The country is divided. You already knew that.
People are going to argue like crazy about whatever President Donald Trump says no matter what he says. You already knew that, too.
Why America is divided and the issues and people that drive that division on both sides is key to understanding our present situation. Consider, of course, immigration — and specifically the construction of a border wall — that not only shut down the federal government last month, but continues to be a source of debate between Trump and his allies (who want a wall) and Democrats (who do not).
The religion angle? The immigration debate, on the whole, has lacked adequate mainstream media coverage when it comes to how various faiths play a policy role.
Aside from the occasional message from Pope Francis calling on wealthy nations to open their arms and stop the policy of separating families, you don’t see much mention of Catholics — or religion in general — when it comes to this polarizing issue. After all, many of those in Congress who favor and oppose the wall are Catholic and a great many of those seeking asylum share those same religious beliefs. While the border wall remains a thorny issue that has recently dominated news coverage, the media has largely been on the fence when it comes to committing resources that actually looks at the issue from a faith-based perspective of those who favor stricter border enforcement.
The unreported story here is that there are many good Catholics (both politicians and voters) who support efforts to build a wall along the southern U.S. border in order to keep out other (mostly Central American) Catholics.
The truth is there are fissures within the church, the clergy and everyday Catholics (voters to politicians) when it comes to the issue. Those internal debates are a big reason why the overall electorate in fractured on the immigration debate and why Republicans and Democrats have been battling one another for months. This has led to a partial government shutdown and stalemate with Trump over border enforcement funding. Remember when some Democrats mangled the Christmas story to make a point on the issue?
Those in the secular press (who are not Catholic and/or unaware of its teachings) need to know that the church, in general, sees its primary role as that of comforter when it comes to serving immigrants. There is a long tradition in this country, for example, of Catholics helping new immigrants. St. Frances Cabrini, a nun and an Italian immigrant, helped thousands of her countrymen in the late 19th century after streaming through Ellis Island. Rooted in its social teachings, the church has always sought to help refugees (the video above is a great explainer on the matter).
The Irish were the first large group of Catholics to emigrate to the United States in the mid-1800s, followed by Italians and other Europeans through Ellis Island. The Irish and Italians, both Catholic immigrant groups, were at odds with one another for decades.
Over the past few months, immigrant caravans have made their way north from Central America, through Mexico and to the U.S. border at a time when Trump has made building a wall to keep undocumented immigrants out a legislative priority. Two years into his presidency, Trump is attempting to make good on a campaign promise at a time when Democrats take over the House of Representatives after November’s win in the Midterms. This issue has already played itself out in other countries with populist political leaders. Last year, the church and the Italian government grew increasingly at odds after its newly-elected populist government refused to accept migrants in its ports. Italian priests, as recently as Christmas, staged protests against the government’s strict anti-immigration stance.
Despite the church’s policy to welcome and help immigrants, regardless of their status, the Vatican’s policy has always been that a nation “has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration.” While Catholics are called to be charitable, the church doesn’t necessarily endorse abolishing ICE or forbid the building a wall or barrier fence. On the contrary, it leaves that decision up to individual governments.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t Catholics, both in the clergy and laity, don’t favor one political position over another. The pope has made it clear what he believes and many cardinals are in agreement.
That led to criticism from Catholics on the political right, like former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who said the church favors illegal immigration because it boosts attendance in the pews. That hasn’t stopped outlets like The New York Times from focusing on priests who help immigrants, rather than ones who have argued against undocumented immigrants trying to enter the country.
Bannon’s comment was controversial (and received lots of mainstream and religious media attention), but what many editors and reporters failed to also see was that it also put the spotlight on the men, women and children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who take part in the caravans that have traveled through Mexico towards the U.S. border.
It should not be lost on all of us that the people in these caravans are predominately Roman Catholic. It also shouldn’t be lost that lawmakers like Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, who is a devout Catholic ( shot in 2017 by a left-wing fanatic during a baseball practice with fellow GOP lawmakers), helped vote to fund the wall in the House before the government shutdown ahead of Christmas.
The religion angle to the immigration debate gives it wider context, especially when some point out that that the Vatican has walls and refused asylum to Asia Bibi, a Pakistani woman in trouble for her alleged blasphemy against the prophet Mohammad.
On a similar note, when Syrian refugees were seeking asylum across Europe, their Muslim faith became a major part of the debate. It triggered, in the early days of the Trump administration, what was effectively labeled a “Muslim ban” by the media and its opponents. The executive order severely restricted the arrival of people from seven countries to the United States, part of a move to defend the country from a terror attack. A court later struck down the policy that had been masterminded by Bannon. During that debate, the fight was seen largely as discriminatory by its opponents because it largely targeted Muslim nations. The current debate is also seen by some as discriminatory, but mostly as it regards to race rather than faith.
The faith of people who favor the wall as well as those in the caravan seeking to come to this country is something editors and reporters have largely ignored when framing the immigration debate. It would go a long way in helping Americans understand that immigration and Catholicism goes back decades in this country and that the lessons of the past may help inform the future.