Evangelicals Try To Soften Hearts On Overhauling Immigration

The evangelical movement, historically, has not been supportive of overhauling immigration. But that stance is changing. The Evangelical Immigration Table has united a diverse section of religious groups — from the social justice organization Sojourners to the Southern Baptist Convention.

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Evangelical Christians in the United States are raising their voices in support of immigration overhaul. Church leaders were largely mute during the earlier contentious debates over how to fix the nation's immigration laws, but now they are speaking out, telling conservative Christians and their friends in Congress that it's OK to embrace compassionate solutions. Here's NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A group calling itself the Evangelical Immigration Table is airing radio ads in certain states in order to soften hearts and hopefully change laws toward the undocumented immigrant.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Christ calls evangelicals to compassion and justice. So please join a growing movement of Christians asking our political leaders for immigration solutions rooted in biblical values.

BURNETT: The spots are airing in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Colorado.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...and establish a path toward citizenship.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Our state of Colorado elected officials need your prayers and to hear your voice.

BURNETT: The Evangelical Immigration Table has united a startling diversity of religious groups, from the social justice organization Sojourners, to the Southern Baptist Convention. One of the leaders at the table is the National Association of Evangelicals. The NAE's Glen Carey says he's met with members of Congress who are looking for a way forward in the immigration debate.

GLEN CAREY: One of the things they've asked for is for help in giving backup to politicians who are willing to stick their necks out and take some positions that may be a little risky for them. But if they know that there are people back in their home districts who are supporting them, that will give them more confidence.

BURNETT: Traditionally, conservative Christians have opposed pro-immigrant laws, seeing it as a way to extend amnesty to lawbreakers. Great weight is given to the passage in the Book of Romans where the apostle Paul says that believers must submit to the authorities.

LISA SHARON HARPER: We're the problem. Evangelicals are the ones who are standing in the way.

BURNETT: Lisa Sharon Harper was one of the immigration activists who gathered in Washington last week for a rally. She's director of mobilizing at Sojourners.

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BURNETT: Howard University student Myra Hauser was there from Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. with a sticker that read: a different kind of Baptist.

MYRA HAUSER: People, particularly in evangelical churches, have a very black-and-white view of morality. And so, you know, people who are emigrating or, for whatever reason, are seen as kind of lawbreakers and people who have walked away from God, when usually it's quite the opposite.

BURNETT: Recent Pew surveys find that attitudes are changing. Today, seven in 10 Americans say there should be a way for illegal immigrants to stay in this country if they meet certain requirements. Among white evangelical Christians - a group with typically negative attitudes toward immigrants - 62 percent now say the undocumented should be allowed to remain here legally. Richard Land, president of the ethics and religious liberty commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says the change has come not so much from the top-down, but from the bottom-up. Land says there are now nearly a half million Hispanic Southern Baptists and growing, to name just one denomination.

RICHARD LAND: And what happened is they came here to work, we evangelized them, they became Southern Baptists. And so now, many, many Southern Baptists can put a human face on this issue. In fact, I issued a challenge several years ago to our pastors. I said, look, if you don't understand this issue, take the pastor of your Iglesia Bautista out to lunch, and he'll explain it to you.

BURNETT: Republicans who watched President Obama win a landslide among Hispanic voters in November are anxious to show the burgeoning Latino vote in America that their party has a heart. Alejandro Mandes is national director for Hispanic ministries of the Evangelical Free Church. He says he's been working on immigration inside the church for seven years now, but since the president's reelection, he's been mobbed by Tea Party people and other conservatives quizzing him on how they can tap the Latino vote. Mandes cautions newcomers to the issue: get to know immigrants.

ALEJANDRO MANDES: So, for me, the issue is we've got to love these people. They may be doing something wrong, but this is a time when the church needs to step into the gap and share the Gospel with them.

BURNETT: Building on this momentum, the Evangelical Immigration Table is calling for a day of prayer and action for immigration reform on Wednesday in Washington, to bring together a unified, evangelical voice on immigration. John Burnett, NPR News.

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