Conservative Evangelicals and Immigration

By Matthew Soerens 11-11-2009

A few weeks ago, I sat and listened attentively as a series of American religious leaders explained to several members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee the reasons our nation needs comprehensive immigration reform. While Congress might expect support for immigration reform from liberal-leaning mainline denominations, this panel was not composed of the usual suspects: four of five witnesses were theologically (and, for the most part, politically) conservative evangelicals.

While certain radio and television personalities seem to think they speak for all conservatives as they rail against "amnesty" for the "illegal immigrants" they say are "invading" the United States, conservative Christians have courageously taken a more informed, biblical view. Recent public statements by evangelical Christians, in particular, have many on Capitol Hill speculating that immigration might be the issue where President Obama and the Democrats in Congress are able to find common ground with evangelicals, Catholics, and others with conservative leanings on social issues.

At last month's Senate subcommittee hearing, California mega-pastor Jim Tolle explained how the Bible has led him to his stance: "My pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform comes from Leviticus 19:34, which states, 'The stranger who dwells with you shall be unto you just as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.'"

At the same hearing, Senator Schumer of New York read excerpts from a statement from Lynne and Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church, explaining how both their commitment to scripture and their relationships with the many undocumented immigrants who are a part of Willow Creek have led them to advocate for reform.

Leith Anderson, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), cogently explained why the organization he leads, which represents more than 40,000 churches and almost every evangelical denomination except for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), decided that it was time to publicly call for the reform of broken immigration laws:

Laws must serve the good of society and create law and order; when they do not, they need to be changed. We believe that undocumented immigrants who have otherwise been law abiding members of our communities should be offered the opportunity to pay any taxes or penalties owed, and over time earn the right to become U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The process of redemption and restitution is core to Christian beliefs, as we were all once lost and redeemed through love of Jesus Christ.

In response to angry phone calls and emails generated by anti-immigrant groups (not, necessarily, from evangelicals themselves), leaders of many denominations took the opportunity to explain the biblical grounding of their position and specifically re-affirm their support. Assemblies of God General Superintendent George Wood even recorded a twenty-minute video to defend the denomination's strong support of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

While not part of the NAE, the Southern Baptists have taken a bold position as well, arguing that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to earn their way on to the "path of legal status and/or citizenship." Richard Land, chair of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has articulately explained why the earned legalization for which he and other comprehensive immigration reform advocates have called is not synonymous with amnesty.

While a few years ago, evangelicals speaking out for immigrants were solitary voices in the wilderness, prominent evangelical leaders from across the theological spectrum are now speaking up. Minnesota pastor John Piper has said that we should simultaneously "give honor to the law and show mercy to the immigrants" by finding a reasonable penalty for unlawful status that still allows immigrants to stay. Chuck Colson has drawn attention to the widespread slander of undocumented immigrants.

All this is not to say that every American evangelical is in agreement -- there is still a great deal of work to be done to help believers understand this nuanced issue through the lens of our faith. But immigrants, a great number of whom are evangelicals themselves, should know that they are not alone in this struggle for just, compassionate, and sensible reform.

Matthew Soerens is a Church Engagement Representative at World Relief DuPage in Wheaton, Illinois, and is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

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