The Immigration Debate and the Hidden Root

There is a lot of talking past one another when Christians discuss immigration. This is not what I would call a unique problem with the subject matter, but immigration certainly seems to be, for many, a subject of particular consternation and frustration. Often, there is a great deal of emotionalism involved. Fears and anxieties based off of propaganda or misleading statistics are littered throughout nearly every conversation. When the Christian answers these anxieties with theology, it often does nothing to help the fearful man. This is primarily due to Christians coming to the discussion with different standards and different guiding values. These Christians, essentially, are not playing by the same rule book, so they do not even begin to understand other perspectives. In short, this is a matter of presuppositions and authority. This short paper seeks to cut to the root of this communication problem and ask “by what standard?” As we will see, the Christian answer will be, and will always be, the teaching of the Law/Word of God.

For many, the guiding factor for their views on immigration is pragmatism or utilitarianism; i.e., my immigration policy is right because it fixes a perceived problem. For others, the guiding factor is fear or the desire for safety; i.e., immigrants may be terrorists, or they may destroy my culture or my livelihood. Finally, for others, the standard is party or cultural loyalty; i.e., the Republican Party opposes lenient immigration controls, therefore, so will I.

Pragmatism, fear, and tribalism are not good or reliable standards. This does not mean that any conclusion determined by pragmatism, fear, or tribalism must be the wrong conclusion, but it does mean that these standards are unreliable, inconsistent, and theologically unfaithful standards. Sometimes a pragmatist or fearful man will come to the correct Biblical conclusion. This, however, is an example of a man stumbling about in the dark and finally finding something useful in the black void. Finding the occasional truth is not an example or evidence of sound presuppositions.

Although the believer should not rely on these standards or recognize them as ethical standards, there can be some headway made when discussing these factors. For example, the argument that Mexican immigrants are bad for the economy can be and should be persuasively addressed by using sound economic principles. Or, for another example, the reasonableness of fearing terrorism from Middle Easterners can be addressed by sociological and statistical studies. Further, to discuss the tribalism too many fall into, we can historically demonstrate how strict immigration policy has been primarily a tool of Marxism and leftist political parties. It is a noble task to address these fears, pragmatic positions, and tribalistic partiality. It is a noble task to point out, cogently, how their views on immigration are built on incomplete data, padded numbers, and purposely misleading statistics. The old saying, “lies, damn lies, and statistics” should be remembered in these conversations. You offer one chart, someone will raise you two charts. Statistical data can be helpful, but ultimately, information is collected and interpreted by men with pre-existing ideas and goals. Scientific studies have presuppositions, and sometimes those are good presuppositions and oftentimes not so great. Addressing statistics, history, economics, etc., are all good things to do, but that is not the focus of this paper.

If a man believes his view is right because of fear, pragmatism, or tribalism, the root of the problem is not fear, pragmatism, or tribalism, but rather the problem is theology. Sometimes this man may confess orthodox theology regarding authority and epistemology, but he does not apply his theology on this topic or other select topics.

The root of this debate has to do with authority and Biblical presuppositions. In other words, the doctrinal question is the legitimacy or illegitimacy of civil government action. Does the jurisdiction of the civil government rightly extend to restricting the free movement of individuals across national borders?
Or, an even better question, how do we know what the civil government has the authority to do?

That is where many of us will divide. Each of us has acknowledged or unacknowledged presuppositions about the nature of civil government authority. We, in these discussions, are making judgments about the righteousness of specific policies based on our presuppositions. If someone, whether or not they realize it, assumes one foundation of authority, they will end up believing something very different from the man that starts with another understanding of authority. In rare cases, these two men can come to some agreement when all of the practical and emotional objections were adequately and convincingly made, but most often we run into presuppositional walls. It is good to know what wall to tear down.

For Christians that believe that scripture should inform every sphere of life, the answer given to the question of civil authority can still be quite different.

Generally speaking, there are two basic positions. We have the positivist and governmental expansionist view, and we have the negativist regulated government view.

First, there is the view that the civil government has the legitimate authority to pass laws, regulations, and restrictions as long as they do not conflict with our explicit Christian duties or somehow coerce the Christian into sin. The function and purpose of the civil government, therefore, is relatively unregulated. It has a vast amount of authority and can seek out its amorphous and abstract goals of “public welfare” and “national security” in nearly any way it deems fit. This view of authority and law is sometimes called positivism. The function of the civil government is positive, in that its purpose is to ensure, by whatever means, abstract goals such as peace and prosperity. For legal history buffs, you’ll recall that legal positivism led to nearly every form of judicial and political tyranny in America and the Western World. To quote Rushdoony on positivism,

“But, if the law is positive in its function, and if the health of the people is the highest law, then the state has total jurisdiction to compel the total health of the people. The immediate consequence is a double penalty on the people. First, an omnicompetent state is posited, and a totalitarian state results. Everything becomes a part of the state’s jurisdiction, because everything can potentially contribute to the health or the destruction of the people. Because the law is unlimited, the state is unlimited. It becomes the business of the state, not to control evil, but to control all men. Basic to every totalitarian regime is a positive concept of the function of law.”

