Evangelicals Preach Unity On Immigration Reform

More than 150 evangelical leaders, from across the political spectrum, have come together to call for immigration reform. Host Michel Martin looks at the crusade for reform with Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll head into the Barber Shop, where the guys talk about the news and what's on their minds.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we take a closer look at what might be, to some, a surprising coalition of evangelical leaders who have come together from across the political spectrum.

More than 150 prominent leaders, including some from some of the country's most conservative Christian denominations, are calling for comprehensive immigration reform. They say they want reform that includes what they call respect for the God given dignity of every person, protection for the family and secure national borders.

We wanted to talk more about this effort, so we've called upon two people who are leading what has been called the evangelical immigration table. Richard Land is the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He's often heard speaking out on important public policy issues. He also co-hosts the daily radio talk show, "For Faith and Family." The Reverend Samuel Rodriguez is the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. That's a group with more than 40,000 member churches and he is also a high profile spokesperson, chiefly on immigration issues. And they're both with us now.

Welcome back to you both. Thank you both, so much, for joining us once again.

RICHARD LAND: Delighted to be with you.

SAMUEL RODRIGUEZ: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Richard Land, I want to mention that you have been identified with the articulating, let's say, in the public sphere, the views of among the more conservative parts of the - kind of the Christian world in the United States, you know, across the evangelical spectrum.

And this is an issue that's been in ferment for some time and I wanted to ask - what do you think was the catalyzing event that allowed these leaders to come together around this particular issue at this particular time in this particular way?

LAND: This issue has increasingly been one that is rending the social fabric and evangelicals from across the board have been sensitized to this issue over the last decade, because evangelicals are called evangelicals because we evangelize. And when you have 12 to 14 million undocumented workers who've come to America, we evangelize them.

So there are hundreds of thousands of southern Baptists and other denominational evangelicals who are now part of our denominations. I challenged our southern Baptist pastors. I said, several years ago at our convention in Orlando, if you want to understand the immigration issue, take the pastor of your Spanish mission out to lunch and he'll explain it to you.

Well, that's what's happened. We, through a process of urging southern Baptists to look at this issue from a biblical perspective, have come to the place now, where in 2011, with an 80 percent vote of the representatives from the churches, our convention voted for comprehensive immigration reform in Phoenix, Arizona.

MARTIN: Reverend Rodriguez, what's your take on this? And I know that you're too modest to claim personal credit for this, but there are many people who would argue that it was, in part, your personal diplomacy on this issue and reaching out to other evangelicals that was the deciding factor here, as well. What's your sense of it?

RODRIGUEZ: It could very well be the survival of American Christianity and, for that matter, American evangelicalism. It is the fastest growing demographic in the evangelical and Christian community.

In 2006, post-Sensen-Brenner Bill, we saw a tad bit of hesitancy on behalf of our white evangelical brothers and sisters. And, by the grace of God, collaboratively - and I commend Dr. Land's leadership on this - we began a conversation with leaders across the board to see if they would understand, from a biblical world view, what are the implications.

And here we are today. We have an incredible amount of evangelical support on behalf of leadership and we would love to see that support work its way down to those in the pews.

MARTIN: When you say the survival of the Christian community in the United States, what do you mean? You mean the survival of the institutions because they will depend, for their survival and future growth, on Latino evangelicals who have a certain view of this? Or do you mean the survival according to biblical principles as you understand them? What did you mean by that?

RODRIGUEZ: I think it's both and. A Pew study from 2007 or the new study emerging now from the Barna Group later on this year, will demonstrate that the fastest growing religious demographic as it pertains to embracing a Christian world view, particularly an evangelical world view, stems out of the Hispanic demographic.

And many of these undocumented individuals have converted. They have embraced a biblical Christian world view. As a result of that, when we talk about deporting, we may be deporting American Christianity. There is Anglo, non-Latino, non-ethnic evangelicals are swaying away from the church, so the church is decreasing in white membership. It is increasing in brown, and black and ethnic membership.

So, when we talk about deportation and immigration reform, if we look at it through the myopic lenses of political consequences, then we're really losing the fact that the very spirituality of our nation and our Christian faith, our Christian ethos, may lie in jeopardy if we don't deal with this in a comprehensive manner.

MARTIN: Richard Land, you are deeply grounded in theology. In fact, your doctorate is in theology. And you're also deeply grounded in the politics of the moment, due to your work with the Southern Baptist Commission on Ethics and Religious Liberty. You're deeply involved in many of the public policy issues of the day, so really, the same question to you is - do you think the motivating factor here is the theology, the sense that the biblical principles require this? Or is it the survival of the institutions of these Christian evangelical institutions, which will increasingly draw upon the growing Latino population?

LAND: I think it's mainly the first. We're citizens of the United States, but we're also citizens of the kingdom of heaven and we have responsibilities to give a cup of cold water in Jesus' name, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to welcome the stranger, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

And it is a fact that the longer Hispanics stay in the United States, the less likely they are to remain Catholic and become something else. And most of those have become evangelicals. It is also true that the Hispanic culture is hardwired to be social conservatives. They're religious, they're pro-life, they're pro-family, they're entrepreneurial.

Now, this is not a surprise to me. I didn't realize when I was growing up there, how different Texas is than the rest of the country on this issue because Hispanics have always been part of the genetic code of Texas. And so this is why George W. Bush and Jeb Bush have been leaders on this issue. They both grew up in Texas, and in Texas, the idea that Hispanics are somehow foreign or alien is an incomprehensible idea.

