On the whole, I am impressed by most progressive “gotcha” arguments. For instance, it is true that you make a poor case for the importance of good morals when you keep selecting blatantly immoral persons to serve as your representatives. But – it makes a poor case for monetary equality when you keep selecting the very wealthy to serve as your representatives. If we allege hypocrisy, there is too much to go around and hypocrisy makes a poor reason to choose between the parties.
Even more misleading is the charge that conservatives “don’t care” for a particular cause or group when they decline to back specific government programs. All this charge shows is that the accuser has a paucity of knowledge or vision – one that fails to account for the hours and dollars poured into shelters, food banks, hospitals, pregnancy and childcare centers, schools, and so on by private effort. The discussion of whether and in which fields a society is better served by directing its charity on a private or a public level (I do not entirely accept the common conservative argument that “‘charity’ from tax dollars isn’t really charity”) is certainly worth having: disparaging conservative intentions is ludicrous and has no connection with reality.
But in one case I do think conservatives ought to listen to the critiques. “How,” asks the progressive TV host, “Can you talk about a ‘Christian nation’ and be so hostile to immigrants?” Various texts are commonly cited – admittedly sometimes out of context – to demonstrate that the guarded or even inimical attitude common in conservative circles is not really consistent with the claims we typically make elsewhere.
The claim that the United States is – or even was – a “Christian nation” is dubious, except in the sense that Christianity is (and definitely was) the majority religion. On the other hand, I believe – as a Christian – that Christian principles applied to law are entirely consistent with – a convenient and revealed guide to – Natural Law, which I might define as “the way the world and human societies best work”. So I agree with the critics that conservatives – many if not most of whom are Christian, and as Christians often are “conservative” mainly because progressive goals are directly opposed to Christian morals – ought to be welcoming, helpful, and understanding of “[the] tired, [the] poor, [the] huddled masses”.
The question, since the Biblical teaching is so clear – and much of the “Western” tradition agrees, as for instance Terrance’s “I count nothing human as foreign to me” – why do conservatives have problems with immigration, or at the very least why are they perceived as doing so? This really cannot be defended even by the dubious excuse of pleading ignorance about the correct answer. The idea of a land that was – or is, or has been, or will be – open to all is even part of the national myth that gets bandied about in Independence Day speeches and on similar occasions.
So when the correct opinion is known, why is it – at least as far as public perception goes – so widely ignored? Certainly quite a number of Americans are, and have been, hostile to immigrants. This is in fact probably more common across all parties and factions in American history than otherwise, though there have also always been those courting the immigrant and minority votes as what we now call “special interests”. On the conservative side, I suspect it ties back to the “Christian nation” myth. Once you have your perfect society, humanity is very quick to overlook its remaining imperfections and suspect any outsider of trying to disturb it – to say nothing of forgetting how much trouble you had when you were the minority.
Another well-known part of the answer – I say “well-known” but as far as I can tell it is often ignored by much commentary on the subject – is that there is a class of illegal immigrants, that is, persons who are not supposed to have come into the country at all. Now, the existence of this class is a morally problematic situation – I am inclined, though have not given the situation much serious thought, to advocate for free movement as an ideal – but the fact that these are formally law-breakers makes the conservative, who takes rule of law seriously as a principle and sees it regularly flouted, inherently suspicious. Other immigrants of any description then gain a sort of guilt by association. How much the action of various notorious criminals who happened to also be immigrants plays into this I am not sure. It certainly does not help.
But this brings us to two other factors which are not usually accounted for.
Most Americans – not only conservatives – do not, I think, know much at all about the actual immigration laws. Most, I suspect, assume they are fairly lenient, and so they direct more or less understandable anger at certain “classes” of immigrants they view as dubious, whatever the emotional overflow may taint. In fact, as far as I can tell, currently immigration policies are fairly tight, and in fact favor the well-off – those who are assumed to “add to” a society – except for a few policies based on refugee status, whether that is because of religion, politics, or crisis. Immigration policy, that is to say, is more or less governed right now by perceived national self-interest. It is true that this policy is often advocated by conservatives, who would sometimes even tighten it further. They have quite a bit of explaining to do – but I suspect most progressives would adopt similar policies. As far as I can ascertain historically (though I could be wrong) they have tended to. But for the average American, conservative or not, I suspect the actual state of things is not known. Most, I suspect, take the inscription of the Statue of Liberty at face value and do not know how far it departs (and usually has) from the truth.
(Within this conception – however unrealistic – of what things currently are the support for e.g. limitations on immigration from Syria make much more sense. If large numbers of people assume immigration is essentially unregulated, but current events make a potential group of immigrants potentially dangerous, why not subject them to more careful scrutiny as long as the particular crisis is ongoing? The biggest blame here lies in persons not knowing about the restrictions and so on actually imposed – and on those responsible for informing them having failed to do so.)
Finally, the concept of charity or hospitality found in the Bible makes steady use of terms typically translated to make a distinction: “stranger”, “alien”, “foreigner”. That is, there is a distinction made between a person who merely is living in a society, and a person born to it, a full citizen. Most societies have had this distinction and maintained it is a good and necessary thing. It ought to be made clearer in this country, though the current state of American politics, and the cloudy relation of Constitution, central government, and State authority, makes that a difficult project. I would argue, though, that in some small part the conservative distrust of all immigrants is due to the fact that progressives are seen as trying to gain non-citizens the same rights as citizens, especially when it comes to voting and welfare – public money. “If you’re going to spoil these people that aren’t even really Americans, let’s just get rid of all of them.” It’s not a very charitable reaction, or a helpful one, or a practical one. But it is a very human one.
The goal, as I have said repeatedly, is really known to all of us. We want a free society, and by implication that means a society free to all. Most conservatives, I believe, would subscribe to this abstract principle – and if not, I am really rather disappointed. But desire to progress towards that goal is also thwarted by a muddle-headed muddle of actual policies and widespread ignorance of reality.