Are white Baptist clergy in Alabama doing today on immigration what their predecessors did in the days of segregation – hiding behind the law to keep from taking a moral stand for a just society?
The Alabama Baptist State Convention has not taken a public stand against the state's anti-immigration law because the body has not adopted a position on the issue, convention official Joe Bob Mizzell said.
Or do they really support the law that is considered the worst anti-immigrant law in the nation?
Joe Bob Mizzell, director of the office of Christian ethics for the Alabama Baptist State Convention (ABSC), claimed that the reason the convention has not taken a public stand against the law is because the body has not adopted a position on the issue.
"I don't have the right to speak for the Baptists because they haven't passed a resolution," Mizzell told the Reporter, the newspaper in Sand Mountain.
One way Southern Baptists stake out positions on issues is by passing resolutions during their annual meetings. While resolutions reflect only the opinion of those at a specific gathering and are considered nonbinding, resolutions have long been used to validate stands.
However, Baptists also have a long history of ignoring resolutions with which they disagree.
At best, Mizzell has offered a flimsy excuse for why Alabama's Southern Baptists were sitting on the sidelines as Alabama's Catholic, Episcopal and United Methodist bishops sued in federal court to overturn a law that is morally flawed and bigoted at its core.
Mizzell's position does beg the question of why the ABSC hasn't adopted a resolution faithful to the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger.
Some 39 times the Old Testament says welcome the stranger. Jesus says in Matthew 25 that those who would be judged as faithful at the great judgment are those who welcomed the stranger. Conversely, those who are unwelcoming are judged unfaithful.
What else is at work here to explain why Alabama's Southern Baptists have sided with bigots?
Using the excuse of not having a resolution is really a poor head fake as evidenced by another statement from Mizzell.
The ABSC official said convention leaders agreed with the law.
"We believed, and still believe, that the bill was an appropriate bill that took place in the legislature," said Mizzell. "We really have a problem in the United States now with people who are here undocumented."
Recall that he said that since no resolution had been adopted that he couldn't speak to the issue. But then he spoke to the issue, saying that he and his colleagues think the bill is appropriate.
Set aside that inconsistency.
Instead, ask what makes the law an appropriate bill. How is it appropriate for underfunded public schools to take on the task of verifying citizenship status of students?
Ask why punishing schoolchildren for their parents' actions makes moral sense.
The Alabama law requires public schools to determine the citizenship status of enrolling students. That is a form of intimidation that targets Hispanics.
It will no doubt result in undocumented students and U.S.-born students, whose parents are undocumented, being denied their right to public education. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that all students have the right to public education.
Despite that right, undocumented parents are unlikely to run the risk of enrolling their children if they are afraid of being arrested and deported – actions that tear apart families.
The Huntsville Times reported that the day after the federal court upheld most of the law that "more than 200 Hispanic students failed to show up for school" in Huntsville alone.
Mobile's Press-Register reported that "many of the 223 Hispanic students at Foley Elementary came to school Thursday [the day after the court's ruling] crying and afraid, said Principal Bill Lawrence."
The paper said that 19 students withdrew and "39 students were absent."
How is this law appropriate?
It is "appropriate" only in the ways segregation laws were "appropriate." Those laws codified racism.
When civil rights advocates challenged those laws, they were accused of being lawbreakers. White clergy, on the other hand, helped keep those unjust laws in place.
Once again, political power and religious power – especially the power of Southern Baptists – have advanced a law rooted in bigotry.
The chief sponsor of the bill that became law is state Sen. Scott Beason (R-Gardendale), a member of the First Baptist Church of Gardendale, one of the most influential churches among white Alabama Baptists.
The bill was signed into law by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, who is a member of the First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, where the executive director of the ABSC was once pastor.
Given Bentley's statement earlier this year that non-Christians were not his brothers and sisters, one can see how easy it is for him to exclude another group of people from the Alabama community – the undocumented (albeit, highly likely that they are Christians).
Given Beason's labeling of African-Americans as "aborigines" and prejudicial perception that undocumented immigrants will destroy Alabama, one can see why he pushed such a draconian anti-immigration bill.
Surely here is a lesson of what happens when church leaders have a flawed moral vision and lack the courage to challenge political leaders.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Visit GospelWithoutBorders.net to learn more about EthicsDaily.com's new documentary on faith and immigration.
"Gospel Without Borders" Trailer from EthicsDaily on Vimeo.