Classical American conservatism takes for granted that Americans are united by a set of values rather than an ethnicity, race, culture or religion. That is not the conservatism of Donald J. Trump. In many ways—most notably his effusive praise for Russian leader Vladimir Putin—President Trump has not-so-subtly signaled his high regard for a more reactionary form of conservatism, one that is highly skeptical of diversity and multiculturalism. For this brand of conservatives, Mr. Putin, and to a degree, the president himself, symbolize what New York Times reporters Alan Feuer and Andrew Higgins summed up as “strength, racial purity and traditional Christian values in a world under threat from Islam, immigrants and rootless cosmopolitan elites.”
Indeed, displeasure with the idea of rootless Americans—citizens who fail to recognize the import of kinship and belonging—colors the rhetoric and priorities of the Trump movement. Steve Bannon, who sits on the National Security Council and serves as a close advisor to Mr. Trump, believes that “strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States.” He has also said that Mr. Putin has been wise in “playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values.”
In a 2014 talk at the Vatican, Mr. Bannon blamed much of current political angst on society having come “unmoored” from the ethics of our “forefathers,” leading to the empowerment of global capitalists “in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado.” In other words, the attraction of Mr. Trump’s brand of conservatism is that it recognizes the meaning in place, patriotism and culture rather than dismissing them all as interchangeable and arbitrary. Thus, Trump-esque conservatives reject refugees from abroad not only because “they could be terrorists” but because the mere presence of these outsiders is imagined to weaken the bonds holding this country together.
In itself, valuing kinship and the importance of home isn’t a bad thing.
In itself, valuing kinship and the importance of home isn’t a bad thing: It really is the case that we all have responsibilities to those closest to us, and that the communities that weave the fabric of our lives deserve special attention and priority. And it is likely also the case that liberals have, in an effort to emphasize the state’s rightful role in caring for its most vulnerable (say, in terms of health care, elder care and child care) somewhat underplayed the importance of our obligations to those in our families and immediate communities. Yet far from depleting our recognition of the worth of our most primal connections, welcoming refugees underscores how vital those relationships are to human flourishing.
In Leviticus 19:34, God’s words outline this parallel: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” There is more called for here than simple acceptance or neutral toleration; God commands his people to actively love those who sojourn in their land and to treat them as fellow citizens. Why? Not because the Israelites owed the Egyptians for hosting them; it would not make sense to pay back any stranger for a favor done by the Egyptians. Instead, it is because the Israelites had needed the hospitality of the Egyptians to flourish, whether they received it or not. Since it is God’s will that all human beings should flourish, he directs his people to at least try to make up to refugees what they have lost: love, kinship, a sense of belonging, a place to call home.
Aloof tolerance cannot do that. Only love can. This is why Pope Francis has recommended that while countries “must be very open to receiving refugees, but they also have to calculate how best to settle them because refugees must not only be accepted but also integrated.” For Christians faced with the refugee crisis at hand, this is the key lesson: It is not enough to simply allow refugees to cross our borders; we are obligated to do more than that because they have lost more than that. Central to this view is the understanding that nothing can replace families, communities and the connections we all have to our places of origin, but to act in love, we must try.