percentages, decimated more than Christian communities, but my point here is theoretical.) Such a policy need not be an endorsement of their religious claims: Suggestions that it leads to a “religious test” for our country more broadly are, to be blunt, laughable.
  17. But I would add one more reason such disproportionate admittance would be reasonable: Suppose our country also had, in the recent past, neglected obligations to allow a proportionate number of persecuted Christians in, then disproportionately admitting them would be compensating for past failures. The idea, then, that the government can never have special preferences for particular religions — including one which happens to be my own — in its refugee policies seems, then, to be utterly false.
  18. Of course, Christians are permitted — and perhaps even commanded — to prioritize ‘their own’ as well. This has no bearing on public policy, at least not in the United States, even if that didn’t seem to matter to some. “As we have opportunity,” Saint Paul will say, “let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” That such an explicit endorsement of special obligations among Christians was so universally ignored among progressive Christians over the weekend suggests, if nothing else, that their tepid commitment to Christian doctrine generates a disinterest in the sufferings and burdens of the distinctive Christian community. Universalism in eschatology leads to cosmopolitanism in politics — and thus, the ability to reason about or understand the distinct goodness of particularities and our attachments to them goes away. All the intra-Christian debates about refugees and immigration can, I think, be understood upon this axis.
  19. I cannot help but think that one of our society’s great needs the next four years will be to keep our wits about us. Whether we are up to it, I am less certain.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Sane commentary, and you broadened out my viewpoint at several corners. Thanks for contributing to this fray. Week 2 of Trump’s America and if he doesn’t cool it it’s going to be exhausting unless, as you say, we “keep our wits about us” for the next 3.95 years.


  2. “But I wonder why there is not more discussion about going there? I have occasionally wondered (privately) the past two years about the nature and extent of the duties on us as Christians here to protect Christian communities in the Middle East. One way of satisfying those duties would be to go to the Middle East, find a persecuted community, serve them and die with them. One’s life would not, I think, be in vain if one stood in solidarity with such Christians in this way, even if it would be decidedly odd and almost certainly met with skepticism. Another way of satisfying them would be to go and serve them by protecting them, as some private citizens have.”

    Many Christian organizations, such as World Relief, are already providing humanitarian relief to refugee communities in the Middle East. For example, providing food, toiletries, job training and education to the Syrian refugees (an estimated 1 million) who are living in Jordan. But that kind of outreach is simply a stop-gap solution, and in no way sustainable. Jordan and Lebanon and other nations are simply flooded with people. Imagine the US taking in 80 million people; that’s a statistical approximation of what Jordan has received, relative to their existing populations. They need other nations to relieve the pressure by accepting them for resettlement.


  3. I see no moral issue concerning a country’s desire to maintain an orderly immigration process that includes reasonable means of vetting immigrants from war-torn areas where it’s difficult to conduct background checks, etc.

    That said, I do see a moral dimension when it comes to our reneging on promises to those who had already been granted visas. Urn the EO, an Iranian graduate student at Michigan can’t cross the Detroit River to Windsor or attend international conferences. Google employees on J1 visas, many of whom have lived in the US for a decade or more, can’t leave the county and return. Or consider the case of the Iraqi man and his family, who had worked as a translator for the US military.

    The inclusion of such people within the scope of the ban suggests that the intent was more punitive than protective. After all, if the goal is to keep America safer, it’s relatively easy to see that such a goal can be achieved without sweeping such people within the ambit. It would have been easy to tailor the ban to narrowly fit the the actual risks posed. No effort was made to do that. Thus, I find it difficult not to see the obvious moral harm of the EO.


  4. I just wanted to point out that there seemed to be some misunderstandings of the refugee resettlement program here. By my understanding, less than one percent of refugees are permanently resettled in countries like the US, and that is determined based on specific elevated risks specific refugees are experiencing in their immediate asylum countries (such as Turkey, Lebanon, Ethiopia, or Kenya) or by protracted situations, such as where a refugee family has not been able to return home for a decade and is unlikely to be able to in the future. When refugees are resettled, it is always permanent, not temporary, and to be accepted for resettlement in the US, refugees have to meet the US’s definition of having fled persecution for things like race, religion, political opinion, and so on, and being liable to experience that persecution in the future. The vast majority of people who have fled conflicts like the Syrian war aren’t even eligible for resettlement in the US at this point. We actually already take in a significant number of persecuted Christian minorities from around the world, including Burma, Congo, Iraq, and Iran (all of which were put on hold by the order, even from countries that have no historical association with terror at all). The only place where we haven’t seen that yet is in the refugees from Syria, and no one has actually figured out the reason why that is the case.


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