Step Away from the Pulpit, Mr. President!

Obama, Pope Francis and the Moralization of Illegal Immigration

American politicians have long co-opted Christian moral teachings and figures, openly referencing God and Jesus, welcoming faith-based solutions as they pursue war or even publicly begging for forgiveness at presidential prayer breakfasts à la Bill Clinton. Recently, many politicians have taken to fawning over Pope Francis, who has become a sort of poster child for moral credibility.

In September 2015, the pontiff of the Catholic Church made his first visit to the United States in official capacity. The Pope primarily discussed immigration during his most widely publicized appearances in front of the nation and Congress. Meanwhile, other contentious Catholic issues like abortion and same-sex marriage were largely ignored.

 In their first public appearance together, Obama noted how both he and Francis believe the “Lord’s most powerful message” is mercy, explaining, “And that means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart, from the refugee who flees war-torn lands to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life.”

Looking to draw on the added star power of Francis, Obama was quick to begin usurping Catholic teachings and reducing them to buzzwords. The hypocrisy of someone christened “deporter-in-chief” preaching about mercy for immigrants is pretty clear.  Even as he pursued duplicitous policies, Obama, through eloquence and charisma,  successfully linked himself to Pope Francis’ celebrity and moral authority.

The Pope continued playing into Obama’s hands and made the issue of immigration personal, and thus implicitly moral. “As a son of an immigrant family,” he introduces himself, “I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.”

In the Pope’s speech to Congress a few days later, he reaffirms his identity as an immigrant and, through lack of clarification and transition, ends up equating immigrants to refugees:

“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”

The idea of qualifying the undocumented immigrant headed north as a “refugee” further moralizes the issue, as the term “refugee” implies more of an urgent need than “immigrant.” Similarly, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been guilty of the same failure to distinguish between refugee and migrant, or documented and undocumented; such distinctions are crucial if one is to engage meaningfully with policy. While Catholic doctrine notes that “nations have the right to control their borders,” the USCCB is mainly concerned with supporting “the human rights of all people…no matter what the circumstances of entry.”

The Pope and the Church, concerned as they should be with all peoples in all countries, are free to transcend the national political context. But in this politicized, high-profile setting, presenting only one moral solution – “mercy” – to the complex immigration problem does nothing to actually affect meaningful policy change that countries can manage. It does do a great job of dismissing other considerations outside of humanitarianism.

It shouldn’t be outrageous to suggest that the US address its porous borders, regardless of personal politics. No nation in the world has an open admissions policy. Citizens have a right to be concerned about upholding the rule of law, criminality at the border and among the undocumented population,  and the extra strain providing for poor immigrants places on an already overburdened social welfare system.

Discourse has to move beyond world leaders assuming the moral high ground, to determining how best to work within the current nation state framework. By adopting the language of the Pope, and presenting “mercy” as Christianity’s greatest value, Obama effectively places the moral value of citizens who disagree with him below that of undocumented people.

In his book “On Law, Morality and Politics,” Thomas Aquinas, famed Catholic theologian, argues that the only norm which government should promote is justice, and quotes St. Augustine: “If justice is taken away, what are kingdoms but massive robberies?” Tempering justice with mercy at the national level would have most citizens responding with outrage; who gets to decide the terms of mercy, its benefactors and the inevitable losers?   At the end of the day, citizens, through their vote, determine their preferred immigration policy. This is the established and just way. Governments and political parties should steer away from assuming moral authority; feigning it actually seems counterproductive in the current American political climate.

Photo by thisisjamesj