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Hello, Pot? This is the Kettle…

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David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, writes at NRO this week about the use of biblical texts in support of immigration liberalization by liberals, “Borders & the Bible: It’s not the gospel according to Hillary.”

I find this essay problematic on a number of levels. Klinghoffer first reprimands Hillary Clinton, among others, for quoting the Bible: “While the Left typically resists applying Biblical insights to modern political problems, liberals have seemed to make an exception for the immigrant issue.” But then, it isn’t really so much a problem that liberals have quoted the Bible, but they have done so in a way that Klinghoffer doesn’t like.

He says, “There is a problem, of course, with selective cherry-picking of Biblical verses to support the political cause of your choice. This, in fact, has become a favored tactic among advocates of ‘spiritual activism’ (as they’re called on the Left).” Now while I agree that “selective cherry-picking” is a problem, Klinghoffer can’t have it both ways. Either liberals don’t typically refer to Scripture and thus the use of the Bible in the immigration debate is an oddity, or they do typically quote Scripture as “a favored tactic” and do it in a selective and problematic way.

Klinghoffer continues, “If we want to take the Bible as a guide to crafting wise policies, that means trying our best to see Scripture as an organic whole with a unitary message.” Again, it appears that the problem with Hillary and others isn’t so much that they are using Scripture, but they are doing so in a bad way. We seem to have that cleared up.

Klinghoffer proceeds to show us how Scripture might actually be used as a guide to “crafting wise policies” with respect to immigration. He goes on to emphasize the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses) as “a highly political text, very much concerned with worldly questions of law and policy, including the treatment of citizens and non-citizens by a sovereign government comprising an executive branch (the king and his officers) and a judicial one (a council of elders).”

From this foundation, Klinghoffer draws two important conclusions. First, citing Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s understanding of kosher laws, “we must always bear in mind that God created peoples and animals separate, with their differences, for reasons of His own.” Thus, “The colors of the rainbow create a beautiful visual array. When the same colors are mixed together haphazardly, on the other hand, their beauty is marred and muddied.” I’m not sure exactly what this means, but it has disturbing overtones.
I think Klinghoffer is essentially saying that free movement and migration between nations is not a good thing, because it violates the orders of nations and people groups that have been ordained by God. Citing the Tower of Babel incident, Klinghoffer again says that we are not “to merge nations haphazardly.” The basic message as applied today seems to be this: If you’re American, stay in America. If you’re Mexican, stay in Mexico. Know your place and stay in it. Maybe it’s a “separate but equal” doctrine for international affairs.

Klinghoffer’s second conclusion is that it was hard for Gentiles to gain Israelite citizenship, so any modern society should enact stringent requirements, in his words, to set “strict standards” for new citizens. In this way, Klinghoffer concludes that Clinton and Cardinal Mahony’s appeal to the Bible is faulty: “It is possible to change nationalities, but highly demanding, just as conversion to Judaism is in Jewish law down to modern times. One thing you notice in the speeches of Mrs. Clinton and the writings of Cardinal Mahony is the absence of any such emphasis on requirements for citizenship.”

Here’s Klinghoffer’s conclusion: “Any attempt to translate biblical values into American policy prescriptions will go seriously astray if it is for the sake of throwing open American citizenship to all comers without imposing serious, challenging, and difficult preconditions.”

The real issue is whether Klinghoffer meets his own requirement of seeing “Scripture as an organic whole with a unitary message.”

He doesn’t, for example, do anything with the plethora of biblical texts that speak of “the alien, the fatherless, and the widow,” and the special concern that God has for them as vulnerable members of Israelite society. He acknowldges but does nothing to apply the reality that Abraham and his family were often aliens and strangers in a strange land. When Abraham came to Canaan, he was the foreigner. When famine hit, Abraham had to go and live in Egypt for a time. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph even had to seek shelter in Egypt when the threat of Herod the Great loomed.

Neither does he do anything to address the unique situation of Israel in the Old Testament, as God’s chosen people who were unified culturally, politically, and religiously. He doesn’t do anything with New Testament implications for fulfilling many of the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, or the NT identification of Israel with the church rather than any particular nation-state.

Does Klinghoffer think that the United States is identical with a new Israel, and that the Old Testament laws and regulations for Israel apply with equal force to America? I doubt it. But if not, then the stringency of requiring the alien in Israel to adhere to specific religious and ceremonial restrictions has questionable direct relevancy to the current immigration debate in America.

