On my first visit to this church, a visibly distraught woman entered the sanctuary, interrupting a Sunday service in which the pastor preached about the Christian promise—and its eventual fulfillment—of a heavenly home. Moments later, the congregation embraced this woman in a prayer circle as her story unfolded. It turns out the woman and her husband were pulled over during a routine traffic stop as they made their way to the Sunday worship service that morning. Her husband, however, was undocumented and, consequently, detained and turned over to immigration enforcement officers.
Though oftentimes I eschew a theology that primarily focuses on the afterlife, I could not escape its magnitude in this specific context. It was not insignificant that I was visiting a Spanish-speaking, charismatic church within a mainline protestant denomination in the South. How could I not affirm this faithful proclamation of a heavenly home given that it is perhaps the only hope for secure belonging that someone might have? This expression of Christianity made sense for the folks in this church, even if it didn’t register personally in my own experience.
Unfortunately, similar cases of arrested immigrants without criminal records are too commonplace in our current political landscape. Several iterations of travel restrictions otherwise known as the “Muslim Ban” have gone into various degrees of effect while the proposed construction of a wall or fence along the US-Mexico border has been a tremendous source of political and moral contention, to say the least. So-called “immigration reform,” a trademark of the Trump presidential campaign and administration, has translated, as Vox reports, into soaring numbers of immigration arrests, thousands of children separated from their families, potential loss of previously protected rights for certain immigrant groups (DACA and Temporary Protected Status, for instance), and a general increase of fear for vulnerable populations.
Not surprisingly, advocates for these protectionist policies often cite biblical sources to sustain their claims against welcoming immigrant refugees. As journalist Tara Isabella Burton reported for Vox late last year, Christians expressing the highest hostility towards refugees tend to be white evangelicals who oftentimes interpret scriptures in ways that privilege adherence to the law. Furthermore, the report indicated that the same demographic is concerned about a declining white population in the United States. In conversation with Diana Butler Bass, Burton then suggests that, “white evangelicalism has become synonymous with Christian nationalism under the Trump administration.”
It is evident from these examples that a sort of Christian Multiverse is at play. That is, each distinct identity experience, particularly along ethno-racial lines, appropriates Christian claims in ways wildly different from one another. On one hand, their understanding of the Christian faith provides the undocumented immigrant with an eschatological hope that brings them into a heavenly home when they have no security in their physical location. On the other hand, the white evangelical who fears demographic changes turns to Christian scriptures in order to define and implement the moral and lawful standards by which those deemed on the outside are subjected to further exclusion. Furthermore, each appropriation of Christian understanding aims to not be exclusive.
Being only a visitor to the above worship community, I did not learn first-hand about the universality of the heavenly home they proclaim. However, based on my experience with similar communities, I confidently assume that such a claim is rooted on a notion of salvation that is accessible to anyone so long as they adhere to their standards of faith such as professing Jesus Christ as savior, abstaining from sinful behavior, and so on.
Similarly, those who advance a nationalist agenda still maintain careful inclusion of some immigrants despite their fearful assessment of them as dangerous. For instance, Trump’s recently unveiled plan proposes a merit and skill-based immigration structure. The idea here is that welcoming the other is still possible, so long as there is strict adherence to standards intended to maintain the presumed nationalist integrity.
However, the idea that such metered inclusion constitutes universality is perhaps misplaced. In her essay, “Latina/o Identity Politics,” Linda Martín Alcoff writes that “where truth and justice are assumed to require universalism, cultural, racial, or ethnic identity cannot be accorded political significance without endangering progress” (p. 97). Thus, sustaining a universalist claim, religious or otherwise, necessarily demands the inclusion of that which is dangerously particular. The process of inclusion then becomes an effort to eradicate those things that would taint the supposedly universal fabric. Conversely, the problematic particular can be excluded to maintain universal integrity. In either case, the outcome challenges the progress of the universalist project itself: its presupposed integrity is potentially compromised or it purposefully excludes that which is differentiated.
Despite a nationalist approach to citizenship claiming some Christian foundation, its ultimate goal is rooted on a particular identity that is deemed superior over, albeit presumably endangered by, other distinct and particular identities. Its attempt to be inclusive fails to be universal in any way as it procures instead to transform and absorb, if not outright exclude differing identities.
Martín Alcoff proposes that discussion of particular identities in the United States be raised to a wider level instead of being sequestered merely as particular (pgs. 108-9). The import of particular identities for the national identity is not to be dismissed precisely because it is what the nationalist agenda attempts. This means that our religious discourse has to account for various particular identity experiences as integral parts or building blocks of a multifaceted universal and not as something to be merely included or absorbed by a pre-existing universal condition.
Even if the Christian tradition is understood to be universal, its experiences and expressions are contingent on the experiences and expression of various other identities. Similarly, other particular forms of identity heavily inform political identity. In order to make some sense of the tension between religion and political narratives, it is then necessary to shy away from universalist assumptions and instead highlight the various particular identity experiences as they contribute to a narrative that encompasses multiple instances of identity experiences. Perhaps understanding such experiences would help addressing, or even help in just making sense of, the shortcomings and failures of our political and religious systems.