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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