Regarding immigration, positivism presupposes that to find Biblical support for highly restrictive national borders, all that is needed is an absence of a specific prohibition. According to this sort of “Christian positivism,” the opponents of closed borders must find an explicit prohibition against closed borders. Although there is text after text speaking about the duty we have to sojourners and foreigners, and although there is zero historical or Biblical evidence for a closed border policy in ancient Israel, none of that matters to the positivist because there is not a crystal clear “thou shalt not close thy borders” law. Because there is not a specific and explicit prohibition, the assumption is that the civil government has the liberty to restrict the liberty of non-criminals.

When positivism is the presupposition, it causes a dilemma for the Christian and especially for the freedom-loving politically conservative Christian. With an assertion of positivism as the primary function of God’s Law, it loosens the requirements upon the civil government to only a bare minimum. In secular legal positivism, any moral standard is rejected and replaced with a stark utilitarianism. The scholarly roots of these ideas are found in men like Jeremy Bentham and John Austin and later in men such as the notorious John Dewey. However, with this view of “Christian positivism,” there is at least one restriction on the civil government; the government cannot force Christians to sin. However, all other actions of the civil government must be obeyed and acknowledged as a legitimate function of the government. You may disagree with the government, but ultimately, you must believe that they have the legal right. Nothing is restricting the government except specific prohibitions against sin.

The positivist, inconsistently, often arbitrarily determines how much governmental power is too much. Being led by his personal preferences and emotions, he arbitrarily draws a line wherever he chooses. The government has the right to “protect and serve,” but only up to a point. What point? Well, that depends on which conservative positivist you are talking with. Theologically and logically, the only built-in limiting standard is restrictions against commands to sin, but that is not sufficient for the typical conservative positivist, so they draw their arbitrary lines. They will often defend, for example, their right to own firearms, while at the same time theologically giving the civil government the right to restrict private ownership of firearms. Is not owning a gun a sin? If no, then under positivism, the government can take your gun away. This is what functional positivism looks like in Christianity.

But instead of positivism, the Law of God is fundamentally and primarily negative. It is negative in that it deals mainly with lawbreakers, not controlling non-lawbreakers. Do not get me wrong, there are positive aspects of God’s law, but the judicial function of God’s Law is relegated to the negative aspect of God’s Law. This is the exact reason why murderers should be put to death by the civil magistrate, but someone who hates his brother in his heart will answer to God but not the state. Likewise, abortionists break the negative aspect of the Sixth Commandment and apathetic Christians who do nothing and say nothing for the preborn break the positive aspect of the Sixth Commandment (e.g., not speaking out against murder). This distinction is vital. We do not endorse civil punishments for those who break the positive aspect of the Sixth Commandment, yet, breaking the positive aspect of the Sixth Commandment is still sin.

The civil government is regulated and bound by the Law of God. The bounds of the authority of the civil government are defined by the negative aspects of the Law of God. Romans 13:4 (a very misunderstood text) defines the role and limitations of the civil government.

“For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.’”

The role of the civil magistrate is to punish evil, and that role is also a limitation. How then do we determine what is evil? By the Law/Word of God. Unless the holy Word of God allows for the liberty of man to be restricted by the sword (the civil magistrate), then liberty remains with the man. This is what Rushdoony called the “direction of the Law.”

When asked to justify a governmental policy, the negativist looks in scripture for a clear principle or prescription; he does not look for a prohibition because the prohibition is implied by a sort of “Regulative Principle of Government.” The power of the government is tightly regulated.

With positivism, allowance is implied, and a sort of “Regulative Principle of Liberty” is established. The liberty of the people is tightly regulated, or at the very least, the power to tightly restrict liberty is implied.

The starting place of positivism is that the government has all authority on earth unless there is a specific prohibition. The starting place of negativism is that man has liberty unless there is a specific prohibition placed upon man (keep in mind I’m speaking legally/civilly, not ethically. man is certainly regulated tightly on a moral level).

In short, either the civil government will be primarily regulated, or the individual will be primarily regulated.

It is crucial to understand who has the burden of proof and why. If liberty must be proven by specific prescription, then we are dealing with the philosophical foundation of tyranny. If the power of government must be proven by prescription, liberty and law are ensured for all people according to the Law/Word of God. In positivism, we are left with the whims and opinions of man claiming autonomous authority in himself. Positivism allows for fearful men to determine policies to ease his fears. Positivism allows for the pragmatist to supposedly fix all the world’s problems by legislative action and force. In negativism, we are bound theonomically to God’s Law. As always, there is autonomy or theonomy.

It is time for Christians to become epistemologically self-aware and truly decide, consistently, what their standard is. How do we know that a law is just?

It is time for Christians to decide if they believe scripture allows for and legitimizes tyranny or if scripture secures the liberty of the individual.

We could spend dozens of pages going through the multiple texts commanding God’s people to care for the immigrant, but that will have to be another power. And although I could spend pages writing about terrorism, economics, xenophobia, fear, and on and so on, there are only two questions that I want to be answered.

What is our standard?


Where is the Biblical prescription for closed borders?

Revised and expanded 6/25/2019

One thought on “The Immigration Debate and the Hidden Root

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  1. Reblogged this on Across the Stars and commented:
    Some great insights about the necessarily negative – and thus, restricted and limited – nature of the Law of God.

    “No more ever-expanding power of the God-State which loves you very much? Praise God!”

    Certainly, we won’t be praising the positive law doctrines of the secularists, whose intense hostility and malice towards Christianity is self-evident.


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