The Moral Question Of Trump's Border Wall NPR's Michel Martin talks with Shaun Casey, director of Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, about the theological debate over President Trump's proposed wall.

The Moral Question Of Trump's Border Wall

The Moral Question Of Trump's Border Wall

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NPR's Michel Martin talks with Shaun Casey, director of Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, about the theological debate over President Trump's proposed wall.


We've been focusing very much these past few weeks on the impact of the government shutdown. But now that the government is more or less reopened, the conversation turns again to border security. Democrats, congressional Republicans and the president all say they agree that a border security package is necessary, but the disagreement comes over what that should look like. And some Democrats - most significantly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - have laid down a very specific marker on a wall, calling it an immorality.

So today and next week, we decided to engage that question with thinkers from different perspectives. First, we're going to hear from Shaun Casey, the founding director of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department, appointed by former secretary of state John Kerry. He's now the director of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

Professor Casey, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

SHAUN CASEY: It's great to be here. Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So Speaker Pelosi might be one of the most high-profile people to make the argument that the wall is immoral, but she isn't the only one. As briefly as you can, what's the basis of that view?

CASEY: Well, I think it's in response to a view that says God wants the wall. In fact, it is divinely ordained. I don't think Speaker Pelosi would be making a moral argument here if it weren't for the fact that there are people out there saying no, God wants this wall.

MARTIN: The issue of what it means to be displaced, to have your life disrupted by war or the whims of cruel rulers, is a very big part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I mean, I'm thinking of - there are - you know, there are so many texts that offer comfort to people in exile. I'm thinking, like, Jeremiah's letter to the exiles, where he tells them not to lose hope and to - you know, be where they are and to prosper there because their day is coming. So those are a very big part of the tradition. But what about walls, per se? Do walls have some specific theological importance?

CASEY: Well, the answer is no. In a sense, if you look at the entire biblical record from beginning to end, you see walls are just things. In some cases, they protect cities under siege. But there's no general principle that says every city deserves a wall, and God builds a wall around his or her chosen people. In fact, the Hebrew bible is a story of people on the move. From the very beginning, even out of the Garden of Eden, people are leaving. The Hebrew people are chosen by God because they are exiled. And that is, in fact, their entire story.

MARTIN: Is in part the sort of a theological or spiritual or religious impetus for the Pelosi view that this is a rich country and that people who have more are required to offer comfort and shelter to people who have less - particularly people who are in dire distress?

CASEY: I think it's even deeper than that. It's woven into the American DNA that we are and have been a location for the oppressed, those who flee persecution. You can come to America, enjoy the freedom. Now, that has not been unregulated, and no one is saying, let's have an open border. Let's let everybody come across who wants to. That's part of the diatribe against Pelosi. Oh, she's for an open border. All the Democrats want is an unrestricted access. And that's not true. I mean, that's just factually wrong.

MARTIN: But if the argument is that a wall is an immorality, there are already points across the international border where physical barriers exist.

CASEY: Right.

MARTIN: So why, then, aren't the Democrats arguing for a dismantling of those physical barriers that already exist?

CASEY: Contiguous walls do not exist. We do not have a continuous wall on either our northern border or our southern border. We let people cross under normal crossings. That's part of our generosity. That's part of our openness. Now, in the name of security, we do regulate it. But what the wall is about is keeping certain folks out. It's keeping Muslims out, allegedly. It's keeping rapist Mexicans out. So there's a lie, and that's part of the immorality that Pelosi sees - that the wall is being built for purposes that are less than explicit - to keep certain folks out.

MARTIN: You know - and you've written certainly about this - that white evangelical Christians have become some of the president's most ardent supporters. Presumably, they read the same texts that you do and that Nancy Pelosi does. Why do you think that people see this so differently?

CASEY: Well, I think there are different schools of interpretation, there are different biblical interpretive practices. Like, the classic example is when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked Romans 13.

MARTIN: OK, tell people what Romans 13 says...

CASEY: So...

MARTIN: ...For those who don't know.

CASEY: Romans 13 says that God has given government authorities to rule. Now, some of President Trump's evangelical advisory board says, well, there you have it. The most famous one is Robert Jeffress, the pastor, who says, that gives the government the authority to do whatever, whether it's assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell evildoers like Kim Jong Un. That is a deeply held worldview in certain pockets within the evangelical world - that if you make it to the top of a political scrapheap in a country, God put you there.

MARTIN: How do you think religiously committed people in the U.S. are confronting this issue of the wall?

CASEY: Well, I think there is a minority of American Christians - they're overwhelmingly white. They're overwhelmingly Republican. They're overwhelmingly influenced by this sort of ragtag group of folk, you know, on the evangelical advisory board the White House has - who are going to endorse any kind of strongman move the president makes because ultimately, a passage like Romans 13 and this very strict, narrow misinterpretation of it authorizes that view.

Now, when Bill Clinton was president, when Barack Obama was president, they were not cut the kind of political slack that is being cut towards Mr. Trump today. So the selective enforcement, the selective observation of this theological principle is to be telling. They can't apply it consistently across just even the last 10, 15 years in states. That's a minority phenomenon. I think most American Christians are somewhere between. They're not taking this alleged literal interpretation of Romans to the bank every day. And where you find this view very deep and very strong is in a certain select segment of white evangelicalism today.

MARTIN: That's Shaun Casey. He directs the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. He formerly was the founding director of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the State Department. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Professor Casey, thanks so much for talking to us.

CASEY: You're welcome. Great to be here.


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