The Good Book contains clear moral commands all of us should follow. The Bible is a reliable guide not only in our private life, but in the life of our country as a whole.
We’ve grown accustomed to hearing this sentiment from the Religious Right. We were warned throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s that if we neglected the Good Book, we’d neglect the very basis of our national life. After all, America is a Christian nation. By endorsing gay marriage and banning school prayer, we were abandoning the Judeo-Christian values of our founding.
Now, the Bible is back. But this time, it’s an entirely different crew who’ve unrolled the scroll.
“Thank goodness House Republicans weren’t in charge when Jesus was a refugee!” Nicholas Kristof writes in The New York Times. Whether it’s reliably left-wing publications like the Grey Lady or others like The Huffington Post, Slate, or even just protest signs, liberals have suddenly overcome their aversion to citing Jesus Christ, and even—the horror!—of quoting Leviticus.
We’ve really come a long way from the days of liberals snidely asking conservatives if, since sodomy is an “abomination” like Leviticus says, then because Moses prohibits “clothing woven of two kinds of material,” shall we also outlaw cotton-wool blends?
What Is Going On Here
Granted, I’ve painted with broad strokes. It’s not as if the Bible had really disappeared from public discourse until liberals brought it back, and it’s not only liberals who have made the biblical case for refugees. But it wasn’t long ago that any conservative’s mention of the Bible was immediately dispensed with calls for the “separation of church and state.”
I don’t intend here to act as arbiter between all of the Levitical boosters. But conservatives should pause for at least a moment before dismissing the pro-refugee, pro-immigrant side—as is now the fashion on the Right—as cosmopolitan, internationalist elites who want to abolish the nation-state and melt America into a bland morass of multiculturalism.
By tarring liberals as European Union-type internationalists, conservatives are being intellectually lazy, and not giving the depth of American culture its due. Something different is going on here. The rise of religious discourse ought to clue us in.
Granted, some of the liberal Bible-thumping might be insincere, a way for secular internationalists to just whack conservatives on the head with their hypocrisy, but most of it isn’t for sport. It’s genuine, and deeply felt. And it’s also to be expected.
Americans Are Deeply Religious, Even If They Pretend Not
Our Puritan forefathers may have fallen out of fashion among liberals, but even the most rebellious of teenagers ends up acting like her parents. Ever since 1630, when John Winthrop told his fellow Puritans, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” we Americans have believed that we are Israel, the Promised Land, God’s chosen people.
“If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work,” Winthrop said, “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” He is echoing the psalmist’s complaint to God on behalf of Israel: “Thou makest us a byword among the heathen, a shaking of the head among the people.” Even now, angst about the American reputation abroad reflects our Puritan fear that we have become “a byword,” a “shaking of the head” among the very people to whom we are supposed to set an example. Interesting, isn’t it, that three of the most popular political late-night shows have hosts (John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Trevor Noah) not born in the United States?
Both Right and Left share the notion of America’s divine destiny. During their presidencies, both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama approvingly cited Abraham Lincoln when he called the United States “the last best hope of earth.”
It’s a heavy burden, but it’s one we’ve never been able to lay down for long. Calling it “American exceptionalism” tempts being labeled a nasty nationalist, but what else can you call our national obligation—assumed on both sides of the aisle—to act on a higher moral plane than the rest of the world? We see this assumption playing out in the argument to welcome ever more refugees, and ever more immigrants, an argument rooted not in practicality, but in the harsh and heroic terms of right and wrong. It’s an assumption rooted in a covenant with God, a covenant signed on our behalf in 1630 by a ragtag bunch of religious dissenters aboard the Arbella.
American conservatives, who profess to revere tradition, should stop writing off liberals who advocate taking in more refugees and immigrants. Perhaps your instinct is to roll your eyes when you see protesters holding signs that say “Jesus was an illegal immigrant.” But when you argue with them about immigration policy, remember with whom you’re arguing. It’s not some functionary of the European Union. It’s one of your fellow Puritans.