Is there a Christian Pluralist Approach to Immigration?
Is there a Christian Pluralist Approach to Immigration?

Is there a Christian Pluralist Approach to Immigration?

Just immigration policy needs more than just hospitality.

Attitudes toward immigrants are notoriously subject to "framing" effects. For example, a recent study shows that whether American citizens support better treatment of Mexican immigrants depends on whether these claims are framed as a matter of the following issues:

  • Human rights (immigrants are human beings with basic rights).
  • National identity (as a "country of immigration," respecting immigrant rights is the American thing to do).
  • Civil rights (immigrants are a disadvantaged minority, and civil rights require us to pursue equality).
  • Family values (immigrants come here to help their families, and respect for family life requires respecting immigrant rights).

Activists and politicians can change attitudes to immigrants by "priming" one or more of these frames, reminding audiences of some deeper commitment—say, to human rights or to patriotism or to family values—and then showing how support for immigrants honours that commitment.

What exactly is the point of disagreement between Christian pluralism and liberal multiculturalism?

While activists and policy-makers continue to invest in these familiar frames, they have all proved fragile in the face of growing right-wing xenophobic populism across the West, particularly in relation to Muslim immigrants. Fear of Islam has become so pervasive that these frames are proving ineffective, unable to counter the perception that we are in a "clash of civilizations" with Muslims—a clash that may require suspending our usual commitments to human rights and inclusive citizenship.

In his new book, addressed primarily to American evangelical Christians, Matthew Kaemingk pursues his own sort of "framing" strategy. For Kaemingk, the fundamental commitment that should be primed when thinking about Muslim immigrants is Christianity. In asking what we owe Muslim immigrants, evangelicals should ask what a commitment to Christ requires of us. And according to Kaemingk, a commitment to Christ requires us to be "Christian pluralists" who firmly defend both the individual rights and institutional spaces of Muslims. He develops this position in dialogue with various authors from the Dutch Reformed tradition, notably Abraham Kuyper, who argued for a form of institutional pluralism for the various religious groups in the Netherlands. This model of Christian pluralism, he suggests, is superior to the formulas and slogans of both the secular Left (liberal multiculturalism) and the secular Right (assimilationist nationalism). If embraced, it would transcend the "false choice" offered by current political elites, and offer a new model of "table politics" and "friendship" that is "unknown in modern political theory."

Kaemingk's proposal can be evaluated from both an internal and external perspective. Internally, we might ask whether Christian pluralism is a plausible trajectory for American evangelicals. Kaemingk's theological arguments are fascinating and insightful. I learned a great deal from his distinction between common grace and special grace, and from his theology of the "whole Christ"—of the many different dimensions of Christ as "a king, a prophet, a servant, a friend, a healer, reconciler, liberator, advocate for the weak, teacher, priest and dinner host"—and why all of these should lead Christians to defend Muslims. But as Kaemingk himself notes, intellectual arguments are unlikely to move people unless they resonate with their embodied practices and habits. So we can ask, is Christian pluralism resonant with the practices and habits of American evangelicals today?

As an outsider to that tradition, I will leave it to others to answer that question. But this would appear to be an uphill battle. As Kaemingk himself acknowledges, evangelical Protestants are "by far" the most Islamophobic segment of the American population, and indeed conservative evangelical commentators played an important role in popularizing the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric in America. From a social-science perspective, evangelical Protestantism could be seen as part of the problem—it is a bastion and propagator of Islamophobia—not the solution. The idea that evangelicals can go from being laggards to leaders in defending Muslims is a bold one, and admirable, but it cries out for more discussion of the obstacles to such a transformation. In order to know whether or how such a "generative future for evangelical engagement with Islam" could be achieved, it would help to know more about the factors that explain the status quo. Is there something about the nature of the American evangelical community—its theology and eschatology, forms of association and authority, media, cultural practices, national identity, class and racial demographics—that has made it particularly susceptible to this sort of Islamophobia?

