Nashville Faith Leaders Oppose English-only Campaign, SBC Leaders Are Silent


Many of Nashville’s faith leaders are expressing opposition to an effort to make English the only language in which the city government can offer services, considering “it to be unjust, inhospitable, and detrimental to the wellbeing” of the community. Missing in moral action is the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention and its state affiliate, the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

The growing list of faith leaders opposing the effort includes an abundance of United Methodist and Presbyterian ministers, a number of Disciples of Christ and Episcopal clergy, and even a few Church of Christ leaders. Several rabbis have signed the online petition that calls voters to reject the amendment to the city’s charter. Catholic Charities and the Islamic Center of Nashville have also added their names to the campaign against the English-only referendum.

Two Baptist leaders—Forest Harris, president of American Baptist College, and Robert Fisher, president of Belmont University—have joined other area college and university presidents in a statement opposing the amendment.

These education leaders see the English-only initiative as a shotgun approach with “numerous unintended consequences that are largely unrelated to the problems associated with the presence of undocumented people.”

Their statement says: “The ‘English-only’ amendment will not force illegal immigrants to leave, nor will it stop the influx of additional undocumented immigrants from coming to Nashville. Instead, it will add unnecessary layers to the natural barriers, which already exist to create challenges for immigrant families who desire to become healthy, productive and contributing citizens of the nation and the Nashville community.”

Richard Wills, bishop for the United Methodist Church in the Nashville area, sent a pastoral letter to his congregations, urging them to remember that many United Methodist churches “have been enriched by extending hospitality ... to refugees, immigrants and immigrants in transition from around the world.”

Citing Leviticus 19:33-34, Wills wrote: “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt. I am God, your God.”

With that biblical foundation, Wills noted: “English is already the official language. Let us consider how we can best extend the Good News of Jesus Christ to ALL people, provide a welcoming, hospitable community for God’s people from around the world in our midst.”

Welcoming strangers is exactly the opposite of what is wanted by some supporters of the English-only movement.

President of Nashville English Only and former chair of the Davidson County Republican Party, Jon Crisp, said the initiative would “de-magnetize Nashville.”

Crisp and others apparently think their success would make Nashville an unattractive “harbor” for immigrants. It would discourage strangers—the language used in the King James Version of the Bible for foreigners—from moving to Nashville.

Unlike Crisp, the Nashville English First Web site uses less polarizing language, claiming that the amendment is really in the best interest of the immigrants. Government services in other languages keep immigrants from learning English, the site asserts.

“That is wrong," states the Web site. "Most immigrants understand that learning English is essential to their successful pursuit of the American dream. But, just like earlier immigrants they have a responsibility to learn our nation’s language and assimilate. Removing incentives for them to learn English is bad public policy. By expecting immigrants to learn English we encourage them to improve their skills and earning power, pursue the American dream and become fully self-sufficient participants in our democracy.”

While such language may sound less unwelcoming than the language of “demagnetizing,” such concern for the welfare of immigrants is dubious.

With early voting on the amendment beginning Jan. 2 and the special ballot election on Jan. 22, 2009, Nashville is deciding about its moral character.

Will the buckle of the Bible Belt be faithful to the biblical vision that says the moral quality of the community is determined by its treatment of strangers, or will the city of churches vote to make life more difficult for the poor and powerless?

The moral choice is as clear as the moral silence of some faith leaders.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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Tags: Beneath the Skin, Hispanics, Immigration, Latinos, Neighbor, Robert Parham, SBC


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