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Randall Balmer: Politicians and the Bible Have Conflicting Message on Immigrants

  • In this July 12, 2014, photo, Central American migrants ride a freight train during their journey toward the U.S.-Mexico border in Ixtepec, Mexico. The number of family units and unaccompanied children arrested by Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley has doubled in the first nine months of this fiscal year compared to the same period last year.  (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

    In this July 12, 2014, photo, Central American migrants ride a freight train during their journey toward the U.S.-Mexico border in Ixtepec, Mexico. The number of family units and unaccompanied children arrested by Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley has doubled in the first nine months of this fiscal year compared to the same period last year. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

  • FILE - This July 18, 2014, file photo shows demonstrators with signs on an overpass in Indianapolis, to protest against people who immigrate illegally. Even as they grapple with an immigration crisis at the border, White House officials are making plans to act before November’s mid-term elections to grant work permits to potentially millions of immigrants in this country illegally, allowing them to stay in the United States without threat of deportation, according to advocates and lawmakers in touch with the administration. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

    FILE - This July 18, 2014, file photo shows demonstrators with signs on an overpass in Indianapolis, to protest against people who immigrate illegally. Even as they grapple with an immigration crisis at the border, White House officials are making plans to act before November’s mid-term elections to grant work permits to potentially millions of immigrants in this country illegally, allowing them to stay in the United States without threat of deportation, according to advocates and lawmakers in touch with the administration. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

  • A Texas Parks and Wildlife Warden stands next to a 30 caliber rifle as he patrols the Rio Grand on the U.S.-Mexico border , Thursday, July 24, 2014, in Mission, Texas. Texas is spending $1.3 million a week for a bigger DPS presence along the border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool)

    A Texas Parks and Wildlife Warden stands next to a 30 caliber rifle as he patrols the Rio Grand on the U.S.-Mexico border , Thursday, July 24, 2014, in Mission, Texas. Texas is spending $1.3 million a week for a bigger DPS presence along the border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool)

  • Davina Delor of Allentown dressed as the Statue of Liberty holds a protest sign. Members of the Industrial Workers of the World Lehigh Valley branch rally outside the KidsPeace Broadway campus in Sunday, July 27, 2014 in Fountain Hill, PA in support of the unaccompanied immigrant children who are temporarily housed there. (AP Photo/Chris Post)

    Davina Delor of Allentown dressed as the Statue of Liberty holds a protest sign. Members of the Industrial Workers of the World Lehigh Valley branch rally outside the KidsPeace Broadway campus in Sunday, July 27, 2014 in Fountain Hill, PA in support of the unaccompanied immigrant children who are temporarily housed there. (AP Photo/Chris Post)

  • In this July 12, 2014, photo, Central American migrants ride a freight train during their journey toward the U.S.-Mexico border in Ixtepec, Mexico. The number of family units and unaccompanied children arrested by Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley has doubled in the first nine months of this fiscal year compared to the same period last year.  (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
  • FILE - This July 18, 2014, file photo shows demonstrators with signs on an overpass in Indianapolis, to protest against people who immigrate illegally. Even as they grapple with an immigration crisis at the border, White House officials are making plans to act before November’s mid-term elections to grant work permits to potentially millions of immigrants in this country illegally, allowing them to stay in the United States without threat of deportation, according to advocates and lawmakers in touch with the administration. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)
  • A Texas Parks and Wildlife Warden stands next to a 30 caliber rifle as he patrols the Rio Grand on the U.S.-Mexico border , Thursday, July 24, 2014, in Mission, Texas. Texas is spending $1.3 million a week for a bigger DPS presence along the border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool)
  • Davina Delor of Allentown dressed as the Statue of Liberty holds a protest sign. Members of the Industrial Workers of the World Lehigh Valley branch rally outside the KidsPeace Broadway campus in Sunday, July 27, 2014 in Fountain Hill, PA in support of the unaccompanied immigrant children who are temporarily housed there. (AP Photo/Chris Post)

The images are searing, the stories nothing short of tragic. Thousands of women and children have been detained at the border between Texas and Mexico.