While Kaemingk forthrightly acknowledges the role that American evangelicals have played in demonizing Muslims, he does not really attempt to explain it, except to say that we are all "fallen," and hence prone to sin and injustice. But this generic explanation does not explain why evangelicals have been more susceptible to Islamophobia than other religious communities or than secular liberals and socialists. I would have liked more discussion of the specificity of American evangelical Islamophobia—its historical, cultural, theological, and institutional roots within the evangelical community—and then how these roots can be transformed. An outsider might think that evangelicals' tendency to view Muslims through a clash of civilizations lens is tied up with a broader tendency to view the world through the lens of a culture war (e.g., against communism, liberalism, feminism, multiculturalism), tied in turn to both a particular kind of nationalism (e.g., a belief in providential American exceptionalism) and a particular kind of eschatology (e.g., looking for the evil forces that will call forth the day of judgment). It is not obvious how these features can be transformed or transcended to enable evangelicals to embrace Christian pluralism. As it stands, Kaemingk's aspiration to help American evangelicals become standard-bearers of Christian pluralism seems like waving a magic wand—or if you prefer, a deus ex machina—not the outcome of any organic evolution of community dynamics as we currently see them.

However, as I said, I will leave it to others to assess how well Kaemingk's arguments resonate among evangelicals, and will focus instead on the external perspective: Is Christian pluralism a helpful contribution to larger public debates about Muslim immigration? Does it in fact offer a model that is different from, and superior to, the prevailing models of the secular Left and Right?

This is difficult to assess, because Kaemingk's account is underdeveloped on certain key questions. In fact, his model actually becomes less clear as the book develops. He begins his exploration of Christian pluralism by examining late nineteenth-century debates in the Netherlands around state-church relations. As against both Christian nationalists who wanted an established church and French-republican-style secular nationalists who wanted a homogenous public square devoid of religion, Dutch pluralists led by Kuyper defended a model of institutional pluralism or "sphere sovereignty." In this model, each religious community would administer its own schools, hospitals and welfare programs, newspapers and radio, unions, and political parties—and would receive state funding to do so. A version of this model was indeed implemented in the Netherlands for much of the twentieth century.

Christian pluralism is about a different question: namely, whatever the larger public policy frameworks, how should evangelicals show hospitality to their Muslim neighbours?

This is a very clear and concrete model of governing diversity, which Kaemingk helpfully explains. It is also clear how this differs from the sort of assimilationist nationalism endorsed by the secular Right, since it is explicitly anti-assimilationist, and acknowledges that no one group can claim to own (or to "take back") the nation. What is less clear, however, is how this approach differs from the sort of multicultural liberalism endorsed by the secular Left.

In fact, a number of secular Left political theorists have explicitly drawn on the Dutch example in elaborating their models of "institutional pluralism" or "associational democracy," which they present as one possible version of a liberal multiculturalism. While Kuyper himself defended this model on theological grounds—as a way of honouring Christ's temporal and spatial sovereignty—various liberal multiculturalists have reached similar institutional proposals by appeal to liberal values of autonomy and equality. So at first glance, Christian pluralism—in this original Dutch form of institutional pluralism—does not seem to differ substantially from (one strand of) liberal multiculturalism.

Kaemingk insists, however, that Christian pluralism is as much a repudiation of liberal multiculturalism as of assimilationist nationalism. And here I start to lose the thread of his argument. What exactly is the point of disagreement between Christian pluralism and liberal multiculturalism? Part of the problem is that Kaemingk doesn't engage with the literature on institutional pluralism and liberal multiculturalism. As a result, it is difficult to figure out what exactly he means by liberal multiculturalism: it seems to be more a term of abuse in his book than a term of analysis. In fact, his references to liberalism are puzzling. In places, liberalism is portrayed as relativist, and so condones an "anything goes" philosophy, precluding any criticism of the practices of other cultures and religions. In other places, liberalism is said to be oppressively homogenizing, committed to a ruthless "ideological uniformity," stigmatizing all cultures and religions that do not comply with its narrow ideology. Neither characterization seems particularly helpful. Like every tradition, liberalism has an account of the boundaries of the permissible and impermissible, and while it is possible that Christian pluralism differs in where to draw these boundaries, this requires some actual investigation.

