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  • Theological Metaphors in Anti-immigration Discourse
  • Mayra Rivera (bio)

I offered the title for this paper before family separations were on the news, before the president had brought attention to the exodus of migrants (so-called “caravans”), and before the government shutdown in response to the request of billions of dollars to build a border wall.1 I had no idea how common immigration would be in everyday conversation. By the time you read this, I am sure there will be other worrisome news. Perhaps we will still be thinking about immigration, or we might have moved on.

I have been intrigued, however, as to what this intensified public discussion of the threats of immigration reveals about the self-image of the United States, and the racial and religious ideas that undergird that self-image. What traits are invoked to define the boundaries of this “America”? In previous research I had focused on US imperialism in the early twentieth century, one characterized by glorious national visions, evangelical zeal, and a seemingly unbounded Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity. Political discourses did not just claim that the United States was a Christian nation, but were shaped by Christian metaphysics, understandings of collective identity and history, of belonging and otherness. Progress and American culture were explicitly asserted as evidence of God’s election and grounds for a God-given duty to save the world, through civilizing missions or colonial interventions. For instance, official church publications exalted the colonial work in Puerto Rico.2 “May the spirit of true progress carry on the work and preserve our identity in the great world of Christian thought and action so that at last we may give to the future the rich legacy of a redeemed land.”3 And they gave colonization theological meaning. “Porto Rico is ours,” a US missionary confidently proclaimed. “Let Porto Rico become the best and truest reflection of ourselves. . . . Never before in American history was such an opportunity [End Page 48] and such a material given from which could be carved character and Christ’s likeness.”4

This vision of redemption as American identity carved onto Puerto Rican matter is just one example among the many promulgated in the pages of the year books of the Methodist Church. The White Man’s Burden and Christian mission shaped each other. Christian theology was explicitly cited in support of American engagement with the world—advocating for evangelization or describing the character and values of the nation. The immediate threats to the nation were claimed to be Jews, Catholics, and Mormons.5 A Muslim ban and a demonization of Central Americans—identified as Catholics—could be a slightly displaced repetition of those colonial tropes, I thought.6

But the differences between the early twentieth century and the present surprised me more than the similarities. Beyond continuities in racial and gender signifiers and despite the political power of “white evangelicals,” the theological allusions in anti-immigration discourse seemed almost illegible—as if the language of political might had finally erased all traces of its theological roots. Almost, but not quite.

Political theologians have long argued that modern political concepts are theological, even when their religious roots are hidden. Perhaps the most cited formulation of this view is, tellingly, Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s. He wrote in his 1922 Political Theology: “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they are transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts.”7

While the aims of contemporary political theologians are starkly different from Schmitt’s, they retain an interest in analyzing the connections between theology and political concepts. The prominence of terms like “sovereignty” and “order,” the vision of “America” as an enclosed nation, links my examination [End Page 49] of anti-immigration discourses to the work of political theology. It even excuses my reluctant return to Schmitt’s work. Still, to state that political concepts are secularized theological concepts is not an answer...


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pp. 48-72
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