While I read it regularly on Feedly, The Atlantic is not exactly my go-to source for reporting on Christianity in America or elsewhere. And yet this morning it featured a hugely interesting, informative post with the surprising headline, “Is Immigration Reform Dead? Not If Evangelicals Can Do Anything About It.”
FYI – I don’t normally write lengthy pieces so close to each other, but having just written a post on the absence of popular patriotic songs from a surprisingly large number of hymnals that hints at the complexity of Christian understandings of citizenship in this country, it seemed like The Atlantic story got at the same theme in a different way…
Written by Michael Wear, who led faith outreach for Pres. Obama’s 2012 campaign and worked in the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships when the president began his push for immigration reform in 2010, the post gives an insider account of the role that evangelicals like megachurch pastors Bill Hybels and Leith Anderson, World Relief staff members Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang, political polar opposites Jim Wallis and Russell Moore, and Hispanic church leaders Gabriel Salguero, Samuel Rodriguez, and Luis Cortes played both in changing evangelical opinion on immigration and then pushing for reform in Congress. It’s both a familiar and unfamiliar place for evangelicals to be, as Wears explains:
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…. “Evangelicals have the opportunity to be the conscience of the nation,” Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas told me.
The whole article is worth reading, but I’d specifically highlight Wear’s analysis of changing evangelical attitudes on this issue. From interviewing some of the aforementioned leaders, he identifies “three main pillars of evangelical support for ‘compassionate, just’ immigration reform”:
Scripture and theology: “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.”
- Personal relationships: “…as Hispanic populations have expanded in the Midwest, Southeast and Mountain West, churches like Willow Creek have had to grapple with the human aspect of the immigration problem. Evangelicals take anti-immigrant rhetoric personally, because they know hardworking, God-fearing immigrants in their churches and their neighborhoods.”
- Numbers: “If they deport 11 million immigrants, they will be deporting the future of the American church,” Wallis told Wears. Given the obvious benefits to American evangelical churches of immigration from places like an increasingly evangelical-Pentecostal Latin America, Wears concludes that “In a cultural landscape that provides evangelicals many reasons for pessimism, the energy provided by immigrants is cause for optimism.”
I don’t have a lot of personal expertise or experience to add here, but I would note that my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (not a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, but very much in the larger tradition of evangelicalism via its roots in Pietism and 19th century revivalism), received a draft resolution supporting immigration reform at its recent annual meeting in Detroit. (We’ll be having a year-long conversation about the resolution, with feedback being solicited through the fall, then vote on a revised version of the resolution next year.) The resolution alludes to the shift in evangelicalism described by Wear and, in its own argument for “fair and humane immigration laws and policies” exemplifies his three pillars:
- The resolution is preceded by a lengthy “Biblical Foundation” section that quotes or cites about thirty separate passages from the Old and New Testaments.
- Its contemporary section concludes on a more personal note, hinting at the fact that over a quarter of ECC congregations are “ethnic” or “multicultural,” including one Laotian, one South Sudanese, and three Hispanic congregations in our regional conference: “At its core, the immigration debate is about real people, many of whom are members of our Covenant family —mothers, fathers, children, grandmothers, and grandfathers each with their own walk of faith and story to share.”
But the ECC resolution on immigration also emphasizes a factor that didn’t show up in Wear’s account but is crucially important for Euro-American evangelicals to remember:
The early immigrants of the Covenant Church [overwhelmingly from Sweden] faced profound challenges as they entered as strangers and foreigners into a new land. These Covenant ancestors were strengthened in their journey through faith in Jesus Christ who was no stranger to the experiences of immigrants. We want to consider how both our history as an immigrant church in an immigrant nation and our biblically rooted faith in Jesus Christ may prophetically speak to our present context. How does our history and our common faith inform how we understand the difficult and complex issues surrounding immigration?
…our founders were a people who changed one nation for another, one language for another. To use a great King James word that has all but disappeared from our bibles, they were sojourning, living in this world without ever being “at home” in it….
Our forebears did not expect any earthly city — whether Stockholm or Minneapolis, Oslo or St. Paul — to be their true home, but they looked to the coming city — where the children of God would come before His throne, blessed forever to “worship him day and night within his temple” (v 15).
As our friend Efrem Smith reminded us at the Covenant’s annual meeting this past June , it’s easy to forget that we are an “immigrant church.” As years and generations went by and they accumulated wealth and status and mortgages and power, one-time immigrants and their descendants were tempted to stop sojourning, to settle down and become what no Christian under ordeal should ever become: comfortable.
So I’d encourage my Covenant readers to read and respond to our denomination’s resolution, my evangelical readers to support the work of groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table, my non-evangelical readers to rethink stereotypes they might hold about evangelical political behavior, and all my readers to write their representatives as the House considers immigration reform.