For example, in describing Kuyper's model of institutional pluralism, Kaemingk notes that the autonomy of faith-based institutions is limited by the need to protect vulnerable members from internal oppression—Kuyper talked about protecting "weak ones" from "internal tyranny." This requires that states be able to intervene when necessary to protect individuals, as well as robust rights to exit for individuals. This is potentially an interesting context for comparing Christian pluralism and liberal multiculturalism. For liberal multiculturalist defenders of institutional pluralism, this issue of "internal minorities" is of fundamental importance, and entire shelves of the library are taken up with discussions of what Ayelet Shachar calls "the paradox of multicultural vulnerability" (i.e., the paradox that while institutional autonomy reduces the vulnerability of religious minorities to oppression at the hands of the majority and the state, it may exacerbate the vulnerability of individuals within the group to oppression at the hands of their own members). There is an extensive debate among liberal multiculturalists on how to address this paradox, and on the appropriate terms and conditions of state interventions and exit rights. This is an obvious and important context for exploring whether or how Christian pluralism differs from liberal multiculturalism. Unfortunately, rather than explore these different answers, Kaemingk simply evades the question, saying that Kuyper's account of the proviso to protect the vulnerable "leaves much to our own imagination and interpretation." As a result, I cannot tell whether or how Kaemingk's account of this proviso differs from liberal multiculturalist accounts.

A similar problem arises in relation to state funding. As Kaemingk notes, state funding of faith-based institutions was central to Kuyper's model, partly because these institutions provide public services and public goods, and also to ensure equity among religious groups, who might otherwise have vastly unequal resources to educate and care for their members. This is another potentially interesting point of convergence or contrast with liberal multiculturalists. They too defend the necessity not only for negative rights to freedom of association but also positive rights to public support and funding. But public funding always comes with strings attached, and this is where the rubber hits the road. For example, if a religious group accepts public funding for the provision of education or health care, should it be obliged to comply with norms of non-discrimination? Here again, there are volumes written on this from the perspective of liberal multiculturalism, which could have been examined in order to explore areas of agreement or disagreement. Kaemingk does provide an explicit—and very welcome—defense of the right of Muslims to gather in "uniquely Muslim spaces" without being subject to social disapproval or government surveillance and control. But he avoids the question of the public funding of these Muslim spaces, even though this was central to Kuyper's model of Christian pluralism. We are left with no clear account of how his model of Christian pluralism might differ in its rules of public funding.

In short, liberal multiculturalism plays a paradoxical role in the book. On the one hand, Christian pluralism is continuously being offered in comparison to secular liberal multiculturalism; on the other hand, Kaemingk never actually compares the two. So far as I can tell, he does not provide a single concrete example of how his approach disagrees with the institutional proposals of liberal multiculturalists. In work with Keith Banting, I have developed a "Multiculturalism Policy Index," which enumerates eight policies of liberal multiculturalism that a range of Western states have adopted, but I cannot tell which, if any, of these eight policies Kaemingk would endorse or reject.

Part of the explanation, I think, is that Kaemingk's interest is not ultimately in questions of law and public policy. While he initially introduces Christian pluralism through Kuyper's struggle for the legal recognition of institutional pluralism, he then rather dramatically pivots the focus of the book, and says that his interest is less in the legal status or public funding of religious institutions and more in "micro-practices" of engagement and hospitality. As a result, the rest of the book sets aside questions of law and public policy, and focuses instead on how evangelicals can engage with Muslims in their everyday life. He discusses, for example, how evangelicals can open their homes and their churches to Muslims in a spirit of hospitality, inviting Muslims to sewing circles or to community meals.

But if Christian pluralism is fundamentally a matter of micro-practices of engagement, then it's no longer clear in what sense it offers an alternative to either left-wing multiculturalism or right-wing nationalism. After all, these are political theories: that is, they are models of how the state should govern diversity. In relation to Muslim immigrants, they offer answers to questions such as:

  • What is an appropriate immigration selection policy—that is, what criteria should be used to determine which would-be Muslim immigrants are admitted?
  • What is an appropriate naturalization policy—that is, under what conditions can these immigrants become citizens? For example, should they have to learn English to naturalize? Should they have knowledge of Canadian or American history? Should they have to swear allegiance, and relinquish their previous citizenship?
  • What is an appropriate integration policy—that is, should the government adopt a "multicultural" conception of integration that encourages immigrants to retain their identity as they settle and integrate, or should it seek to culturally assimilate immigrants? For example, should the state support the teaching of immigrants' mother tongue in schools, or should it insist on English-only education? Should it accommodate religious dress in public uniforms and accommodate religious holidays in public calendars, or are these illegitimate "privileges" that should be rejected?

