Obama’s fallacious “religious test” argument

In response to the idea that the U.S. should limit the flow of Syrian refugees into this country to Christians, President Obama had this to say:

That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have a religious test for our compassion.

This sounds good in the abstract. For at least two reasons, however, it is not a persuasive objection to limiting entry to Christians.

First, Syrian Christians face persecution from ISIS based on their religion. Syrian Sunnis do not. If ISIS conquers their town, they will not be slaughtered because of who they are. Christians are likely to be. (Alawites might be, but they can relocate to areas controlled by the Assad regime; there is no need for them to leave Syria).

Clearly, then, Syrian Christians and Syrian Sunnis are not similarly situated refugees. As Jonathan Tobin explains:

[T]he question of viewing Christian refugees from ISIS differently from that of Muslims is not so much a question of a religious test as it is of understanding the reality of the conflict. After all, in the 1930s and 40s it should have been permissible for American officials to view Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied territory differently from those of, say, non-Jewish Germans who sought to flee Europe. . . .

Many of those non-Jewish Germans might have had good reason to be out of the way of the Nazis and certainly anyone in their right mind would have wanted to get to America rather than to stay in Europe as the world exploded around them. But Jews were in a specific predicament. All Jews were in imminent peril of extermination by the maniacal regime led by Adolf Hitler and his collaborators. That meant that they should have been, at the very least, at the front of the line, and treated differently than others who were, in a very real sense, enemy aliens.

Same with Syrian Christians.

Second, in its radical form, Islam is a militant, murderous political movement. It may well be that only a small percentage of the Muslims fleeing Syria subscribe to, or are even sympathetic with, this movement. However, we can’t tell which ones are and which ones aren’t. Our intelligence services have no comprehensive list of ISIS adherents and sympathizers in Syria.

We can be quite confident, however, that no Syrian Christian is an an ISIS supporter or sympathizer. Therefore, all we need to do to vet a Christian refugee is vet his or her Christianity. By contrast, there is no reliable way to vet Syrian Muslims seeking entry to the U.S. So says our FBI director; so says the associate director for fraud detection and national security at DHS’ U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Accordingly, it is neither “shameful” (to quote Obama) nor un-American to use religion as a screen in determining which Syrian refugees to admit. If anything, it would be shameful to jeopardize the lives of Americans by letting in large numbers of Syrian refugees whom we cannot vet when we know that ISIS is determined to infiltrate our homeland for the purpose of terrorism.

Limiting refugee entry to Christians is analogous to the proposal by some that we exclude males in a specific age category — say 16 to 40 — on the theory that the vast majority of terrorists are men within this range of age. This approach sounds like age discrimination, but it would be silly to reject it on this basis.

Similarly, it would be misguided to reject accepting Christian refugees from Syria while rejecting Muslims by intoning that Americans “don’t have religious tests for our compassion.” Better arguments are required. I have heard none from the president.