They tell harrowing stories of harassment by gangs, of family members killed or simply “missing.” Assault. Grinding poverty. The conditions in such places as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are so unbearable that these immigrants, including unaccompanied children, many of them orphans, have left everything behind for a perilous journey north across Mexico to the United States. Some have acted on a rumor that the American government has offered a brief window for asylum.

They were apprehended at the border and are now confined in facilities across the Southwest, from Texas to California. Some are living in dog kennels, waiting. Waiting for what? Provisions. Rest. Safety. Reuniting with family. A glimmer of hope. The dread of deportation.

The Obama administration has asked Congress for several billion dollars to deal with the problem, which apparently means little more than accelerating the deportation process. The governor of Texas has deployed National Guard troops to the border and surveyed the area from a helicopter.

This humanitarian crisis has brought out the best in many Americans. Various religious and relief organizations have provided food and medical supplies. Glenn Beck has dispatched truckloads of teddy bears and soccer balls to detention centers.

But the crisis has also provided politicians ample opportunity for demagoguery. When Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, asked Americans to recognize “the spark of divinity” in these displaced children, reminding us that “we are all God’s children,” Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, mocked Pelosi. Palin later expressed compassion for immigrants in “horrendous conditions,” although her solution was to ramp up deportation; she suggested that President Obama had orchestrated the crisis and used the issue once again to call for impeachment.

Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert compared the influx of immigrant children to D-Day at Normandy and demanded that the administration “use whatever means,” including troops and military hardware, to stanch the invasion. “Our continued existence is at risk with what’s going on at the southern border,” Gohmert declared in a speech on the House floor. He pegged this “vast invasion” of immigrants at “hundreds of thousands.”

Like Palin, Gohmert is a darling of both the Tea Party and the Religious Right. In 2011 Gohmert introduced a resolution that would designate the first weekend in May as “Ten Commandments Weekend.” The measure would encourage “citizens of all faiths and religious persuasions to reflect on the important impact that the Ten Commandments have had on the people and national character of the United States.” Last November Gohmert declared that American foreign policy should be based on the Bible.

Similarly, in an appearance on Fox News, Palin said: “Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant — they’re quite clear — that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments.”

I wonder what the “God of the Bible” would have to say about the immigration crisis at our border.

Let’s start with the Hebrew Bible. “Do not oppress a foreigner,” we read in Exodus 23, “you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” The Hebrew Bible often instructs the Israelites to treat strangers with kindness and compassion precisely because they were once aliens themselves. The corollary here is that United States has often been described as a nation of immigrants, which suggests that all of us (Native Americans excepted) once were foreigners.

Leviticus (one of the Religious Right’s favorite sources because of its apparent condemnation of homosexuality) contains plenty of advice for dealing with aliens. “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him,” Leviticus 19 reads. “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Further along, we find guidance for feeding strangers in our midst. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest,” we read in Leviticus 23. “Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.” Still later, Leviticus suggests that aliens should be treated equally: “You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born.”

In the New Testament, Jesus beckoned his followers to care for “the least of these,” a description that I suspect would apply to the refugees at detention centers on the border. Jesus later described those who would be admitted into the kingdom of heaven as those who demonstrated acts of kindness toward people in need. Those gestures would be reckoned as though they were directed to Jesus himself: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

The masses huddled at our southern border represent a humanitarian crisis as well as a formidable political conundrum, especially during a time of partisan rancor, a hobbled president and a dysfunctional Congress. Should these youthful immigrants be considered intruders or refugees? Will massive deportation solve the crisis and discourage others from attempting such a hazardous and uncertain journey? Is a return to violence and gang-infested nations akin to turning away Jewish refugees from the horrors of Nazi Germany? Finally, and most fundamentally, are Americans prepared to welcome foreigners at our southern borders as the Israelites were enjoined to welcome strangers and as Jesus called on his followers to show hospitality to “the least of these”?

We hear a lot of talk these days about the United States as a “Christian nation,” a time when politicians rant about placing the Bible at the center of our public life, even to the point of explicitly guiding our policies. As Palin said, we should “create law based on the God of the Bible.”

Maybe, just maybe, before politicians make such declarations, they should take a moment to consider just what the God of the Bible has to say.

Randall Balmer, chair of the Religion Department at Dartmouth College, is working on a documentary about Orthodoxy in Alaska. His most recent book is Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.