It seems to me that Hillary Clinton’s appeal to Scripture is typical of the kind of rhetoric of moral appeal that you get from most politicians. It is an appeal to an authoritative text that people go to for moral guidance. Certainly Klinghoffer is right in pointing out the problems and inconsistencies of this method of referencing Scripture. But he is not immune to his own criticism. Both Clinton and Klinghoffer seem to be appropriating Scripture for their own rather clear ideological and political agendas, rather than faithfully and honestly approaching the Bible to learn what it truly says and how it is relevant.

Now this is a sin we are all tempted by, and I am sure I have committed the same sin myself. But the hypocrisy of pointing out an error in exegetical method and then not holding yourself to that same standard within the space of a 1500 word essay is just too much for me to pass over without comment. We would all to well to listen to Jesus’ words: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Update: The Boar’s Head Tavern has noted the Klinghoffer piece, but doesn’t make any determinations about the validity of the exegesis.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.


  • Chuck

    Well said – though, umm, it might be noted that Mr. Klinghoffer is Jewish, so it’s understandable that he didn’t spend time touching on the New Testament.

    Though I very much disagree with Mr. Klinghoffer’s recommendations about immigration, I do think it’s interesting to ask why it is that the Left’s voice on immigration does tend to be more religious than their norm in other areas. I suspect that it has to do with who, rather than how.

    Klinghoffer’s hypothesis seems to be that the left’s approach is pure hokum and hypocrisy. Perhaps. But then why don’t they try that tactic in other areas, like abortion and flag-burning and homosexual marriage? The obvious answer is: because their positions in so many other areas are so clearly against most religious dogma that they can’t credibly claim the mantel of morality in those areas. Whereas, in the area of immigration, what they propose isn’t clearly violative of religious prohibitions. In fact, it tends to be more in line with many if not most religious moralities (largely turning on traditional requirements of hospitality) than the contrary.

    But that’s not all. If you look at the target audience, and the members for whom they’re speaking on this issue, (a) they tend to be religious people, and (b) there is no particular part of the lefty coalition who would be offended by that language. I mean, it’s no secret that both parties are after Latino votes – Latinos are almost exclusively Christian, either Catholic or Protestant. And take note that the language the Dems are using doesn’t condemn any of their supporters – not the unions, not the trial lawyers, not the homosexuals. Is there any part of the Democratic coalition which might be upset at the pro-immigrant stance? Hmm… isn’t there one…?

    Ah yes, the only group the Dems have to be nervous about is African-Americans, who may experience animosity with Latinos as they inhabit the same dangerous parts of town, as ethnic gangs insult each other, and as they compete for lower wage jobs. If you’re a Democrat, you have to be nervous. What’s the solution? African-Americans are the only group almost as Christian as Latinos. In other words, the religious language not only appeals to Latinos and doesn’t offend anyone, but it somewhat innoculates the Democrats against defections from within their ranks. It’s very good politics. Unlike the Democrats.

    But it also happens to be right, both morally and politically. As with abortion, it’s the confluence of those realpolitik factors with sound moral thinking that gives the rhetoric such power. Count me in with Brownback and Hagel and Mahoney and Bush – we need to move toward a workable immigration system, and one that functions within legal forms – but in the meantime, we can’t elevate principle so high that we lose sight of the real human beings affected. We’re talking about a malum prohibitum offense, as opposed to malum in se – that is, something wrong only because it broke the positive law, and perhaps not even then (this is said as a Catholic, I believe that people have inherent rights to emigrate where necessary to preserve their family and their lives) – I see no great harm in granting pardon freely and relatively without reserve. This is quite right, and it ties in deeply with our best impulses. The opposition, by contrast, tends to be based on fear and excessive punitiveness. That will pass; the charity will remain.

  • Mr. Klinghoffer’s adherence to a particular faith tradition is almost superfluous to his or my critique.

    After all, the crux of his argument revolves around criticizing Clinton and Mahony, both of whom make explicit references to the New Testament. The relevance of Klinghoffer’s argument, that we must see “Scripture as an organic whole with a unitary message,” is undermined from the beginning if he is only talking about the Hebrew scriptures.

    Viewing the bible as comprised of 66 books rather than 39 would have a major impact on what the “organic whole” ends up looking like. If all he means is that Christians must look to the Old as well as New Testament, I agree. But then he has to understand the particular way Chrsitians interpret and apply the Old Testament, some of which I allude to above.