For Evangelicals, the Temptation of Comprehensive Immigration Reform

For Evangelicals, the Temptation of Comprehensive Immigration Reform March 11, 2013

Philosophical Fragments (join our new Facebook account to the right) has become a staging ground for serious evangelical reflection on matters of public policy — thanks to friends engaged in policy discussions who want to share their faith perspective.  As always, guest posts do not necessarily reflect my own views.  Many thanks to Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy for his thoughts below on Comprehensive Immigration Reform:


For Evangelicals, Reasons to be Cautious on Comprehensive Immigration Reform

By Mark Tooley

Representatives of most of America’s major faiths met with president Obama on March 8 to discuss his initiative for “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.”  They emerged telling reporters and announcing in their own news releases that they and the President are virtually if not entirely in sync on CIR.  The centerpiece and most controversial aspect of CIR is mass legalization of an estimated 11 million current illegal immigrants.

The White House gathering of “faith leaders” was heavy on evangelicals, who have been touted as the key demographic who can sway congressional Republicans otherwise opposed to what critics call “amnesty.”  Jim Wallis was there, along with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the Southern Baptist Convention, and several Hispanic evangelical groups.  There were also liberal Protestant groups like the National Council of Churches and United Methodist Church.  A Catholic archbishop was there, plus a Mormon official, a Jewish group and the Islamic Society of North America.

Not all these groups have official statements in harmony on immigration.  The official Southern Baptist policy emphasizes border security and protecting taxpayers.  United Methodism officially favors open borders and non enforcement of current immigration law. NAE is in between, paying lip service to enforcement but stressing the imperative of legalization.  But these officials are on board with quick passage of CIR this year, which has failed several times in past years.  Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham extolled CIR when they addressed a closed door NAE briefing in Washington, D.C. before the White House event.

That the representatives of most of American religion are agreed on CIR maybe should herald either the Second Coming or the Apocalypse.  The consensus by America’s elites for CIR over the last decade has been remarkable, including big business, labor unions, the media, academia, big philanthropies, think tanks, and seniors leaders in both political parties.  So it’s remarkable that CIR’s passage is still uncertain, even with nearly all planets aligned.  Prominent evangelicals are the latest planetary addition to the glittering  constellation.  Like many Republicans, they are anxious to appeal to America’s fast growing Hispanic population.

Many of the motivations propelling even conservative religionists onto the CIR bullet train are understandable.  But maybe they should reflect further before remaining permanently on board for this huge legislative omnibus with potentially sweeping political, economic and cultural ramifications.

There is unlikely any clear “faith” position, much less a Christian one, on specific U.S. immigration policies for the 21st century.  It’s a prudential political calculation about which people of faith and good will may disagree.   Certainly it’s inevitable and even right that in our still overwhelmingly religious country that the language of faith is engaged on this and all major public issues.  But should actual churches and their senior, official representatives so resolutely commit their institutions to legislation for which there is no definitive scriptural or historic church teaching compelling consensus?  Strained attempts to argue otherwise are unserious.  Jesus was not an illegal immigrant, ancient Hebrew laws about “sojourners” and “strangers” don’t relate directly to modern illegal immigrants, and caring for the “least of these” can’t thoughtfully apply to every political push for expanding the federal leviathan.  And even if church officials have a legitimate mandate to lobby for CIR, superficial “God talk” is not an intelligent contribution to the national discussion.

Do church officials accurately represent their constituencies when lobbying for CIR?  The Catholic bishops, in their historically hierarchical church, don’t claim to represent their constituency but share their own counsel.  Protestants and evangelicals more typically work within a democratic ecclesia.  Their pronouncements by implication speak for their memberships.  One evangelical official has been overheard admitting that most evangelicals oppose mass legalization, which requires enhanced exertions by CIR proponents.  The NCC and old line Protestant groups have for decades “prophetically” ignored their own memberships, hence their churches have become politically and culturally marginalized.  Shouldn’t Protestant and evangelical officials more closely heed the informed consent of their own people rather than condescendingly deem them a hindrance to cajole?

