Last week at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), a controversial resolution titled “On Wisely Engaging Immigration” passed with no debate. The resolution comprised multiple paragraphs, but in essence, the resolution praised illegal aliens for being made in God’s image, called on the federal government to provide amnesty, and offered a handwave at the idea of securing the border. A myriad of serious flaws with the wording of the resolution renders it far more foolish than wise. Even more concerning is the fundamental unbiblical moral framework it reflects.
Process-wise, the resolution was also problematic. It didn’t come from a grassroots messenger to the convention (which would indicate at least some degree of organic support) but rather came directly from the Resolutions Committee itself, creatio ex nihilo.
This is particularly noteworthy as the United States faces an unprecedented invasion of illegal aliens streaming across our southern border, the result of President Biden’s refusal to enforce existing laws and protect our nation. As John Modlin, chief patrol agent for the Tucson sector, recently testified to Congress regarding the dramatic increase in apprehensions at the southern border under the Biden administration:
“In 2020, our total encounters were 66,000. That figure nearly tripled in 2021, and then quadrupled last year. We closed last year, 2022, with over 250,000 encounters in Tucson, Arizona. That is a 257% increase in just two years…”
A 257% increase in just two years. Given this, I highly doubt that most Southern Baptists are thinking about how they need to reaffirm their commitment to a “pathway to citizenship” — and perhaps are wondering why the SBC ever voiced support for amnesty in the first place. But facts like these are inconvenient for those who paint a Pollyanna-ish picture of immigration to emotionally manipulate a crowd into supporting positions that undermine their own interests.
Of course, the resolution as passed didn’t mention a single word about our border crisis. As mentioned, it vaguely gestured at the importance of “strong borders” but didn’t have the honesty to address the fact that, according to testimony from senior Border Patrol officials,
“Drug cartels and human smuggling operations are exploiting chaos at the border to overwhelm Border Patrol agents’ resources, place migrants in peril, traffic deadly narcotics, and bring criminals into the United States.”
Conservative lawyer Josh Abbotoy intended to offer an amended version of the resolution that actually addressed the real immigration issues in America, reaffirmed the value and worth of American citizens, removed the misguided support for amnesty, and reframed the entire resolution in factual, pro-citizen terms. But sadly, due to microphone difficulties, there wasn’t even a chance to offer the amendment.
The result? “The largest Christian denomination now has a position on immigration that is to the left of Republican messaging on the issue,” as one secular political reporter put it.
So, what’s the deeper issue with the moral framework? Allow me to explain.
Along with a faulty hermeneutic, advocates for a more “open position” on immigration (one that embraces amnesty and downplays the devastating harms illegal immigration imposes on American citizens such as increased crime, drug trafficking, human and sex trafficking, cultural erosion, and decades of depressed wages for the working class) operate out of non-Christian moral theories and ethical frameworks. Theologian D.A. Carson, in his endorsement of The Immigration Crisis, a book by Dr. James K. Hoffmeier that exposes these moral missteps, calls it a “very healthy antidote to the merely sentimental readings that dominate much Christian thought on this complex and challenging issue.”
The word that matters most in the preceding sentence is “sentimental.” Undergirding the open position on immigration is an ethic of sentimentalism that is ultimately incompatible with a Christian worldview. Eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume explains that moral sentimentalism occurs when “morality is determined by sentiment. It defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment or approbation; and vice the contrary.”
Moral sentimentalism is an ethic of relativism because it relies solely on the interpreters’ feelings and sentiments to make a moral judgment. This is what is known as a non-cognitive ethic. In a non-cognitive ethic, morality is reduced to preferences, emotion, and personal mental intuition. This way of determining right from wrong is antithetical to a biblical Christian ethic, which recognizes that the moral law is given to us by an external moral lawgiver: God. Non-cognitive ethics stand against a cognitive framework, which is based on reason and objectivity.
So how does the “open immigration position” operate out of a framework of moral sentimentalism? As evidenced by the wording of the resolution at the SBC, advocates of the open position rarely, if ever, begin with the objective question of “What is best for the native population of the United States?” Or, “What are the present laws of the U.S. that are not being enforced and should be?”
Rather than using reason and fixed principles, they appeal to emotion, like how a Christian should “feel” about an immigrant: welcoming, loving, etc. While they claim to be approaching the topic from a “biblical” position, it is must more recognizable as an emotional argument.
This is, as Christian ethicist Claire Brown Peterson describes it, an example of arguing that “what makes a character trait a virtue is widespread human approval: we get a warm feeling of approval when we think about the virtues and a nasty feeling when we think about the vices.”
It cannot be overstated: The “open immigration” position, as seen in the SBC resolution, is rooted in an ethic of sentimentalism that Christians should reject. In other words, it puts feelings over facts and vibes over values.
Whether it’s coming from the Biden administration or the Southern Baptists, this faulty framework of moral sentimentalism and non-cognitive ethics should be rejected by Christians everywhere. And especially when it comes to some of the most pressing political questions of our times — closing our border, defending our nation, and putting American citizens first.
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Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.