William McKenzie: Evangelicals playing key role on immigration

07/26/2013 12:00 AM

07/25/2013 5:15 PM

Mark Bailey leads Dallas Theological Seminary, an evangelical school known for conservative beliefs on issues such as interpreting Scripture and the Second Coming. Bailey also is part of the Evangelical Immigration Table, a collection of evangelical pastors, academics and lay leaders who want Congress to broadly overhaul immigration laws.

This group is a crucial wild card in the debate and holds the key to recreating our immigration system.

Bailey told me why he has come to this point. “As a church,” the seminary president said, “we are called to treat all people as God’s creation. Our care for individuals is a constant regardless of a person’s legal status.”

Bailey emphasized that he and other evangelicals respect the rule of law. That is one of the six principles guiding the Evangelical Immigration Table. Others include securing the national border, respecting the God-given dignity of every person, and allowing illegal immigrants to work for citizenship or legal status.

The role that evangelicals like Bailey are playing is significant since evangelicals generally line up with Republican politics. They have a standing with GOP legislators that more liberal church groups do not.

They also are mobilized in a way they weren’t when Washington last took up immigration reform, under President Bush. Frank Sharry, head of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration reform group, said evangelicals are “committed, aggressive and growing in number.”

The group Bailey belongs to includes liberal evangelicals such as the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, moderate evangelicals such as the Rev. Leith Anderson of the National Association of Evangelicals and conservative evangelicals such as Jim Daly of Focus on the Family. They are united behind their principles. And the organization is working for change on Capitol Hill.

The House, of course, will be a difficult place to market wholesale change of immigration policies. The Senate passed a reform package that includes a chance for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship over time. That provision is like waving a red flag in front of some House members.

If anyone could change their opposition, church leaders, specifically evangelical ones, could. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., already has complimented evangelicals for giving him the support he needed to survive the Senate’s hotly debated immigration bill. Graham was one of the few Republicans who fought hard for that legislation.

But now that the action is moving to the House, evangelical leaders must risk playing hardball to get the House to pass a landmark law. “If Christian people of faith are going to be taken seriously, then we will have to follow the leadership of Jesus. To be specific, we will have to be ‘as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.’ When it comes to the political hardball associated with the need for immigration reform, this is serpent time,” said William Lawrence, dean of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.

Evangelicals are central because immigration reform is a moral issue to them. This is about welcoming the stranger among us more than any policy details, such as how many more agents are needed along the border. “Christ clearly has something to say about how we treat the poor, the voiceless and the displaced – and often immigrants fall into each of these categories,” Bailey wrote in his seminary’s magazine.

May they keep our eyes on the moral parameters of this debate. That could finally push Congress to a more humane set of immigration laws.

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