There is also a question of priorities and vocation.  Today marriage, human life, and religious liberty, all issues to which scripture speaks clearly and that affect faith very directly, face unprecedented threats.  Should churches still expend energy, resources, and moral capital on CIR advocacy, which is important, but not of the same moral order?  And even on a compelling issue, are church institutions typically the ideal instrument for political lobbying?

Finally, there is the issue of overall disposition by church officials.  Mike Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Center recently extolled a realistic “Augustinian sensibility” especially for often idealistic evangelicals prone to crusades.  Should religionists enthusiastically lend their faith’s name to ambitiously behemoth legislation that Congress inevitably will load down with unforeseen and misunderstood special provisions and self-serving benefits?  And shouldn’t the potential downside of mass legalization, and not just the claimed benefits, be admitted by its churchly advocates in the interest of integrity and realism?

Beyond just CIR, shouldn’t senior people of faith more than others perceive the potential unintended consequences of soaringly “comprehensive” political proposals that claim massive fixes of deeply complicated social problems?   And shouldn’t they who understand original sin shun public policy proposals that heavily rely on sentimentality and talking points, even when adorned with Bible verses, at the expense of prudent discretion?

It’s hard for anybody, even senior church officials, to resist the tug of impulsive news cycles and the alternately apocalyptic and utopian claims of clashing political claims.  Guided by ancient teaching and millennia of church history, our “faith leaders” should have their eyes not just on the moment but also on eternity.  And our churches should aspire to a thoughtful and restrained political witness amid public policy debates where God’s will is not always clearly obvious.

Mark Tooley is President of The Institute on Religion and Democracy.

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  • Jim Eckland

    There is plenty in Scripture that discuss the need to respect Government authority, be good citizens and It’s a shame that our Christian Leaders are standing with “Illegal Behavior” rather than “Law-Abiding Americans”. I’m starting to understand why Christians leave churches when they’re leaders are just as corrupt as everyone else !!

  • Obviously we should be cautious about rushing into complex legislation, or giving our full support to something where the details haven’t even been worked out. At the same time, there are important Biblical principles at involved in this discussion that evangelicals and all other Christians should be thinking about, studying on, and praying that they will guide our actions. Jim mentioned the need to respect our duly-appointed government authority, and that is certainly part of it. Let me point to two others.

    First, evangelicals are more in tune than most Christians with an important strand of Biblical teaching: that we are hopelessly out of step with what the Law (God’s law) requires of us, and it is only be an act of radical grace and forgiveness that we can be justified. There’s a natural parallel to the immigration debate. A single act committed long ago, often by their parents when they were very young, keeps them from living on the right side of the law. Undocumented immigrants have a harder time paying taxes, getting a driver’s license, or settling things through the court system (as either the victim or the criminal) because over it all stands the threat of deportation. It makes them more open to being victimized, but also when they are the criminal it forces them to work outside the system. Christians should recognize that a first step of forgiveness can set them on the right path.

    Also, the Bible repeatedly orders us to make sure our courts and markets use fair standards and, if we must err in one direction, to pay particular attention how our weights and measures affect the poor and powerless. Our immigration policies fall hardest on those who are too poor to afford the fees for legal immigration in their cultures, or who are in crisis situations where illegal immigration is the only way to avoid danger. It is right and proper that we evaluate how our nation’s policies affect the poorest people around the world. Does this mean we have to accept everyone who wants to live in America as citizens? No. But if our policies are systematically unfair so we are more willing to offer legal protections to wealthy and educated immigrants, even while we rely on the uneducated for manual labor without providing that legal protection – this is something that evangelicals and every other Christian needs to be aware of.

