On the issue of child separation , President Trump had to be dragged kicking and screaming into basic humanity. His initial goal was to create terror in migrants without provoking revulsion in the broader public. He failed. Trump may be immune to sympathy, but he is not immune to pressure. His partial backdown proves he is not completely indifferent to public outrage, which hopefully will generate more of it.
We have a president who is probing the limits of the constitutional order through his attempts to undermine checking and balancing institutions. He is also probing the limits of the moral order through racially charged attacks and the dehumanization of migrants. And he will continue pressing and testing until he meets firm resistance.
In the case of child separation, some of the most effective resistance has come from religious leaders — Catholic, Protestant mainline and even some evangelical Christian (see Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Franklin Graham). It was a case study in the proper and positive role that religion can play in our common life.
Priests and pastors are generally not experts on immigration policy and should not pretend to be. Many of the debates surrounding this issue are prudential rather than moral. There is no specifically Christian position on, say, the building of a border wall. It may be stupid and wasteful, but it is not inherently unethical to make a partially walled border into a fully walled border.
But religious leaders have a moral duty to oppose the dehumanization of migrants — something that violates the vision of human dignity and equality at the heart of the Christian faith (and other faiths as well). Human beings, in this view, are not merely arrogant hominids, programmed for sex and death. They bear God’s image — and, in the Christian view, their flesh somehow once clothed God himself. This means that cruelty, bullying and oppression are cosmic crimes.
Christian pastors being audacious borrowers, here is my sermon suggestion for Sunday: “You know I don’t preach politics from this pulpit. There are many political and policy views among Christians, and many represented here in this sanctuary. But our faith involves a common belief with unavoidably public consequences: Christians are to love their neighbor, and everyone is their neighbor. All the appearances of difference — in race, ethnicity, nationality and accomplishment — are deceptive. The reality is unseen. God’s distribution of dignity is completely and radically equal. No one is worthless. No one is insignificant. No one should be reduced to the status of a thing. This is the changeless truth in our changing politics. You can argue about what constitutes effective criminal-justice policy — but, as a Christian, you cannot view and treat inmates like animals. You can disagree about the procedures by which our country takes in refugees — but you can’t demonize them for political gain. And you can argue about the proper shape of our immigration system — but you can’t support any policy that achieves its goal by purposely terrorizing children.”
The proper role of Christians in politics is not to Christianize America; it is to demonstrate Christian values in the public realm. This was the spirit of the abolitionist movement, of the charitable and legal response to the human costs of the Industrial Revolution and of the civil rights movement. This commitment does not lead toward a single party or ideology, but it does trace the outlines of an agenda: defending the rule of law, protecting minorities from discrimination and harm, fighting against trafficking and preventable suffering abroad, standing up for the rights of the disabled and vulnerable, shielding children from exploitation and abuse.
This role is always important. But our politics needs this type of influence in a particular and urgent way. If you believe (as I do) that opposing ethno-nationalist dehumanization is the nation’s central moral and political challenge — and believe (as I do) that the battle will be won or lost on the right — who can most effectively carry this case? Not business interests. Not foreign policy experts. Not libertarians. If effective resistance happens at all, it will come from values-based, religiously motivated conservatives who can no longer stomach the moral putridity of Trumpism.
We are far from that eventuality, particularly when it comes to older, white evangelical Christian leaders, many of whom serve as chaplains at the Trump International Casino and Cult. But the debate over child separation may be a straw in the wind. And it is not blowing in Trump’s direction.