Only after Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Southern Baptist, signed into law the nation's harshest anti-immigration bill did the state's goodwill faith leaders voice their public opposition to the law.
Participants in a Palm Sunday peace march in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. The sign says, "No human being is illegal." (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)
One wonders what is morally wrong with Alabama's leaders of faith – not the right-wing demagogues who thump the Bible and play the fear card, but the goodwill faith leaders who see the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger.
Take a look at what happened.
Bentley signed on June 9 a morally repugnant bill into law. Prior to that date, the state's Christian denominations sat on the sidelines as the bill moved through the legislature, as first reported by EthicsDaily.com.
"Opposition to the bill within the white Alabama Baptist community was not visible, nor was evidence available that other Christian denominations opposed the legislation," reported EthicsDaily.com. "Multiple sources told EthicsDaily.com that Christian denominational leaders voiced publicly no disagreement with the bill."
After Bentley signed the bill, Julian Gordy, bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wrote Alabama's governor a letter of deep concern.
R. G. Lyons, pastor of Community Church Without Walls, a United Methodist Church, also took an initiative to challenge the law.
He told EthicsDaily.com that he drafted an open letter to Bentley signed by a host of Methodist ministers characterizing House Bill 56 as "an unjust law."
Lyons' initiative came after he spoke with pastors of Hispanic congregations and Matt Lacey at Woodlawn United Methodist Church.
"[W]e believe that this law is not only impractical, but it also contradicts the essential tenets of the Christian faith," read the letter. "HB 56 would force many of our churches and many people in our churches to become lawbreakers, because we believe that God has called us to be a church in ministry to ALL people. United Methodists across the state welcome people regardless of immigration or citizenship status. Many of our fastest growing churches are Spanish-speaking, and we do not check people's immigration status at the door."
The letter concluded: "We call on the governor to call a special legislative session to review this bill, and we call on the legislature to repeal HB56."
Alabama's two Methodist bishops spoke publicly against the law after Lyons' initiative.
"It is a profoundly disappointing decision and a sad moment for our state," said Episcopal Bishop Henry Parsley in a statement almost a week after the bill was signed.
He noted that the law "will make it impossible to love and be hospitable to our neighbors as we ought to be."
Ronnie Brewer, coordinator of Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, wrote that "the law before our state regarding immigration seems to be out of character with what I believe best for us... I have expressed my opposition to the bill through petition and email. I would encourage those of you opposed to do the same."
Having attended a screening of EthicsDaily.com's forthcoming immigration documentary at the annual Baptist Center for Ethics luncheon in Tampa, Fla., Brewer added, "I feel it [the documentary] provides an excellent conversation starter for groups within the church."
More than two weeks after Bentley signed the bill into law, Greater Birmingham Ministries held a candlelight protest in downtown Birmingham attended by some 2,500 people.
Goodwill Alabama faith leaders have offered a substantive moral critique of a bad law. Their robust response deserves acknowledgment and gratitude.
However, this story illustrates a fundamental flaw in the moral community – the defective tradition of being reactive rather than proactive.
The faith community has a bad habit of speaking out against a bill after it has become law. Faith leaders have a dreadful trend of taking a moral position when the dust is settled.
Here's another example of not speaking in the fullness of time.
Last week, a Southern Baptist Convention leader gave a qualified letter of support to a U.S. Senate committee for the DREAM Act – a path to citizenship for undocumented students to go to college or to join the military. That was a good step.
Too bad he didn't express support for the DREAM Act in December 2010 when 60 votes were needed in the Senate to pass the DREAM Act bill in a politically charged moment.
Given the recent passage of harsh anti-immigration laws in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina and the likelihood of the introduction of punitive bills next year in Florida, Indiana and Tennessee, now is the time to build moral capital for a good society on the immigration front.
Given the high possibility for loud extremism in the upcoming 2012 political races, now is the time.
We can proactively build moral capital or we can be reactive – again – when things heat up and extremists threaten to prevail. We can break the defective tradition of being reactive. We can sever the dreadful trend of taking a stand when the coast is clear and the cost is low.
What can goodwill faith leaders do?
One step is to schedule public screenings of our forthcoming documentary on immigration. Include a panel discussion afterward.
Screenings are already scheduled for Atlanta, Denver, Greensboro, N.C., Little Rock, Ark., and Georgetown, Ky. Screenings are under consideration in Oklahoma City, Raleigh, N.C., and Richmond, Va.
When we showed the documentary in Tampa to some 400 attendees, one could have heard a pin drop on carpet. When we screened the documentary at the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C., last week, denominational agency officials and faith-based leaders watched intently.
We think that a documentary funded by the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas and produced by EthicsDaily.com that features prominently a Catholic bishop is one that covers a lot of Christian real estate. It will connect to goodwill Christians in your community.
Let's bring the goodwill Christian community together through the vehicle of a 31-minute documentary to address the civil rights issue of the 21st century. It's one proactive initiative that we can take together.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Click here to view trailers for the documentary.
Click here for more general information.