MARTIN: Well, this sounds, though, Dr. Land - with respect, this sounds more like real politic than theologically driven. It sounds like this is our future constituency, so therefore, this is an area that we need to accede to this point of view...

LAND: No. I...

MARTIN: ...as opposed to...

LAND: Primarily - it's primarily theological, but it also has cultural consequences.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the Reverend Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. They are two people who have led 150 evangelical leaders who came together to call for comprehensive immigration reform.

You know, Richard Land, we can't escape the fact that this is an election year and I'm wondering whether - is the intention here to influence the politics of this as the election year goes forward? And I'm also wondering...

LAND: Well...

MARTIN: ...if you are worried that people will ignore it, that this will be seen as something that the leaders did, but that really has no effect on the grass roots. I'm just...

LAND: Well, no. I think this is - the leaders are reflecting the grass roots and, in some degree, have helped to shape the grass roots on this issue. And, when we met in Washington, we met with both parties. We met with the Democratic Senator from Illinois. We met with the Republican Senator from Florida. We met with the president's advisors.

You know, politicians are looking at the next election. Statesmen are looking at the next generation and we're calling for our elected leaders to behave like statesmen and to solve this issue. I am absolutely convinced, as I go around the country, the country is ahead of its elected leaders on this issue. The Pew poll shows that 70 percent of Americans would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a comprehensive immigration reform policy that fits within the guidelines that we've laid down, respecting the God-given dignity of every person, protecting the unity of the immediate family, respecting the rule of law, guaranteeing secure national borders, ensuring fairness to taxpayers and establishing a pathway toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents. It's time for the politicians to wake up and smell the coffee.

MARTIN: Reverend Rodriguez, what do you think? Are you at all concerned that this will be something that will be appreciated by the leadership and ignored in the pews, and ignored by people as they go to the polls and make their political decisions about how this policy is carried out going forward?

RODRIGUEZ: I do believe that the immigration reform may not emerge as the primary issue in the 2012 election. Nevertheless, there's an electorate, the Hispanic electorate, a very critical electorate, particularly in very important states, such as Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio. I believe these are called swing states and, to the Latino community, when they approach that voting booth in November, it may appear as the number one issue, again, in polling across America, but it's imbedded within the lenses of this voting constituency that may very well determine the election of 2012.

To us, it's not about the agenda of the donkey or the elephant. It's about the agenda of the lamb. It's about the right thing to do. What do we do with 12 million and 14 million currently here that are undocumented? President Obama had great intentions. I wholeheartedly believe that he supports comprehensive immigration reform.

Nevertheless, our president had two years with a Democratic majority and he made a promise that, for other reasons and other factors - and I'll take him at his word - that promise was not able to be fulfilled. But the Republicans on the other end embrace a sort of demagoguery and rhetoric that polarized many Hispanic-Americans.

So both parties have played the proverbial political football with this Hispanic electorate. That's why I do believe it's wonderful to see the church take the lead on this issue that transcends politics where they reconcile Leviticus 19 with Romans 13.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, can I ask you, Reverend Rodriguez, something personal?

RODRIGUEZ: Please.

MARTIN: You've been working on this for years, as I recall, I mean, both as a pastoral leader and as a person who is engaged, you know, with the issues of the world as a representative of your community. I'm just wondering how you felt when all this came together.

RODRIGUEZ: It was a - I want to use some Jon Stewart moment here - it was a moment of Zen. Personally speaking, it brought tears to my eyes, seeing the work that we have endeavored in and I don't say - say, Sammy Rodriguez exclusively. It would be inappropriate. And, again, it was a collaborative effort across the board. But I remember the early days when many of my brothers and sisters in the faith looked at me and said, Reverend Rodriguez, why don't your people learn how to speak English? Why don't your people obey the rule of law and go back to their countries?

And here we are today, to see 150 leaders sign on to a statement of faith that appreciates the imago day, the image of God, in every single human being. I call it redeeming the narrative. There's still work to be done, but I do believe it's a good day in America when you have support across the board, particularly from conservative denominations.

I have to state this. In the 1960s, many wonderful conservative evangelical brothers and sisters - they saw political engagement as sinful. They did not engage in the fight and the struggle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 'Til this day, there is a divide where African-Americans that adhere to a born again theology will dare not call themselves evangelicals because evangelical - white evangelicals did not support them in the 1950s and '60s.

This is a moment where the white evangelical community is saying, we will not permit this narrative to repeat itself with the Latino community. We will stand with you as you fight for comprehensive immigration reform.

So it's an affirming moment. It's a redemptive moment, collectively, not only for the Latino community or the evangelical, but for the body of Christ.

MARTIN: Dr. Land, final question to you, too, as you have a, you know, deep historical understanding, as well. How significant do you think this moment is?

LAND: I think it's critical, critical for the future of the country. The Hispanic population is the second-largest group now in the United States and I look upon our Hispanic-American population, both documented and undocumented, as a national resource. The DREAM Act, the Achieve Act, the executive order, whatever you call it, these are 800,000 to a million young people who were brought here as children who want to be Americans, who want to serve our country in the military, who want to better prepare themselves to be productive citizens.

To me, it is insane to do anything but welcome these young people and to give them a path to full and complete legal status.

MARTIN: Richard Land is the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He was kind enough to join us from Nashville, Tennessee. The Reverend Samuel Rodriguez is the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He joined us from Sacramento, California.

Reverend Rodriguez, Dr. Land, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

LAND: Thank you.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.

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