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This week my social media feeds have been utterly consumed by one single topic:  What should be the American response to the Syrian refugee crisis?
Of course, Syria isn’t the only country producing refugees, but the story being told is that it was Syrian refugees who unwittingly provided cover for a handful of violent terrorists to make their way into Paris, killing 129 people. And while Americans have a hard time identifying with ongoing genocides in countries they can’t even find on a map, a massacre in a cosmopolitan place like Paris evokes an emotional reaction because they seem enough like ourselves to make us suddenly care.

The Growing Pains of an Emerging Global Society

I have some thoughts for another time about the feasibility of anyone staying on top of all the events going on around a planet with 7 billion people in it. Dunbar’s number would suggest that it’s difficult for ordinary human beings to remain emotionally invested in and connected to more than 150 friends and acquaintances at a time.  I have lots of questions about how evolved primates like ourselves can make the leap from inhabiting a single family or local tribe to becoming participants in a global community.
How can a soccer mom in Chevy Chase, Maryland accurately keep up with what’s going on in Burundi without relying upon one source of biased information or another?  And perhaps more to the point, what can she do about it?
But to my point, my Facebook feed has been overtaken by injunctions by the religious and the non-religious alike appealing to the words and stories of Jesus in a desperate attempt to make the average American care enough about what’s going on in Syria (or wherever else) to convince them to support opening the doors of the American government to welcome these suffering people in.
America is a nation of immigrants, made up almost entirely of people whose families came here from somewhere else. The handful of Americans whose ancestors were here before the Europeans arrived must be rolling their eyes at the conservative griping that these foreigners should go back to where they came from.  But that aside, it is a central part of our national identity that we welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and yet here so many of our leaders and most vocal voices are calling for the doors to be slammed shut in their faces.  Why?
Legitimately, there are some concerns that welcoming thousands of refugees at once means opening ourselves up to a handful of people bent on inflicting harm on our soil. We have reasonable reservations about indiscriminately accommodating everyone who wants to come here, and the process of figuring out which one is which really does present a massively complicated challenge. Nothing significant can be done about this overnight.
But oh, the rhetoric has flown this week!  Good grief, have I heard a lot of lofty talk about either strengthening our borders and securing our safety or else welcoming the stranger and inviting to the table the tired, the poor, and the outcast looking for the land of opportunity and freedom.  All of these conversations need to take place, to be sure.  But in a country as “Christ-haunted” as ours (thank you, Flannery O’Connor), it is inevitable that the bulk of our rhetoric will attempt to make use of the moral sensibilities of the Christian faith.

A Tale of Two Christianities

There’s just one problem. There isn’t one single, monolithic thing called “Christianity.”  That’s an abstraction, and history bears witness to the fragmentation and differentiation of a thousand different subcultures over the centuries laying claim to that label, each one arguing that a number of the others aren’t even legitimate, and shouldn’t use that label to describe themselves at all.  In yesterday’s post about Tim Keller’s chapter on social justice and the Christian faith, I explained how any responsible treatment of history should at least acknowledge that Christians have never spoken with one voice about social issues like slavery, racism, or any number of other complex political problems.
[Read my “Setting the Record Straight: Correcting Tim Keller’s Faulty Historical Vision“]
At bare minimum, in the United States today there are two Christianities:  A conservative one, and a liberal one.  In truth, there are more than that, but at the most basic level I see two very different families of faith continuing to develop and disagree with one another, muddling the public discourse about what should be “the Christian response” to anything at all.  The current debate about Syrian refugees is only this month’s issue. Next month it will be another, then another, then another.
What you will find is that those Christians inhabiting the politically conservative culture insist it would be foolish to throw open our doors to strangers who could potentially harm us, while those inhabiting the politically liberal one say that’s not the Christian response at all.  Any fools should be able to see, this second group argues, that everything about the story and the life of Jesus teaches us to care about the outcast, the poor, the needy, and the helpless.  For them, talk of safety and security should never trump compassion and mercy.  They feel these are acceptable risks for the people called to follow the suffering servant, the man of sorrows acquainted with grief.
But these conversations don’t seem to be changing any minds.  They really don’t.  I’m telling you, I’m listening to the conversations happening around me (remember that I live in the heart of Bible Belt, which is basically where Evangelical Jesus lives) and I’m not seeing anyone budge.  People just feel the way they feel about issues like these, and it doesn’t seem to matter how many clever memes or Bible quotations people throw at them, they aren’t changing their positions one little bit.
It’s almost as if the religious traditions to which people belong aren’t really the sources of their moral and ethical orientations.
And that right there is the point that I’m trying to make.

Culture Trumps Religion Every Time

We saw in yesterday’s post that it wasn’t the Christian religion which ultimately helped people figure out how they felt about slavery, and it ultimately wasn’t people’s faith which determined how they felt about desegregation or civil rights.  Upon the conclusion of the Civil War, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge noted how consistently churches’ feelings about the institution of slavery fell along geographical lines, so that neither side could boast that it was their superior theology which guided their moral compass.

It is easy to say  that we are right and they are wrong…(but) it is largely…because every man, and every body of men, are more or less subject to the controlling influence of public opinion, and of the life of the community to which they belong.

Evangelical historian Mark Noll agreed that in the end it wasn’t appeals to the Bible that made any difference. In the case of slavery it took a war, just as in the case of segregation it took protests, demonstrations, litigation, and finally legislation to make conservative Christians change their outward behavior toward their fellow human beings. In fact, the very need for a Civil Rights movement a full century after the Civil War proves that people’s minds and hearts were never changed by those lofty sermons or appeals to the ethics of Jesus.

Although the war freed the slaves and gave African Americans a constitutional claim to citizenship, it did not provide the moral energy required for rooting equal rights in the subsoil of American society or for planting equal opportunity throughout the land.

Like I said yesterday, I would argue that the absence of that moral energy still affects American life today, predisposing modern evangelicals to follow virtually any and every public spokesman who pays lipservice to the Christian faith regardless of whether or not he displays any deep devotion to the ethical demands of its titular founder.  Social change for conservative evangelicals has always had to be enforced upon them from the outside. Clearly their religious tradition alone does not do enough to move them to care for people who are significantly dissimilar from themselves. And those people who do seem to care appear to have already been inclined to care long before their religious traditions gave them the vocabulary to express the morals they already possessed.  The religion isn’t the source of their morals, they themselves are.
This is why I don’t think it’s any use trying to appeal to Jesus or to the Bible in order to convince conservative evangelicals to care about Syrian refugees, or about anyone else outside their social circles for that matter.  It’s never worked before, and I don’t see why it will make any difference now.  If you happen to be a person who cares about welcoming the foreigner, the stories will impact you deeply.  If you’re not already one of those people, then no amount of appealing to the words or the story of Jesus will make any difference at all.
[Featured Image by David Hayward, aka The Naked Pastor, prints available here]
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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...