    I reject the idea that any religious leader should lead by opinion poll. Biblical truth is not up for popular vote, and evangelical leaders (and Catholic, and mainline Protestants, etc.) should pay attention to how Biblical values may touch on contemporary issues, then lead their denominations and followers in that direction. At the same time, we should be careful to see the difference between someone speaking what he believes the truth is and speaking on behalf of his group. It would be a mistake to think all or even most Christians are in favor of immigration reform, though speaking for myself, I pray for the day when these leaders’ statements will more fully represent their groups.

  • MJ

    I can think of no better description of Mark Tooley’s sad, hateful, ignorant diatribes than “fragmented”. What an appropriate name for this blog.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thank you for that wonderful contribution to the conversation.

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    Matt. 25:31-46 indicates that whether or not we invite in and show hospitality to the strangers who come among us (and that definitely includes immigrants) is indicative of what our attitude is toward Christ Himself. Are we sheep, or are we goats? Of course there can be a legitimate debate within civil society about what the nation’s immigration policies should be. The passage from Matt. 25 would seem to me, however, to leave little room for debate about what our attitudes and conduct should be as individual Christians and as churches toward those immigrants that we encounter in our local communities. If we are not going to personally welcome them and act hospitably toward them, then we might as well stop thinking that Christ is really welcome in our homes and in our churches.

  • MVSteve

    Mark, Jim, and Marta present many ideas worth discussing. I will limit myself to pursuing Jim’s general theme, bouncing off one point made by Mark and another made by Marta. Mark says: “And shouldn’t the potential downside of mass legalization, and not just the claimed benefits, be admitted by its churchly advocates in the interest of integrity and realism?” Marta says: “It is right and proper that we evaluate how our nation’s policies affect the poorest people around the world.”

    To grant mass amnesty to illegal immigrants, rewarding lawbreakers unnecessarily, would violate traditional American rule of law principles, for a number of reasons. Advancement of the rule of law ideal worldwide has been one of America’s great contributions to human progress. If America degrades the rule of law it does not harm itself only. It sets a bad example for the entire world.

    As stated in Mission Viejo’s Rule of Law Resolution: “It is the poor and the least powerful who are the greatest beneficiaries of, and the most dependent upon, the rule of law and the ethic of adherence to the rule of law. From a comparison of the degrees of freedom, safety, and prosperity that exist in countries that adhere to the rule of law to the degrees of freedom, safety, and prosperity that exist in countries where corruption predominates, it is obvious that it is detrimental to the common good to attempt to help people in need by methods that degrade the principle of the rule of law. Compassion is truly humane not when it focuses just on those in need and how proposed remedial action would redound to their benefit, but when it focuses, as well, on the consequences of the proposed remedy for everyone. Policies that have the effect of diminishing adherence to the law and to the rule of law, however well-intentioned they might be, are ultimately not humane.”

    Those who want to understand and defend the rule of law principles on which our country was founded would do well to read Mission Viejo’s Rule of Law Resolution. Anyone who sends an email to, and asks for it, will be sent the Resolution and the supporting Research Paper by email as a PDF document.

    • Thanks for following up on my point, MVSteve. I agree that this should be part of the conversation. But I think this can be framed as bringing people back into accord with the law, both the immigrants and everyone who interacts with them. Because they lack legal status they can’t do anything else legally that requires that status. If they get a driver’s license or work a job, or want to get married and they aren’t here legally, this pretty much requires them to lie again to the government. So I think a case can be made that this kind of behavior is not at all acceptable and one way we are going to put a stop to it as a nation is to give everyone the tools they need to live within the boundaries of the law, and hold them accountable when they fail to do it from here on out. We might frame this as saying of course it isn’t okay how they got here, but that in the interest of moving forward and allowing people to live within what the law requires of them, we give people the documentation they need to do things like buy property, pay taxes, get married, get a driver’s license, etc.

