Six assumptions that keep white churches from applying biblical norms to immigration and criminal justice

Steven M. Teles

By Alan Bean

In The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, Steven Teles describes how the conservative movement was able to undermine and largely replace what he calls the Liberal Legal Network (LLN for short). By the late 1960s, liberal ideas inspired by New Deal politics and the civil rights movement were deeply entrenched within the American legal establishment.  To change this picture, Teles says, conservative counter insurgents had to realize that they were dealing with a hegemonic regime.

A regime is most likely to endure when it can make its ideas seem natural, appropriate, and commonsensical, consigning its opponents to the extremes . . . A regime that has achieved hegemony makes its principles seem like ‘good professional practice,’ ‘standard operating procedure,’ ‘the public interest,’ or ‘conventional wisdom.’  Those who fail to affirm these principles are stigmatized, and their arguments are dismissed.

In order to overcome this kind of hegemonic reality, Teles suggests, “intellectual entrepreneurs” must “‘denaturalize’ the existing regime, by exposing the hidden normative assumptions embedded in seemingly neutral professional, scientific, or procedural standards and practices, forcing those assumptions to be justified and alternatives to them entertained.”

This analysis got me thinking.  Friends of Justice is encouraging American churches to embrace a biblical “common peace” perspective on immigration and criminal justice issues.  This agenda makes perfect sense to most Latino and African American Christians, but is greeted with a mixture of bewilderment, suspicion and hostility in Anglo religious circles.  I’m not talking about conservative evangelical congregations or the religious right; the churches I’m describing are a mix of standard issue evangelicalism and big steeple Protestantism.  People in these churches value niceness above all other virtues, but they have a hard time wrapping themselves around the concept of a Common Peace Community.

We are dealing with a hegemonic regime rooted in deeply embedded assumptions that, in Anglo churches at least, have attained the status of the ‘good professional practice,’ ‘standard operating procedure,’ ‘community interest,’ or ‘conventional wisdom’ Steve Teles talks about.  Why does a politically irrelevant religion seem natural, appropriate, and commonsensical to so many white Christians, and why do I so often feel stigmatized and dismissed when I do my thing?

If Friends of Justice is serious about exposing the conventional wisdom at work in white churches these assumptions must be identified.  Here is my first stab at culling out the assumptions that make it hard for people like me to apply biblical norms to immigration and criminal justice.  If you think I’m being unfair, please tell me why in the comment section below.

Six assumptions that keep white churches from applying biblical norms to immigration and criminal justice

  1. The immigration and criminal justice systems should be left to lawyers and politicians. It doesn’t really matter what Christians think about these issues because we lack the expertise and standing to form a credible opinions or impact public policy decisions.
  2. Churches should avoid partisan politics.  Institutional tranquility demands that the political implications of our religion must never be discussed in religious settings.
  3. Crime and illegal immigration threaten my personal security, so I am reassured by political tough talk.
  4. Religion is about saving souls, promoting a sense of personal well-being,  nurturing personal relationships, and sustaining a spiritual family.  Public policy issues conflict with these priorities.
  5. It’s great that racial minorities attend churches and have religious ideas.  But American Christianity has always been a white person’s religion and should be restricted to issues directly affecting white people.
  6. It’s great that racial minorities are taking an interest in politics.  But American politics is designed to maximize the prosperity and personal happiness of white people.

6 thoughts on “Six assumptions that keep white churches from applying biblical norms to immigration and criminal justice

  1. “It’s okay to talk about all these justice things. But we’ll never be able to achieve them. The main thing is that we know we’ll go to heave when we die.” That’s the gist of what one guy said in Bible study a day or two ago. I said to Patricia after we got out, “Pie in the sky when we die bye and bye.” Your assumption #4 is enough to make the Common Peace Community damn near impossible.

  2. Many of these assumptions lose their power when they are stated explicitly. In fact, they sound kind of silly.

  3. Not sure where this would go on your list, but there’s a strong assumption that the Bible doesn’t say much about institutional or systemic justice, only personal justice. “Powers and principalities” are seen only as “spiritual beings”, not what they literally say, the “power people of this world and the nations, corps., etc.” Of course they sound silly to someone who hasn’t totally incorporated them into their lives. So did “the poor are lazy and don’t want to work” back in the 60’s. I think your list is important and I can maybe use it here and there.

  4. Well this guy has heard about going to heaven all his life, and he thinks that’s what the gospel is all about. To him, it’s not silly, it’s gospel truth. Before Jesus was crucified, the gospels seem to indicate the disciples expected an earthly messianic kingdom. Then came the news of his resurrection, and the expectation was that Jesus would return imminently. When that failed to materialize, the pietistic notion of heaven set in, and the church has largely adhered to that. Apocalyptisists still expect and apocalyptic end to this world’s kingdoms and the reign of God. Some think on earth; probably most believe in heaven, maybe after a thousand years reign on earth.

  5. What does Common Peace Community mean? How does it work?
    What biblical norms does the writer propose to put into practice?

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