For Refugee Resettlement, Biden Must Establish a New Normative Ethic against Christian Nationalism

By: Marcia Morgan

November 30, 2020

Rethinking Religion and U.S. Refugee Resettlement

The greatest barrier to refugee resettlement that Joe Biden must confront in his presidency is the deadly combination of Christian fundamentalism and white nationalism emboldened by the Trump administration, which predated and will outlive Trump’s tenure. Earlier roots of this problem are seen through the complicated history of the biblical dictum to “Love your neighbor.” On one hand, this motto has been interpreted to help those most in need—regardless of religion, race, or ideology—by Christians of many different backgrounds, persuasions, and locations. On the other hand, it has been paradoxically misapplied to serve some of the most brutal forms of exclusion, justified by a false ethic of preserving “life” at the expense of many other forms of life outside the assumed boundaries of self-identity.

Søren Kierkegaard, a nineteenth-century Danish religious philosopher, spelled out the contradiction of the historical appropriation of Christian “neighbor love” in astute detail. Kierkegaard criticized the Christian nationalism of his era and correctly predicted its later expansion in the emptiness of mass society in his writing on “The Present Age,” a prescient account of the dominance of media spectacle and its negative influence on individual self-responsibility to others far beyond the self, and the capacity for self-relinquishment before God [1]. 

Søren Kierkegaard, a nineteenth-century Danish religious philosopher, spelled out the contradiction of the historical appropriation of Christian 'neighbor love' in astute detail.

In a collection of papers posthumously dubbed his Attack Upon “Christendom, Kierkegaard clarified the hypocrisy of Christians in “Christendom” who privilege doctrine and dogma, while ever beholden to societal power and influence, over the teachings of Christ [2]. In these and numerous other writings, Kierkegaard set himself apart from the church’s corruption and inspired later figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. to stand up to white supremacist Christian nationalism in their own times. 

In his Works of Love, Kierkegaard distinguished between two notions of love in his native Danish, one which subtends a rejection of the other through the privileged love of one’s own kind (elskov)—a preferential love grounded in narcissism that rejects those foreign and different—and one that embraces a love of the genuine other, of those with no affinity or relation to the self (kjerlighed) [3]. His attempts to reform the meaning of Christian existence center on his advocacy of selfless love modeled on the love of God as the radical other. In a chapter of my latest monograph, I have applied Kierkegaard’s insights to my analysis of the international refugee situation [4]. 

Kierkegaard’s teachings provide a foundation for the Biden administration to reckon deeply with the colonial and imperial history of the Christian Global North that has established a de facto separation of two groups: those deemed capable of providing care and who therefore wield the power to withhold it, and those in need of receiving it [5]. This separation should be abolished and the agency and subjectivity of refugees and asylum seekers proactively recognized in their own right [6]. This separation has been used to enact further control over the Global South and has led to the majority of care coming from within the Global South without adequate resources. [7] Wealthy nations must live up to the ethical demands to which they are responsible because of the harm caused by their colonial, imperial, Christian nationalist legacies.

Wealthy nations must live up to the ethical demands to which they are responsible because of the harm caused by their colonial, imperial, Christian nationalist legacies.

The past four years have been a non-stop analysis of the Trump administration’s upending of norms. Yet, in regard to refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, Trump’s policies simply extended the problematic logic of exclusion already in place. Trump is to be definitively rebuked for doing so, but there were extant systems that allowed his policy perversions to happen and to dig even deeper into the legal grey zone that constitutes U.S. and international refugee policy [8]. 

A new normative ethic is needed that legally and politically ascertains the movement of refugees and migrants as a form of transnational political assembly in defense of claiming their human rights [9]. Human rights are formalized, but when refugees and migrants act to claim their rights, they are criminalized or left to die. The Biden administration should embrace the 2016 U.N. New York Agreement and 2018 U.N. Global Compact on Refugees, negotiate new international commitments that substantively highlight the agency of refugees and migrants while critically evaluating safety and ensuring dignity, and provide much-needed support to origin and host nations [10]. Anything less will merely continue the logic of exclusion that has played too prominent a role in U.S. history, reaffirmed and further consolidated by the Trump administration’s rejection of the 2018 U.N. compact and refusal to participate in the negotiations [11].

  1. Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2010); Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, A Literary Review (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978). For an outstanding monograph of Kierkegaardian self-relinquishment, see Simon Podmore, Kierkegaard and the Self Before God: Anatomy of the Abyss (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).
  2. Søren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon “Christendom” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968); Søren Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). 
  3. Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). See Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard’s Critique of Christian Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), especially chapters 6 and 7.
  4. Marcia Morgan, Care Ethics and the Refugee Crisis: Emotions, Contestation, and Agency (New York: Routledge, 2020), chapter 6. 
  5. Miriam Ticktin, “Thinking Beyond Humanitarian Borders,” Social Research: An International Quarterly 83, no. 2 (Summer 2016), 255–271.
  6. Morgan, Care Ethics and the Refugee Crisis, chapter 3.
  7. David Scott FitzGerald, Refuge: How Rich Democracies Repel Asylum Seekers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
  8. Morgan, Care Ethics and the Refugee Crisis, chapter 1.
  9. Morgan, Care Ethics and the Refugee Crisis, chapter 4.
  10. See Katy Long, “Rethinking Durable Solutions,” in Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, ed. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 475–487.
  11. See, for example, Julia Rose Kraut, Threat of Dissent: A History of Ideological Exclusion and Deportation in the United States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020).
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