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Steve Bannon is right: the Catholic Church “needs” illegal immigrants

Cardinal Sean O'Malley leads mass in April 2014, along the international border wall in Nogales, Ariz.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley leads mass in April 2014, along the international border wall in Nogales, Ariz.
Matt York/AP Photo

In an interview with 60 Minutes, Steve Bannon, formerly President Donald Trump’s chief strategist and current Breitbart news executive, said that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops favored continuation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program because the bishops are dependent on undocumented immigrants.

Literally dependent: Since they are “unable to really to come to grips with the problems in the Church,” Bannon said, “they need illegal aliens, they need illegal aliens to fill the churches … it’s obvious on the face of it.”

The comment is fascinating because it manages to be true, in a limited sense, yet means nearly the opposite of what Bannon intends. It’s true that the church and the Hispanic community are demographically aligned: Many American Catholics are Hispanic, as are most recipients of DACA, and thus it’s likely that a large share of DACA recipients are Catholic.

Given the church’s heavy Hispanic demographic, immigration policy in general looms large for the church and its parishioners. But what is so peculiar here is that Bannon should present this as a bad, or even an unusual, thing.

Immigrant status has always been, and remains today, a vital component of American religiosity. Without immigration, both past and future, the Roman Catholic Church is not the only denomination that would face collapse. Mormons, the Orthodox, Pentecostals, even staid “all-American” institutions like the Presbyterian or Methodist Church would face catastrophic losses in membership.

For the most part, the only growing religious groups in America are those that count immigrants prominently among their numbers.

Immigration and American religion have always been intertwined

When Irish and German Catholic immigrants came to the United States, including Bannon’s own ancestors, they were viewed with suspicion partly due to their Catholicism. “Anti-Catholic” riots could often as easily be called “anti-immigrant” riots. In 1834, Lyman Beecher sermons condemning Catholic immigration — later published as “A Plea for the West” — helped inspire the burning of an Ursuline convent in Boston as well as attacks on Irish neighborhoods. (Full disclosure: Lyman Beecher and I, as you might guess from the name, sit on fairly close branches of the New England Lymans family tree). By the 1870s, bills prohibiting government funding of religious schools had passed in many states, aiming to deprive Catholics and Lutherans of the ability to pass on their faiths to the next generation.

For a snapshot of the importance of immigration to churches, and vice versa, in American history, you could do worse than look at the US Census of Religious Bodies for 1906. It reveals that somewhere between 8.3 and 12 million Americans attended non-English-speaking churches that year, compared with about 23 to 30 million who attended English-language churches — out of a total US population of 85 million.

In other words, a solid quarter of the American religious world in 1906 was not rooted in the English language.

From 1890 to 1906, the report shows, the US went from having almost no measurable Eastern Orthodox population to about 130,000, thanks to Greek and Eastern European immigrants: Every one of the resulting congregations used languages other than English. Over the same period, we added nearly 6 million Roman Catholics thanks largely to Italian and Polish immigration; in 1906, at least 5.5 million Americans attended non-English-speaking Roman Catholic churches.

In my own tradition, Lutheranism, about 85 percent of churches in that time were non-English-speaking; the denomination added 900,000 members from 1890 to 1906, largely immigrants from Scandinavia. One of America’s most venerable and staid denominations, Methodism, was itself largely founded by immigrants and foreigners like Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, and found many of its most zealous recruits among lower-class Scots-Irish immigrant converts.

When immigrants landed on American shores, they might first pass through some government screenings, but then they had to find their own way to integrate into American life. Some did so through gangs, some through immigrant political machines, some through unions. But millions assimilated to American life through churches. They created a common moral vocabulary, built relationships between immigrants and natives, and connected people in need to people who could provide.

“Ethnic religion” has been the norm for most religious Americans for most of history. (The early leaders of my denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, had an evangelism strategy that could be summarized as knocking on doors until they found people who spoke German, and then hauling them to church.) This is not to cast aspersions on anyone’s religious sincerity. People may be first drawn into a group by ethnic kinship and then develop authentic and fervently held beliefs. But it is vital to note that to the extent that Roman Catholicism in America is immigrant-dependent, that’s just a way of saying it’s doing religion the historic, American way.

Many denominations are dependent on immigration for growth

Today, according to the Pew Religious Landscape Study, immigrants remain a vital part of many religious groups’ composition — even some groups you might not expect. About 14 percent of Mormons are first- or second-generation immigrants, as are about 16 percent of evangelical Protestants. Within evangelical Protestants, there’s a wide range, with Pentecostals at about 30 percent first- or second-generation immigrant; Baptists are at 8 percent.

