The BLOG: Politics

Fundamentalism and foreign policy

The Obama administration intends to grant refugee status to 10,000 Syrians. According to the White House’s director of communications, 2,171 Syrian refugees have already been admitted to the United States following a rigorous screening process.

Following the Paris attacks, governors of 31 states signed executive order or released statements protesting the Syrian refugee policy. These governors are concerned that the screening measures utilized by the federal government are inadequate. These concerns rest, in part, on reports that at least one of the terrorists in Paris utilized a Syrian passport to obtain entry into France. Seven governors released statements supportive of the current Syrian refugee policy.

It is undeniable that the Syrian civil war — coupled with the rise of ISIS — is creating a humanitarian crisis. Images of those displaced by the Syrian war are heartbreaking. Images of Paris are too.

Causes and effects of the crisis in Syria are complex. American foreign policy is a contributing factor. President Obama’s Arab Spring speech announced a hope for democratic reform in Syria. Now, it seems his words are withering in the heat of an ISIS summer.

How should U.S. policy address the underlying causes of the Syrian crisis? How should our leaders calibrate foreign policy so that the people of Syria need not flee their homeland? Should the U.S. cooperate with other nations in the region? Should the U.S. abandon its hopes for democracy in Syria? Should the U.S. withdraw from the region and maintain a posture of isolation?

These, and many other interrelated questions are quite difficult. Foreign policy remains as challenging today as it was at the time of our nation’s founding. “Domestic policy can only defeat us,” President Kennedy once said, “foreign policy can kill us.”

Return to the question of whether the United States should admit 10,000 Syrian refugees? This question is in itself complex. Who should be admitted? Should priority be given to a specific group of displaced Syrians? Christians? Widows and orphans? When should they be admitted? What are the conditions of refugee status? Where will admitted refugees reside? How will our nation support those admitted? What about others seeking refuge from terrorism (i.e., Nigerians)? Why 10,000? What means of screening should be utilized to determine whether those admitted pose a serious risk? All of these questions require thoughtful and careful attention. Hopefully, wisdom and practical judgment by those having lawful authority to execute U.S. law will result in a refugee policy that best serves the public interest and preserves the Rule of Law.

On the other hand, we could just ask “what would Jesus do?”

Based on what I’m seeing from many Christian friends on my Facebook feed, it appears that this is what many on the political left insist our lawmakers do in this moment. Armed with Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan, many supportive of the President’s refugee policy contend that it is patently absurd for anyone to disagree.  “Jesus was a refugee himself,” according to Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of mobilization for World Relief in an interview with Christianity Today. Thus, Jesus would welcome all those seeking asylum without fear.

Without using the name of Jesus, President Obama’s recent remarks reflect prophetic voices of the past. Those who disagree, he asserts, are fearful of “widows and 3-year-old orphans.” I assume the President’s rhetoric here is informed by scripture’s call to the faithful to care for widows and orphans in their distress. The President’s comment suggests that the administration is only admitting widows and 3-year-old orphans. Is that the case?

If so, notice how such a policy choice corresponds to the questions identified above. But also note, many of those governors concerned about 10,000 (predominantly Muslim) refugees might not oppose a policy limited to admitting widows and orphans. Some will remain concerned, of course, in light of the fact that a young woman blew herself up in France during this week’s police raids. But a policy limiting refugee status to widows and orphans might be a step in the right direction.

I do not know because I have neither experience with nor knowledge of refugee law and policy. But my point is not that we should adopt some specific solution to this problem. Instead, the point is that the refugee debate offers a clear example of the fact that Christians on the political left are often guilty of the same sin of which they often accuse Christians on the political right: proof-texting public policy.

Fundamentalism suffocates public debate. It stifles policy-making. Once one claims to be the Messiah (or to know what the Messiah thinks) then it is difficult, if not impossible, to engage in reasoned debate. Interestingly, the Rule of Law also is deemed irrelevant to those who ask simply “WWJD?” Assuming the position and authority of the Christ allows one to obtain moral high ground without thinking through and articulating reasoned answers to the complex set of coordination problems involved in granting refugee status.

Proof-texting public policy is an abuse of sacred texts which often results in poor public policy. Consider, for example, the parable of the good Samaritan. The practical concern of the governors regarding ISIS members pretending to be displaced Syrians is absent from Christ’s parable. The one the Samaritan helped was beaten, stripped of his clothes, left half-dead on the side of the road. In other words, there was no question that this person was in need.

Contrast this situation with the decision faced by those determining whether to grant refugee status to applicants. Determining who is in need in the present situation is much more difficult – and requires careful judgment. Christ is surely not condemning those leaders who inquire whether an applicant for refugee status actually intends to harm the United States. Christ, in sending out his followers to minister in his name, did not call upon them to be naïve or foolish. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves,” he said, “therefore be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Finally, as I’ve argued in my first two posts on this blog, complex questions of public policy (like refugee status) must be answered according to the Rule of Law rather than according to sacred texts. This truth saves all of us from a messiah complex which obscures wise judgment. And given the complexity of practical questions facing our leaders each day, it is no surprise that the New Testament directs all Christians to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” May God fill all leaders with wisdom and discernment as they face the challenge of exercising authority today.

Rob McFarland

Rob McFarland

Robert L. McFarland is Associate Dean of External Affairs and Associate Professor of Law at Faulkner University’s Jones School of Law.

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