There have always been some ostensible evangelicals like Jim Wallis and his Soujourners organization that have been of a more leftist bent on many political matters. But the Atlantic recently posted an article demonstrating how others, such as the prominent pastor Bill Hybels (of the Willow Creek megachurch), have joined with the likes of Wallis and his ilk in terms of taking a decidedly not conservative position on immigration.
For evangelical Christians, this type of drawn-out, hard-fought legislative battle is nothing new. But for a diverse coalition of evangelical leaders and congregants, it is new to be aligned with Democrats, and prodding Republicans to do what they believe is the right — and moral — thing. The reform camp is relying on evangelicals to help pressure the right into agreeing to changes, and leadership of the Evangelical Immigration Table — a group that is organizing evangelicals who support immigration reform — will meet with House Republican leadership on July 24 to state their case, according to the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference “Evangelicals have the opportunity to be the conscience of the nation,” Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas told me.
Based on interviews with evangelical leaders, political strategists, and policymakers, this is an inside look at how the evangelical movement became a major backer of immigration reform, how it turned traditional political allegiances on their head, and what the future holds.
The West Wing wanted to have a faith leader introduce President Obama’s major address on immigration reform at American University in June 2010. Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, but it was clear that this effort would require conservative constituencies to push recalcitrant Republicans — especially in the Senate — along. So when the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was asked to recommend an evangelical to introduce the president, Bill Hybels was the clear choice (full disclosure: I served in the office at the time).
Hybels is the pastor of the 12,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, and he’s also one of the most respected voices in church leadership around the world, with a leadership-and-training network including thousands of churches worldwide. And, for moral and practical reasons, he and his wife Lynne have long been strong supporters of comprehensive reform.
Hybels explained to me that his interest in immigration reform was at first a result of the makeup of his congregation. In 2003, Willow Creek started a Spanish-language service to accommodate their congregants, and soon learned that as many as nine out of 10 participants were undocumented. “That led us on a journey where we searched the scripture and we asked, ‘What does God say about immigrants and the strangers within our gates?'” Hybels said. He concluded that the immigration system was broken, and that existing laws were “not serving the purpose for which they had been established.”
Hybels was convinced reform was necessary, and so when he received the call from the White House, he left his vacation early and made his way to American University. “I wanted to send the signal that there are tens of millions of serious and intelligent Christ-followers in this country who actually believe we need to forge a better way forward for those who are undocumented,” Hybels explained.
Samuel Rodriguez told me that in 2005, the evangelical support of immigration reform consisted mostly of Hispanic evangelicals. After that effort failed in 2006, Hispanic and other pro-reform evangelicals began to build support across the evangelical community. Now, says Rodriguez, evangelicals of all races are no longer the tail of pro-reform forces — they are leading the effort.
One person responsible for this change is Matthew Soerens. As a staff member of World Relief, the National Association of Evangelicals’ development arm, Soerens has traveled the country speaking at churches and hosting seminars where he, in his words, “gently reminds the local church about what the Scriptures say about the topic of immigration.” When Willow Creek was working through the issue, it called on Soerens. Hybels praises Soerens as “one of the brightest minds on the issue” of immigration, and someone who has “sound theology.” He and his World Relief colleague Jenny Yang (who is similarly well-respected in evangelical and pro-reform circles) co-wrote what has become the signature book for evangelicals on the topic, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate. In our conversation, he casually mentioned that the Hebrew word for immigrant, ger, occurs in the Old Testament alone 92 times, a sign of its importance. Immigration, Soerens says, was long a “blind spot” for evangelicals, but not anymore.
In my interviews with Soerens and other leaders, three main pillars of evangelical support for “compassionate, just” immigration reform emerged. The first is theology and scripture. For evangelicals, the Bible is not simply a series of books full of suggestions and nice thoughts, but the foundation for how they try to live their life, relate to God, and relate to other human beings. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 that “whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me,” has clear implications for the immigration debate for evangelicals. “How we treat immigrants is literally how we treat Jesus,” said Jim Wallis. Dr. Russell Moore, who was elected as the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ERLC in March, says that support for reform reflects “an activated evangelical conscience” that rejects worldviews that dismiss “embryos and fetuses” just as it “cares about those that society would dismiss as ‘anchor babies.'”
Speaking of Russell Moore, recently-elected head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, whom I have criticized before here for throwing in the towel and giving up on other matters, he recently commented on the Zimmerman case. And in doing so, he went directly against the position taken by his predecessor Richard Land, who had criticized Obama’s playing of the race card by his comments on the Trayvon Martin shooting, and who ended up reprimanded by the leaders of his denomination for ostensibly setting back racial reconciliation efforts, leading to his retirement. Moore has gone a step further than that action taken by his denomination’s leaders last year, and has now joined with liberals in piling on Zimmerman, stating that his getting out of his car and following Trayvon Martin was wrong:
In sharp contrast to remarks made by his predecessor a year ago about the Trayvon Martin case, the new head of the politics and policy office for the Southern Baptist Convention said Tuesday that Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was wrong and that there are “systemic” racial injustices in the U.S. legal system.
“Regardless of what Trayvon Martin was doing or not doing that night, you have someone who was taking upon himself some sort of vigilante justice, even by getting out of the car. Regardless of what the legal verdict was, this was wrong,” said Russell Moore, 41, who took over this spring from Richard Land as the public face of the Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination. “And when you add this to the larger context of racial profiling and a legal system that does seem to have systemic injustices as it relates to African-Americans with arrests and sentencing, I think that makes for a huge crisis.”
So, just like their neo-con political bedfellows in the GOP, we see evangelicals sliding further leftward, pandering to minorities to curry favour with them, to attempt to bring more into the fold, rather than standing for what is right and proper, and for the rule of law. Just like both groups do, of course, in bashing men, and not tackling the huge societal problem of frivolous divorce, and societal misandry; or in pandering to Israel’s ‘Amen Corner’ in the U.S. I wonder how long before both Republicans and evangelicals actively and aggressively start embracing practicing homosexuals?
And yet they wonder at increasing voter ‘apathy’, and why more men are staying away from churches, respectively…