      Btw, I’m not sure how accurate it is to say Americans came up with the idea of rule of law. Certainly we’ve made our own unique additions to it. But I’d say the basic idea goes back at least to the Magna Carta, and probably further than that.

      • MVSteve

        I appreciate the high quality of Marta’s ideas, but I find some areas of disagreement. I think we would be “bringing people back into accord with the law” if we require the illegal immigrants to conform to immigration law and, by deportation or self-deportation, forfeit what they got by violating it. It would be enough as a practical manner if they return home voluntarily, and go to the back of the line for immigration to the U.S. if desired.

        I wouldn’t say American law “pretty much requires them to lie…to the government.” We don’t require them to be here, and in fact we require them not to be here, so any “requirement” to lie while here is the result of their own lawbreaking. It’s their doing, not ours.

        I don’t think that “one way we are going to put a stop to” lawbreaking and lying “is to give everyone the tools they need to live within the boundaries of the law” if “to give everyone the tools” means rewarding them for immigration lawbreaking by granting them legal status.

        We tried a halfhearted “it isn’t okay how they got here” and a full-hearted forgetting of past transgressions and “moving forward” in adopting the 1986 amnesty law. But in rewarding illegal immigrants with legal status, President Reagan and the 99th Congress strayed from traditional American rule of law principles. Our rule of law principles, however, reflect the realities of human nature, and recognize in particular that rewarding illegal behaviors encourages them, despite the institution of heightened obstacles, and punishing illegal behaviors deters and diminishes them. The 1986 amnesty law resulted in a quadrupling of the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. (and Noah172 in his comment has a good catalog of the resulting side effects). Should we have been surprised?

        Now, with a second big amnesty, our national policy would more obviously be one of periodic amnesties, which would be a bigger inducement to illegal immigration than we have ever had before.

        As Mission Viejo said in its Rule of Law Resolution: “The contemplated gain of illegal immigration is presence in the United States, with the opportunities such presence provides. The indispensable, minimum sanction needed to deter and prevent illegal entry and illegal presence is removal from the United States, with the resulting elimination of the opportunities presented. With anything less, there is little deterrence, and immigration lawbreaking pays: the lawbreaker knows he will come out ahead, even after being apprehended and paying the prescribed penalty.”

        A real deportation and threatened deportation disincentive is essential to any effective national policy of regulating immigration. A deportation policy that comes and goes with the political winds can only undermine the regulation of immigration, and law in general.

        Marta is right to doubt that Americas came up with the idea of the rule of law. They did not. Our Founders, before constructing this “government of laws and not of men,” were students of the Bible and history and political and legal philosophy. Many of the rule of law’s essentials go back to ancient times–for example, Rome and the Bible (e.g. Romans 13), and there is a great tradition of its development in medieval times. But we can in justice recognize a great contribution to “advancement of the rule of law ideal worldwide,” in my phrase, by America. To quote Bernard Schwartz, in The American Heritage History of The Law in America (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1974, pp. 7-8): “The crucial role of the law in American history has been apparent to all observers, from Alexis de Tocqueville to the present day. The true American contribution to human progress has not been in technology, economics, or culture; it is been the development of the notion of law as a check upon power. American society has been dominated by law as has no other society in history. Struggles over power that in other countries have called forth regiments of troops, in this country call forth battalions of lawyers.”

  • GameTime

    “…,United Methodism officially favors open borders and non enforcement of current immigration law.”

    Isn’t that what put us in this problem?

  • Noah172

    Thank you, Mr. Tooley, for your sensible words on a subject about which so many (within and outside evangelical circles) cannot speak sensibly.

