Debunking the Sanctuary Movement–30 Years Ago, Part I

This Perspective from January 1986 analyzed the budding sanctuary movement and dissected its entirely bogus spiritual, moral and constitutional foundations.  It infuriated Richard John Neuhaus, who at that time led the movement to silence an irritating political heretic.  I was naive and did not yet realize how much so-called conservatives hate the truth, whenever it conflicts with the short-term goals of their little movement.

“Shelter from the Storm”

The trial of 12 sanctuary workers in Tucson has heated up an issue which is being hailed in many quarters as the great moral issue of the 1980's. The movement, whose members provide protection to illegal immigrants from Central America, is protesting the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's refusal to recognize Salvadoran and Guatemalan emigrants as political refugees. Taking matters into their own hands, more than 150 churches have offered "sanctuary" and have provided active assistance to Central Americans who wish to enter the U.S. without benefit of papers. If we can believe what we read in the papers, the movement is, even for nonbelievers, an opportunity to prove strength of their humanitarian convictions; for Christians and Jews, it is a test of faith.

For those who make a career out of moral outrage, the issue could not have come at a better time: it is a God-send.  The radical Catholic bishops of the archdiocese of Milwaukee sent a letter of "personal endorsement" to the local sanctuary coordinating committee, and Jesse Jackson has pledged the support of Operation PUSH. It is the gray-haired veterans of the 60's street-fighting that are the most delighted. William Sloane Coffin has recovered much of his old exuberance as he tells his Riverside Church congregation that, "It is not enough to resist with confession, we must confess with resistance." The language of obligation comes easily to Coffin, who speaks with such assurance of the Lord's will, we have to assume he has been taken into His confidence. He appears eager for the graceful martyrdom of a weekend in jail: You can arrest the church leaders, he proclaims, but persecution "will only strengthen the sanctuary movement, whose Head is just beyond the reach of the INS.”

While Coffin and the rest are sometimes incautious enough to speak of their own domestic political agenda—"We can no longer separate foreign policies from domes- tic policies"—the movement's strength is based not on its political commitments, but on its straightforward moral appeal.  Christians have an obligation to help the poor and unfortunate. Doesn't that obligation take precedence over the decrees and regulations of a national government?

Before we can answer the question, we must remember that there is no right of sanctuary in the modern world.  Even if there were, it could not be used to protect illegal aliens.  Experts on international law sometimes try to make a case for a right of political asylum, but even if such a notion were accepted, the obligation would be imposed on governments.  It is absurd to pretend that private citizens—even in groups—have the right to grant asylum.

Proponents of "sanctuary"—despite the dishonesty of the term—are aware of the problem. To justify their conduct, they fall back on religion. Jim Corbett, one of the founders of the sanctuary movement, insists that he and his friends are "following the traditional Judeo-Christian injunction to minister to those in need."  This injunction seems to involve more than the obligations of conscience; Corbett sees his actions as "the work of the faith community." A s he told the Christian Science Monitor (7 February 1985), "You can't do it as an individual." The bishops of three Lutheran synods (not Missouri or Wisconsin) have declared that the sanctuary churches are fulfilling obligations derived from scripture. These are, therefore, the corporate acts of congregations rather than merely individual decisions. When an individual breaks the law, he is either a criminal or a civil disobedient or both.  When a church body is involved—a congregation or a national organization—it is presumably a more serious business.  But in American constitutional law, churches have rather few rights.

The First Amendment expressly forbids Congress to establish a religion, by which is meant either a strictly national church, like the Church of England, or an international church with legally recognized rights and privileges, like the Catholic Church in France under the ancien regime. No church in the U.S. enjoys special constitutional privileges, apart from the right of individuals to establish an organization or worship as they please—so long as their activities do not conflict with laws. (Druids are, for example, not allowed to practice human sacrifice.) Where it has seemed appropriate, we have seen fit to confer special privileges on religious groups. Clerics, for example, are exempt from military service, although that was not always the case. In the War Between the States, the Episcopal Church petitioned Congress to exempt their priests from the draft. Their petition was denied.

For most of the participants in the sanctuary movement, the defiance of U.S. law is an act of civil disobedience. In the eyes of Eric Jorstad, an American Lutheran Church pastor, it is "an act of resistance against what its supporters believe to be the unjust foreign policy of the United States towards Central America." Civil disobedience is a murky term, which can be made to cover everything from a conscientious refusal to salute the flag or take an oath, all the way to acts of organized terrorism.

Religion enters the picture when churches forbid or discourage some practice which the state requires. Good Quakers, for example, were not supposed to swear an oath or bear arms. Throughout most of this century, there existed a rough-and-ready consensus on religious exceptions from civil obligations, but by the 1960's that consensus was gone, and the Selective Service was flooded with appeals from conscientious objectors whose church affiliation was either bizarre or nonexistent. It became fairly obvious that religion could not be the test.  Perhaps it never should have been, except in a very restricted sense. Reinhold Niebuhr, once a leading pacifist, was right to censure the inconsistency of religious pacifists who enjoyed all the fruits of civil order but insisted on their right to let others bear the burden. Groups that left the world—Shakers or Trappist monks—were one thing, but worldly and prosperous Quakers were quite another.

Those who actively assist illegal immigration are engaged in more than a conscientious refusal to comply with INS regulations. They are actively involved in what they see as a campaign of civil disobedience against our treatment of Central American refugees. The civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960's are an obvious historical parallel. Civil disobedients, in the strict sense, do not simply disagree with government policies; nor do they, on the other hand, seek to subvert the system. While agreeing with the essential fairness of the system of justice under which they live, they object to specific lapses in the application of justice. They appeal not just to their own conscience but to the conscience of the nation.

Most civil rights workers acknowledged the rightness of the American principle of equal rights.  What they protested was the fact that Blacks did not seem to enjoy the same legal protection as the rest of society.  Many members of sanctuary congregations believe they are doing the same sort of thing. American immigration policies do, in fact, recognize the special status of political refugees.  All they want, they claim, is to arouse public consciousness to the point that the government will show the same compassion to the Salvadorans as it does to the Nicaraguans.  As William Sloane Coffin puts it, "We must continue the sanctuary movement in its present form until Congress makes it unnecessary to do so.”

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Avatar Andrew G Van Sant says:

    One of my daughters wrote a review critical of the sanctuary movement when assigned Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees (1989). As I recall, my daughter referenced some of Sam Francis’ writings. I probably have a copy somewhere in a box of stuff my daughters left behind when they moved out.

    Anyone who has children who have graduated from high school and college understands that education is about brain washing and indoctrination.

  2. Avatar James D. says:

    In one of my political science classes I wrote a paper arguing that the US was not a proposition nation. My Marxist professor, an old Brooklyn Jew, gave me a C-. I re-wrote the paper, effectively regurgitating all of the nonsense he had lectured about in class and he gave me an A. From that point forward, I decided, like Hillary, that I had to have a public position and a private position. If you want to receive decent grades in college, you have to pet the professor’s ego and agree with their left-wing rantings.