Immigration has always been a polarizing political topic, but these days the rhetorical intensity surrounding immigrants has reached a new level. This reality compels church leaders to courageously apply the truth of Scripture to this topic, or else be tarred by association and sloppy reporting.
Donald Trump began his campaign by describing Mexican immigrants as“rapists” and “bringing crime.” Last week, he joined fellow presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Scott Walker in calling for further limits tolegal immigration, ostensibly to protect the interests of American workers. He called for an end to the practice of birthright citizenship—enshrined in the Fourteen amendment, though Mr. Trump insists that “some very, very good lawyers” disagree with the plain wording and longstanding Supreme Court interpretation of that post-Civil War amendment—and within days nearly half of his fellow GOP candidates echoed his call. Not to be outdone, Ben Carson also suggested the use of military drone strikes along the U.S.-Mexico border.
It’s not just candidates, either: an influential radio host in Iowa suggested last week that the solution to illegal immigration is to make those who do not self-deport the enslaved property of the state. “What’s wrong with slavery?” he asks, apparently not kidding. At a candidate forum in South Carolina, a woman compared immigrants to “rats” and “roaches” and gained applause.In Boston, two men urinated on and assaulted a homeless Hispanic man, citing Donald Trump as their inspiration; Mr. Trump’s response was to say that the incident was “a shame” but that the “people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”
Most evangelical leaders I know, including the most politically conservative, are nauseated by this sort of rhetoric and behavior. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, among others, have been forceful in condemning this trend.
Indeed, most evangelical Christians disagree with such policy proposals as well: a recent LifeWay Research poll found that the majority of evangelicals support immigration reforms that include an earned pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. “Trump doesn’t speak for me,” a pastor told me yesterday, and I expect a significant majority of fellow American evangelicals would agree.
Here’s the problem: we say that amongst ourselves, but only a brave few have said so publicly, or even to their congregations. LifeWay Research finds that just one in five white evangelicals say they have ever heard immigration discussed at their local church in a way that challenged them to reach out to immigrants within their community.
I suspect that the wariness to discuss immigration from the pulpit (or in any church-sanctioned venue) is driven by an understandable concern not to politicize the local church. The Bible, certainly, does not provide an explicit prescription for U.S. immigration policy.
But the Bible does talk about immigrants—a lot. The Hebrew word for an immigrant, ger, appears 92 times in the Old Testament. Nearly every time you read about God’s concern for the orphan and the widow, the immigrant (or the alien, foreigner, sojourner, or stranger, depending upon your English translation) will be there as well, and we cannot be faithful to the authority of Scripture without applying that to our contemporary reality.
Though very few evangelicals report ever hearing a sermon on God’s heart for immigrants, about seven in ten say they would value hearing such a perspective. I suspect that a significant reason that so few pastors have ever addressed this topic is that they are nervous about the response of those other three in ten, the often-vocal minority who have fiery opinions about immigration issues.
If we fail to teach the Bible’s teachings on this (or any) controversial topic, though, we abandon to the media those whose discipleship God has entrusted to us. At present, by our own admission, more evangelicals say that their views on immigration are informed by the media than by the Bible, their local church, and national Christian leaders combined.
The risk here is significant: if pastors do not speak up, articulating a nuanced biblical response to the arrival of immigrants, those outside the walls of our churches hear a different message, heralded by headlines: “Donald Trump Winning Evangelicals.”
Deep in the data of a few different polls, Mr. Trump is currently the preferred candidate of a plurality (about 20 percent) of white, Republican-leaning evangelical voters (not necessarily all evangelicals), and his support declines to just 11 percent of that subgroup who actually attend church on regular basis. Still, the headline is enough to associate evangelical Christianity with Mr. Trump—and with his harsh anti-immigrant bombast, which is a powerful hindrance to effective evangelism.
Imagine that you are a twenty-something Mexican-American college student, born in this country to parents who entered the United States unlawfully in search of work opportunities. They worked tirelessly to support you, and pushed you to pursue education, as a chance to escape the difficulties of their own economic circumstances. Now, in college, though you did not grow up with much exposure to any religious tradition, you are realizing that there must be more to life than just living for yourself: you’re a spiritual seeker. But after what you’ve read about evangelical Christians—they’re the people cheering on Trump, the guy who calls you an “anchor baby” and suggests your parents are criminals, even “rapists”—you’re not likely to accept a friend’s invitation to join him at the campus’s evangelical student ministry or a local evangelical church.
Fairly or not (and I think mostly unfairly), the reputation of evangelical Christianity is tethered in the minds of many not-yet-believers to anti-immigrant sentiment, which is a stench that repels many immigrants and their families, to say nothing of the substantial majority of native-born U.S. citizens for whom these comments are repulsive. If we are not willing to forcefully speak up for the dignifying, welcoming view of immigrants found in the Bible, and to equip our congregations to do the same, we allow ourselves to be defined by misleading external media reports.
That evangelical Christianity, as it declines among white Americans, isflourishing in Hispanic and other recent immigrant communities despite this reputation is a remarkable testimony both to the persistence of gospel-driven Latino leaders and to the marvelous grace of God—but the Kingdom potential is greater than what is currently being realized so long as American evangelicalism as a whole is linked by media reports to anti-immigrant politicians, without comment from most local pastors.
I am not suggesting you should tell your congregation for whom to vote or notto vote. But you should tell them that immigrants are made in the image of God and have inherent dignity and incredible potential (Gen. 1:27). That God loves immigrants, and that “that means you must also love immigrants” (Deut. 10:18-19, CEB).
That many of the heroes of our faith—Abraham, Jacob, Ruth, David, Jesus himself, to mention just a few—were themselves immigrants, driven from their homelands by the same factors of hunger, poverty, and persecution that compel migration today.
That we are commanded repeatedly to “practice hospitality” (Rom 12:13) which literally, in the Greek of the New Testament, means to love strangers (not just to have your friends over for dinner), and that by doing so we just might welcome an angel (Heb. 13:2).
And, perhaps most important, that we have an opportunity to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19) within our own communities, and that we who have received God’s grace dare not deny others the opportunity to embrace a relationship with Jesus merely because they were born elsewhere, entered the country unlawfully, or overstayed a visa.
Not all Christians will agree on immigration policy questions. For many reasons, both theological and practical, I pray that Congress will ultimately pass legislation consistent with the principles laid out by the Evangelical Immigration Table, balancing kindness and compassion with respect for the rule of law. Beyond policy, though, we cannot afford to leave the discipleship of our congregations and our reputation beyond the church to media reports. We must boldly proclaim the truth that God loves and wants to be in relationship with each immigrant, just as he does with the rest of us.
And that’s good news.