    So-called “progressive” Christians who advocate “CIR” are blind to the pain that mass immigration has caused so many Americans, especially those without university degrees or the money to insulate themselves and their loved from immigration’s dark side: depressed wages and lost jobs; the degradation of entire categories of labor (e.g. construction, meatpacking, textiles) from steppingstones into the middle class into low-wage, dead-end grinds where Americans are not welcome; immigrant crime — not just crossing the border illegally or overstaying a visa, but identity theft, drug and human trafficking, drunk driving, horrific gang violence (e.g. MS13), and every manner of other illegality; increased traffic congestion, environmental damage, and stress on public services (roads, schools, prisons, hospitals) for which many immigrants are net consumers (i.e., their tax payments do not cover the services that they use); the inflating of the housing bubble (immigration was a major factor in that) and the still elevated cost of living in many large metro areas; and the cultural fragmentation and racial balkanization that inevitably results from too much unassimilated immigration, too fast, with too few controls.

    CIR advocates would have more credibility if they were not so smugly dismissive of these concerns as mere “racism,” and not so cocksure of their own righteousness.

    Christian CIR advocates should also search their own hearts: how much do the prospects of more warm bodies in the pews and pennies in the collection plate influence their views? We are all human, after all. If churches cannot retain the loyalties of native Americans (denominations across the religious spectrum face stagnant or declining memberships and funding), they should focus on correcting that, not importing *potential* converts from distant lands, consequences for American society be damned. The Christian CIR advocates would also do well to ponder whether the children and grandchildren of those immigrant converts will stick around in the church; many will secularize just like current young native Americans are secularizing.

    Consider Luke 8:26-39, the healing of the demon-possessed man known as Legion. He was from the region of the ancient towns of Gadara and Gergasa, in what is today Jordan. This was a Greek, not Jewish, area (hence the herd of swine in the story). Jesus traveled to the area, met Legion where he was, healed him in his (Legion’s) own land, and — this is key — urged the man to stay where he was and proclaim God’s glory to his own people. Were Jesus like so many modern immigration do-gooders, he would have arranged for passage of the demon-possessed man — who, lest we forget, was a violent danger to the community — to wealthier Judea, dumped him, unhealed, on some unsuspecting neighborhood (where he would have gone on a rampage), and gone on his (Christ’s) merry way back to Galilee, denouncing any objection to his deeds as bigotry and nativism, and repeating “love the stranger” like some magic incantation.

  • Thank you for that wonderful contribution

  • I was recently on a medical mission trip to Honduras where I heard repeatedly of the devastating effect that promotion of illegal immigration and the push for comprehensive continuance of an opportunity to encourage more illegal activity has on a country of origin. We heard sad and terrible stories of families being divided and the sacrifice of those working illegally in the US causing indolence and dependency among those “back home”. Finally, when someone returns home after many years of labor and toil hoping to see the fruit of their sweat and money, they find things more destitute than when they left. Those at home more gratified to wait for Western Union than to see their loved ones back home.
    If we are to be the land of opportunity let it at the very least be the land of opportunity under equal protection and representation under the law.

  • J Hugh Nichols

    I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness when I oppose legalization of illegal immigrants. The law is the law – is the law. I know that laws can be changed but our legalization laws have not, and should not, be changed.

  • Tom F.

    There may or may not be good reasons to oppose this or that particular immigration position. But why would you allow someone to post this: “United Methodism officially favors open borders and non enforcement of current immigration law.”

    I tried to follow this up on Google and couldn’t. Isn’t this the same sort of move you have been criticizing on the homosexuality debate? Caricature and straw men the other side? Why turn around and do it here?

  • Mosessister

    I am troubled that the neither the author of this article nor many commenters see an ethical issue with the bait-and-switch actions of influential segments of our society, e.g. big U.S. cities that are safe harbors, big U.S. corporations that lure undocumented workers over the border. Additionally, there is an ethical issue with our country’s toleration of a broken immigration system for the past couple decades. As Christians, we have a social responsibility to respond charitably to those who have been injured by societal structures. I personally would classify most undocumented workers as oppressed and injured by our own actions. This is the main reason that I support and advocate for Comprehensive Immigration Reform as an evangelical Christian……it is long overdue.