Mainline Christianity is about 14 percent first- or second-generation immigrant — only slightly less than their more theologically conservative cousins.

Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of Orthodox Christians and more than 40 percent of Roman Catholics are foreign-born, or their parents were. The numbers for Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus are even higher. Jews are in the 30s.

Bannon’s criticism of immigration’s impact on religion is especially peculiar given that he presents himself as a traditionalist Catholic. If he were a secular progressive who wanted to see American religion die, then targeting churches that are successfully recruiting immigrants and accusing them of corrupt motives would make a lot of sense. Delegitimizing the evangelization of immigrants is a swell way to hasten the end of Christianity in America. But Bannon claims to be invested in trying to keep the torch of Christianity burning in on our shores.

There is, of course, a deeper problem. Bannon’s quote, like Rep. Steve King’s (R-IA) infamous comment on Twitter, “We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies,” reflects a cultural Christianity in which the gospel of Christ has been eaten alive by the gospel of WASPyness. Whereas American religion has always included an element of ethnic community, it has usually not actually made the religion about the ethnicity.

Where Paul in his letter to the Christians in Colossae would remind us that there is no distinction in the church, not between “Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all,” the evangelists of race-as-religion would rather have us thinking about whether the Hispanic family two pews over might be undocumented.

Paul urged Jewish and Greek Christians to consider that even the uncivilized nomads of the steppe frontier were valid and legitimate partakers at the Lord’s table — brothers and sisters, not foreigners or barbarians (or “illegals,” Paul might have added, if he were writing today). And while Christian leaders since time immemorial have striven to make houses of worship inviolable grounds, today conservatives are turning the word “sanctuary” into an epithet. Anti-immigrant groups have particularly smeared Mormon churches as being “pro-amnesty.”

The gospel doesn’t spell out an immigration policy. It does make clear the duties of religious leaders.

It is always dangerous to try to prooftext policy. Weighing the prudential needs of the state in carrying out its God-given task of guaranteeing public order against the desire to see Christian mercy reflected in government is a challenge. There’s no compelling biblical case for 400,000 immigrants versus 2 million, or 25,000 deportations versus 100,000. Such debates within the civil realm are best solved without trying to claim divine sanction for either position.

But we can say with absolute certainty what scripture thanks of how religious leaders should treat sojourners, especially those who may be in legal or economic jeopardy. There are no foreigners within the church, because we are one people, no longer divided by tongue, tribe, or nation. We shall not wrong or oppress “sojourners,” or “strangers,” words used to refer to people we today might call immigrants and foreigners, nor shall we “thrust [them] aside.” Indeed, anyone who denies justice to the immigrant is cursed. We are urged to show hospitality to strangers, and reminded that the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger are all our charge to care for.

From Abram, to the Hebrews in Egypt, to the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt from Herod, God’s people are frequently migrants and foreigners. So powerful is the Judeo-Christian reliance on sojourner or immigrant imagery, that in Peter’s first epistle — this is just one example among many — he characterizes the whole life of the Christian as one of a sojourner and exile.

This doesn’t mean that the “Christian” stance on immigration is open borders. Scripture is strangely quiet on the best rules to set for immigration into diverse, capitalist, liberal democratic societies.

But whatever laws may be best for the kingdom of man, the laws for the kingdom of God and its ministers are unambiguous. The only visa needed to cross that border is baptism, the only passport the Nicene Creed. The shepherds of the Roman Catholic Church do indeed advocate on behalf of the needs of their flock, as every Christian minister ought to. They do indeed have special care for the marginal, the vulnerable, the foreign, and the weak, as every Christian minister ought.

And they should indeed specially seek out these marginal people to fill their pews, just as Christ and his disciples sought converts among the abhorred and the unwanted of society. The Roman Catholic Church does need the weak, the marginal, the foreign, the “illegal” immigrant, as Bannon put it. Where else but in weakness is Christ’s strength displayed?

Yes, this means that the church must often preach against the state. Our government must compromise to meet competing demands, weighing security against liberty, economic growth, national values, and other concerns. But the church need not give moral sanction to compromise; the church has no competing claims on its conscience, whether on the moral worth of illegal immigrants or any other issue.

The gospel may not always be good politics, but it is good nonetheless.

Lyman Stone, a Vox columnist, is a regional population economics researcher who blogs at In a State of Migration. He is also an agricultural economist at USDA. Find him on Twitter @lymanstoneky.

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