What Trump’s success should teach Church leaders
Donald Trump is in the White House today, for better or worse*, because he dared to address two hot topics that other leading politicians had assiduously avoided: immigration and militant Islam. American voters were looking for a leader, and leadership involves the willingness to confront tough questions. Trump would, when his rivals would not.
Why should this political analysis appear on a site dedicated to Catholic Culture? Because I see too many Church leaders—both in the hierarchy and in lay-run Catholic institutions—making the same strategic mistake that mainstream politicians have made. Our leaders issue statements that may appeal to “enlightened” public opinion, statements that meet the exacting standards of political correctness, but will not resolve the real problems that we face.
On the American political scene, for decades the two major parties have used the issue of immigration primarily as a fundraising mechanism. Both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged that the US has failed to control its own borders, but done little or nothing to establish control. For Democrats the flood of Hispanic immigrants brought the promise of a sympathetic new voting bloc; for Republicans it brought the promise of an inexpensive labor force. Democrats issued fundraising appeals that emphasized compassion for immigrants. Republican pleas focused on the chaos along the border. But the border remained porous, and through the years—under both Republican and Democratic leadership—there was no major move to control entry into the US or to address the status of the millions of people living in this country without legal status.
Trump’s proposal to build a wall was a dramatic break from the years of vague promises. Realistic or not, compassionate or not, effective or not, at least it was a concrete proposal. He was offering something to satisfy the voters’ concerns.
In any public debate, the man with a plan—any plan—has an advantage. Unless his opponents can present an alternative plan of their own, the debate will be about his plan; he will shape the terms of the discussion. Trump succeeded spectacularly in this respect during the 2016 presidential campaign; he not only defined the major issues of the campaign, but actually became, himself, the focus of the campaign debates.
Contrast the Trump approach to immigration with the public statements that are issued on an almost daily basis by prominent Catholic leaders. There are constant calls for compassion toward migrants, sometimes accompanied (in much milder language) by reminders that immigrants have an obligation to obey the laws of the country to which they have moved. These statements, taken by themselves, are unobjectionable. No one with even a passing acquaintance with the Bible can ignore the clear message that a society will be judged by its treatment of those in need: the poor, widows and orphans, and, yes, immigrants. But the exhortations ring hollow when they do not acknowledge the practical problems posed by immigration.
A state—in fact any living organism—must control what enters into itself. A government that cannot control its own borders is doomed. So the first question to address in any discussion of immigration—the question that must be addressed, as the price of admission into any serious discussion—is the question of how the US can regain control of our borders. It is not necessary, at this early stage, to agree on just how tight those controls should be. But there must be some controls: some means of determining which immigrants will be allowed to enter, and which will be excluded.
Bland general statements against walls add nothing to this debate. There are walls around zoos, keeping dangerous animals inside (and immature or unbalanced humans out). There are high walls around the Vatican. Walls designed to keep people out are much less offensive to human rights than those, like the infamous Berlin Wall, that keep people in. Good fences, and even good walls, can help make good neighbors. So if there is something offensive about the wall that Trump proposes, let’s be specific in our objections. Is it the height of the wall? Or the cost? Or the message that it implies? Because if the problem really is the message, perhaps that can be addressed, apart from the wall.
Next, activists on both sides of this issue must recognize that their opponents have some valid arguments. Not every would-be immigrant poses a threat to the American way of life. Most, given the chance, would be law-abiding citizens, productive members of our society. Most are simply looking for a better life for themselves and their families. Some are desperately in need, having fled from war or persecution— conditions which have been aggravated, in some cases, by American foreign policy. However, others may be motivated by nothing more than a desire to benefit from generous American welfare policies. Some may be criminals; some may be terrorists. What policies should be in place, to separate migrants into different categories: those who have a special claim on our sympathies, those who have a legitimate reason to immigrate, and those who should be excluded? Again, bland general statements are not helpful.
The issue of terrorism brings us to the second major issue that Trump raised, and others avoided: the threat of Islamic terrorism. It should go without saying that the US—and every other country—should not grant entry to terrorists. But since terrorists are not likely to identify themselves as such, how can immigration officials spot them? At a time when the world is plagued with violence inspired by groups that claim the mantle of Islam, it is certainly not irrational to ask a few more questions of Muslims applying for citizenship, and to set higher standards for applicants coming from countries that are known as seedbeds of Islamic terrorism.
That sort of extra scrutiny, however, violates the standards of political correctness. (So we have the odd spectacle of Christian leaders denouncing policies that would give preference to Christian refugees.) We have been told, again and again, by political and religious leaders, that Islam does not foster terrorism. So we are forbidden from making any connection between terrorists and the religious affiliation they claim.
And yet, to anyone not blinded by intellectual fashions, the connection is obvious. The terrorists say that they represent the most authentic strain of Islam. True, there are other Muslim leaders who deny their claim, and tell us that their faith is “a religion of peace.” Still others are conspicuously silent, or ambiguous on the question. Who are we, as non-Muslims, to attempt to solve a religious dispute about the true interpretation of the Qu’ran? As Pope Benedict XVI said in his Regensburg Address, then, tensions within Islam—between faith and reason, between peace and violence—must be resolved, by Muslims. Until they are, we outside the Islamic world can ignore those tensions only at our peril.
My point, in offering these reflections, is that if Catholic leaders hope to play a productive role in contemporary American public debates, they must grapple with the tough practical questions. It just won’t wash to continue scolding politicians for lacking compassion toward immigrants, without acknowledging that the flood of immigrants causes serious problems. It is not credible to continue insisting that there is no tie between Islam and terrorism, when scores of bombers and shooters claim otherwise. Dodging the difficult issues is a failure of leadership. And as we have seen, when leaders fail, others will rise up to take their place.
*- Lest anyone misinterpret the purpose of this little essay, I think it’s for worse.
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