Immigration, Donald Trump, and American Civil Religion
Edwin was a “p.k.”(Pastor’s kid).[i] His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Central America to escape the gang violence which has escalated in recent years and the poverty which has eclipsed El Salvador in the wake of its brutal civil war. Edwin’s dad was the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Pico Union and Edwin grew up playing piano on the church worship team. Wanting to shield Edwin from some of the “worldly” teachings that he might encounter at a public university, Edwin instead decided to enroll in a Christian college. Arriving in the freshman dorms Edwin felt a little uncomfortable because none of his roommates were Latino and they all came from pretty privileged middle class backgrounds. They were nice though, and after a short while they started hanging out in the cafeteria, going to the movies, and became friends.
The first year was going pretty well until one tragic day in January 2016. Edwin had been up late studying for finals one night when he received a phone call that would change his life forever. It was his 14 year old sister Angelica. In tears, she reported to him that their mother and father were being deported. You see, Edwin’s family fled to the U.S. as refugees because the gangs in El Salvador had targeted Edwin for recruitment, shot their uncle, and burned his grandfather’s house down. Because they did not have enough money to hire an immigration lawyer, they were unable to prove to ICE that they qualified for asylum. As a result, they were being deported according to President Obama’s controversial deportation order.
After hearing the terrible news, Edwin fell to his knees and prayed to God for strength and for the safety of his parents. A million questions raced through his mind: Would his mom and dad be safe while in custody with ICE? Could he talk to them? Did they have any legal recourse to block their deportation? When would he see them again? Who would take care of his young sister? Fortunately, when the raid occurred Angelica had been at their aunt’s house and was not apprehended by ICE. Where would she now live? How would he support her? Would he be able to stay in college? Because their family’s asylum application had been denied, Edwin and Angelica were also both subject to deportation.
After a restless and sleepless night, Edwin stumbled into his political science class the next morning. The topic of the presidential elections came up. One of his classmates said, “I support Donald Trump and Ted Cruz because they tell it like it is. They don’t care about political correctness. They want to deport all of those ‘illegals’ that are taking our jobs and causing crime to go up.” Edwin was stunned. He didn’t know what to say or how to respond. The most painful part was that he felt rejected by his Christian peers he had come to know and respect.
If Edwin came to talk to you, what would you say?
I would tell him that the painful political perspectives shared by his classmates are not Jesus and not Christianity. They are American civil religion. Civil religion is the dangerous mixture of nationalism and religion. American civil religion is the mixture of American nationalism and Christianity. It goes something like this:
“The United States is “a city on a hill” which shines its light upon all the nations of the world. God directed every step of the Founding Fathers and led them to establish a Christian nation—the greatest country that ever existed. America is a beacon of justice and equal opportunity. Whoever works hard can become a millionaire; if someone is poor, it’s because they are lazy and have not worked hard enough. ‘Illegal immigrants’ need to be deported because they are criminals and take jobs from Americans. America has fallen away from its divine mission since the 1960’s. It came back around to its divine calling in the 1980’s under Ronald Reagan but has backslid again, especially since Barack Obama became president. If only we could get back to our Christian roots of the 1950’s then we would be on track again.”
American civil religion has a terrible track record of injustice. American civil religion approved of the enslavement of 12.5 million Africans who were ripped from their homeland to serve as forced labor for white, Southern plantation owners. It also created the twisted theological argument of the “mark of Cain” to justify this slavery as well as Jim Crow segregation.
In the mid-19th century, American civil religion also gave birth to “Manifest Destiny”-- the idea that God had anointed Anglo-Saxon Americans to conquer and colonize the pagan Native Americans and Papist, Roman Catholic Mexicans of the western territories. The insidious theology of Manifest Destiny was clearly reflected in these words of one American soldier during the U.S.-Mexico War:
“I wish I had the power to stop their churches…to bring off this treasure hoard of gold and jewels, and to put the greasy priests, monks, friars and other officials at work on the public highways as a preliminary step to mending their ways…It is perfectly certain that this war is a divine dispensation intended to purify and punish this misguided nation…Most of our officers concur with me that nothing but a divine ruler and commander could have brought us safely through so much peril against awful odds.”
As an interesting side note, both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant condemned the U.S.-Mexico War as unjust. Grant even stated that the massive bloodshed of the U.S. Civil War was God’s retribution for the U.S.-Mexico War.
Historically, American civil religion has also been used to justify anti-immigrant attitudes and policies. For example, Pastor Isaac Kalloch invoked American civil religion to justify anti-Chinese sentiment during the late 19th century. At a 4th of July celebration in San Francisco in 1878 he prayed:
“We believe, O Lord, that the foundations of our government were laid by Thine own hand; that all the steps and stages of our progress have been under Thy watch and ward…We meet together today to celebrate the anniversary of our national birth, and we pray that we may be enabled to carry out the divine principles which inspired our noble sires and others, and we pray that our rules may be righteous; that our people may be peaceable; that capital may respect the rights of labor, and that labor may honor capital; that the Chinese must go…and good men stay. We believe Thou wilt hear our prayer when we pray that we believe to be right.”
Buttressed by American civil religion, these sinophobic perspectives culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and subsequent invidious legislation. (Incidentally, Kalloch was later elected mayor of San Francisco) As a consequence, most Chinese immigrants were excluded from the United States until 1965. And I could go on and on—the Immigration Act of 1924 (banning Asian and Southern and Eastern Europeans); Operation Wetback of 1954 (resulting in the deportation of more than one million Mexicans in the span of several months), CA Proposition 187 in 1994 (barring undocumented immigrants from receiving public education and healthcare), Arizona SB-1070 in 2010 (allowing police to question the legal status of those appearing “undocumented”)…
All of these discriminatory laws were supported by professing Christians who confused American civil religion with biblical Christianity and the teachings of Jesus.
Today, American Civil Religion is most clearly expressed in the Tea Party movement and the current wave of evangelical support for Donald Trump. Civil Religion allows Donald Trump to say, “I have a great relationship with God,” “I’m a good Christian,” and then in the next breath to say:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me —and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border…”
American civil religion also allowed one New Hampshire state legislator to recently say with impunity, “The Pope is the anti-Christ. Do your research.” “I'm not sure who the Pope truly has in his heart.”
In clarification of these irreverent statements, and in further demonstration of American civil religion, this elected official later stated:
"I was actually referencing the papacy [as an institution]. And what I wrote after that 'do your research,' if you read the Geneva Bible, which is the Bible I use when we study, the commentary is—actually by the founders of the United States actually, the Protestant Church—their commentary references the papacy as the anti-Christ.”
There you have it. American civil religion in all its glory. In 2016.
After clarifying with Edwin that the racist attitudes of his peers was American civil religion—not Jesus or Christianity—I would explain to him that more than 2,000 verses of Scripture declare God’s love and concern for immigrants, the poor, and all who are marginalized.
I would share with him the words of Isaiah:
“seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1:17
“Is not this the kind of fast I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” Isaiah 58:6-7.
And the words of the prophet Amos:
“But let justice roll on like rivers, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Amos 5:24
And the Psalmist:
“I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor
and upholds the cause of the needy.” Psalm 140:12
And most importantly, I’d share with him the words of Jesus:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18
“Then he [Jesus] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger [immigrant] and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” Matthew 25: 41-45.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.” Luke 6: 20-23.
Sigue adelante, Edwin. Cristo te ama muchísimo. Él está contigo. Caminemos con Él.
Robert Chao Romero
[i] Edwin’s story is a critical race “counterstory”—it is a composite character that I have created based upon the experiences of many Latina/o Christian students I have had the privilege of meeting over the past decade.