Churches in America didn’t start speaking about immigration only recently. In 1906, Methodist bishops, speaking as part of America’s largest religious movement, noted that one million immigrants had entered the U.S. the previous year, with 700,000 of them from southern and eastern Europe. Many, in the bishops’ words, jarring to modern ears, were “totally illiterate and alien to our national customs and ethical standards and public spirit,” whose “ignorance” and “poverty” strained America’s “assimilating power” and who posed a “perilous menace to our Christian civilization.” It was the church’s “urgent duty” to reach these “neglected peoples” with the Gospel.
Two years later, Methodist bishops cited “dangers to American civilization” and especially to laborers’ wages if the “immense populations of Eastern Asia were free to enter this country.” But they also affirmed for existing immigrants and “those who lawfully come” just treatment and protection from “race prejudice.”
In the century since those words, the once Mainline and now oldline denominations have shifted on immigration. United Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ and others essentially favor a U.S. open borders policy, deriding border security as “militarization,” and insisting on the provision of entitlements and benefits now reserved to citizens to become immediately available to any and all who reach our shores. A letter last month from the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to Congress about immigration expressed no concern about security. Instead it urged ending cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agencies while warning against “militarizing border communities.”
These oldline denominations, in their political witness, of course are largely politically inconsequential and they get virtually no media attention. It’s instructive to ponder why so. Partly it is due to millions of lost members. But they still retain millions of members. Yet office holders and the media recognize they do not persuasively speak for those members politically. Forty or so years ago, these denominations, when still influential, started speaking TO rather than for their members on political issues. The consequences were estrangement between church elites and members, and nearly a half century of continuous decline.
Today, it is evangelicals who are considered the key religious constituency with potential political influence, mostly on Republicans. Large philanthropies have funded major initiatives to organize evangelicals behind a process that would legalize the current estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. Many prominent evangelical individuals and groups have assertively endorsed what is called “comprehensive immigration reform.” Unlike the oldline Protestants, most of the outspoken evangelical voices do cite the need for border security. Yet implicitly the evangelical push for mass legalization seems aligned behind the U.S. Senate’s proposal to legalize first with only the promise of additional security later, which provokes skepticism by many.
Do evangelical officials and groups advocating legalization speak for most evangelicals? Some quietly admit that white evangelicals are the least supportive of all religious groups, while most enthusiasts cite endless polls ostensibly showing strong majorities supporting a legalization process. But a closer look at these polls reveals such support is mostly aspirational and likely does not equal the legalization first, security later approach of the Senate.
Neither the Bible nor Christian tradition offers definitive guidance on U.S. immigration law in 2013. There are sincere people of faith on many sides of this debate. Quoting Scripture and citing religious principles in support of a political argument can be fine if done with some humility and recognition that on most political issues none of us can claim to know God’s will with absolute certainty. Much of politics is after all not about absolute good versus absolute evil but about competing interests. Christians and other people of faith who organize for a political cause must also constantly remember that in our fallen world good intent and lofty principles are not sufficient. Religious activists who claim the Bible offers direct and indisputable political answers forget the moral hazard and unintended consequences of all human projects, especially vast social and political engineering. Christian realists from St. Augustine to Reinhold Niebuhr caution us against confident political crusades.
My organization takes no position on immigration legislation. We have offered broad principles, including a paper by Alan Wisdom, to inform the debate over immigration law. They include observing the state’s vocation to safeguard borders and to prioritize the welfare of its own people, the church’s calling to offer its ministry to all people, the state’s sometime interest in offering clemency amid the “moral hazard” of rewarding illegality, special recognition for fleeing victims of persecution, honoring family structure while preventing “chain migration,” rejecting both racism and claims that all skeptics of unlimited immigration are racist, and the likelihood that reducing illegal immigration involves an ultimate mix of amnesty, deportation, and encouraged voluntary returns.
Christians also should be cautioned against sweeping “comprehensive” legislative solutions to deep, pervasive political problems. Solutions to most political challenges are more typically incremental. And in our fallen world, reputed solutions, even when implemented relatively effectively, usually create new problems demanding attention. And in this particular debate we should avoid rhetoric that romanticizes immigrants no less than avoiding demonization. Immigrants, legal and illegal, are frail humans like us all, a combination of virtues and vices. Their presence among us brings both gifts and troubles. Our prisons are full of tens of thousands of immigrants, legal and illegal, who have committed heinous crimes. There are also, of course, millions who work hard, are faithful to their families, and love their new country. Likewise, many immigrants, even while working hard, ultimately draw government benefits and services that outstrip their financial contributions, making their presence in America an additional fiscal stress upon our already fraying and probably unsustainable entitlement state. The mass legalization of 11 million illegal immigrants, as presently construed, would likely add to that stress.
Additionally, I would caution evangelicals against following the ultimately failed Mainline/oldline Protestant social witness example of claiming the Gospel has emphatic views on every political issue. This example was worsened by Mainline/oldline officials who got too out front of their own constituencies. Sometimes church constituencies may need challenging by their leaders. But in such cases those leaders should not claim to speak for the church’s members and instead should cheerfully admit they speak only for themselves and their understanding of Christian faithfulness.
Finally, we must trust that God’s plan on this issue as on all issues will ultimately be realized, probably in ways that none of us fully imagines. The will of Providence, reassuringly, does not depend on our own frenzied activism, successes or right thinking, for which we can all be grateful.