These are the core issues on which left-wing multiculturalism and right-wing nationalism disagree, but these are not the questions that Kaemingk focuses on. So far as I can tell, Christian pluralism, as Kaemingk ultimately articulates it, does not even attempt to provide answers to these questions of public policy. Rather, Christian pluralism is about a different question: namely, whatever the larger public policy frameworks, how should evangelicals show hospitality to their Muslim neighbours?

That's a good question—and not just for evangelicals—but it's simply a different question from that which liberal multiculturalists and assimilationist nationalists seek to answer, operating at a different level. At one level, we have left-wing multiculturalists and right-wing nationalists disagreeing on how the state should govern immigrant diversity. At another level, we have citizens making choices within the existing policy regime about their micro-practices of engagement. In that sense, the book seems to be based on a kind of bait-and-switch tactic. Kaemingk begins by saying he will offer an alternative to the failed policies of the Left and Right, but he then says, "Actually, I don't have much to say about government policy, so let me talk instead about micro-practices of engagement."

Of course, the two levels are connected, and perhaps Kaemingk thinks that once we work out the logic of micro-practices of engagement, it will become clear(er) what is required by way of public policy regimes. For example, it may be difficult for evangelicals to engage in desirable micro-practices of engagement if the prevailing immigrant selection, naturalization, and integration policies are all highly assimilationist. I suspect that is indeed Kaemingk's view, and if so, I fully share it. Public policies rooted in assimilationist nationalism (of the Right or the Left) are likely to pre-empt and preclude desirable micro-practices of engagement. While Kaemingk presents right-wing assimilationism and left-wing multiculturalism as the two dominant options in contemporary public debate, there is of course a long history of left-wing assimilationism, including French secularist and Marxist secularist variants. Assimilationist tendencies are found across the political spectrum, all of which can undermine micro-practices of engagement.

But Kaemingk also seems to think that public policies rooted in liberal multiculturalism are similarly antagonistic to desirable micro-practices of engagement, and if so, then I disagree. There is in fact robust social-science evidence that multiculturalism facilitates desirable micro-practices of engagement, in part because it facilitates desirable forms of institutional pluralism. While Kaemingk thinks that liberal multiculturalist policies are an enemy of his micro-practices of engagement, he offers no evidence for this, and so far as I can tell, the two are fully compatible. To be sure, there are thoughtful critiques of liberal multiculturalism in the literature—both conservative and radical—that Kaemingk could have drawn on, but as we've seen, he simply doesn't engage with this broader debate.

Of course, there may be a more straightforward strategic explanation for Kaemingk's decision to pit Christian pluralism against liberal multiculturalism. As we've seen, his main audience is fellow evangelicals, whose "particularly problematic relationship with Muslims" he wants to transform, and this is likely to involve challenging some deeply rooted dispositions within the evangelical community. In this context, it may be strategically useful for Kaemingk to signal his evangelical credentials by saying: "Don't worry, I'm not a liberal multiculturalist! I'm asking you to rethink your antipathy to Islam, but God forbid, I'm not asking you to rethink your antipathy to liberal multiculturalism!" This would help to explain why liberalism appears in the book more as a term of abuse than a term of analysis.

If this is indeed the explanation for Kaemingk's hollow discussion of liberal multiculturalism, then it's understandable. We all face such strategic choices about how best to reach our intended audiences. On the other hand, one might think that if we want evangelicals to stop thinking about their relationship with Muslims as a clash of civilizations, then one small step might be to stop thinking about their relationship to liberalism as a culture war.

Will Kymlicka
Will Kymlicka

Will Kymlicka is the Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy in the Philosophy Department at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, where he has taught since 1998. His research interests focus on issues of democracy and diversity, and in particular on models of citizenship and social justice within multicultural societies. He has published eight books and over 200 articles, which have been translated into 34 languages.


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