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Immigration, charity, and conservatives' unholy assault on Glenn Beck
When Glenn Beck announced he would deliver food and toys to immigrant children, the attacks were blistering — and profoundly unchristian
 
His supporters are pushing back.
His supporters are pushing back. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

For a movement that wants to eliminate welfare on the grounds it crowds out charity, the rightmost edge of conservatism has been remarkably uncharitable throughout the current immigration crisis. It is almost like they detest charity itself.

Earlier this month, Glenn Beck announced his intention to deliver food, toys, and other supplies to the undocumented immigrants detained in McAllen, Texas. His reasoning was fairly straightforward: Since the immigrants, who are generally children, currently awaiting processing have escaped corruption and violence and political unrest, there is a moral imperative to extend to them welcome and aid. Beck never advocated any form of amnesty, nor did he propose any particular policy (aside from registering his anger with the Obama administration's response). He felt morally obligated to intervene on humanitarian grounds and asked his audience's help in raising funds to do so.

Beck's impulse was a good one, and his reasoning was equally sound from an ethical standpoint. There are always moral hazards in our interactions with others, including in charitable acts. But that doesn't mean a turn-the-other-cheek mentality isn't warranted.

Yet Beck's audience did the opposite. In response to his charitable campaign, Beck's listeners evidently flooded him with threats made against his life and work. Other conservative pundits made hay of the backlash against Beck, including Bill O'Reilly, who aired a complaint from one of his viewers excoriating Beck on The O'Reilly Factor. "I am appalled by Glenn Beck's visit to the border," the viewer complained. "Wait until poor people in Central America hear that he is giving them millions of dollars. They'll flow in here like water."

So much for the Christian mission of mercy and tenderness. For Beck's enraged audience, any act of kindness, no matter how small — the immigrants would have eaten whether or not Beck served the food, and 'millions of dollars' were never on offer — was too great a risk.

In fact, it appears the far-right opinion generators currently trying to manipulate the outcome of the crisis cannot even muster a charitable way of thinking about the children currently sleeping under Red Cross blankets in crowded rooms near the Texas border. As Fare Forward's Laura Marshall points out, there's a powerful Christian significance to offering others charity, a willingness to understand them and their life circumstances in the least cynical, least hateful terms possible. The opposite of this approach involves the decision to imagine others in the worst terms, to construe all of their characteristics and behavior in the most negative, obscene ways one can muster.

It's this latter abuse that far-right media jockeys have mounted in full against the child refugees gathering at the border. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) has made preposterous claims about the ebola virus being endemic among the refugee population; there is no evidence to support this, though history illustrates that claims of poor hygiene and filthiness are typical of one group's demonization of another. With the terms of moral hygiene established, it's easy to imagine refugees and other vulnerable populations as contagion. A less callous approach would display genuine concern for the health of the immigrants themselves.

Lastly, consider the EPIC (El Paso Intelligence Center) report peddled by Breitbart. While the conservative site leapt at the chance to use the 10-page document as definitive proof that the kids at the border are nothing but opportunists looking to leech off of the American way of life, they ignored the facts within. Even EPIC admits that 65 percent of the immigrants have identified some form of violence as significant in their decision to leave their home nations. That basically makes them refugees.

Nonetheless, the report has been twisted by places like Breitbart to show that the kids are here because they think they can stay and freeload. The fact that push factors and pull factors figure into the complex and difficult decision to leave home has been uncharitably shucked aside for a simple narrative: Don't listen to the media, these kids aren't afraid of violence at all; they just came here because they think we'll let them stay!

In other words, no matter the evidence presented or the strength of moral reasoning, charity itself — even private, voluntary charity — has been routinely dismissed, derided, and mocked by powerful voices on the far right. When the next opportunity for a genuine outpouring of charity arises, what should we expect? If a crisis involving unaccompanied children isn't enough to elicit a charitable impulse, nothing will ever be.

 
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes about Christianity, ethics, and policy for Salon, The Atlantic, and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and received her MPhil in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She is currently working towards her PhD at Brown University. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys working in the garden.

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