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Southern Baptists Push Immigration Reform

On Sept. 16, Latino church groups demonstrated in front of the Georgia state Capitol against the failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and against the provisions of Georgia’s Senate Bill 529.

Demonstrations of this sort have taken place around the country, and churches have begun to work together to provide sanctuary for the undocumented. Moral leadership of churches is needed on this issue, and more churches must get involved. In particular, support of conservative evangelical churches such as the Southern Baptists could be the tipping point toward compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform.

Consider that President Bush, U.S. Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), most Democratic presidential candidates or any of the leading supporters of the failed immigration reform bill would likely be quite comfortable with the following statement. Immigration reform would:

–Ensure the federal government provides for U.S. security by controlling and securing our borders.

–Enforce immigration laws, including oversight of the hiring practices of private employers.

–Deal judiciously and “realistically” with those in the country illegally.

–Allow the people of God to act “redemptively,” reaching out to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of all immigrants as they work toward an earned pathway of “legal status and/or citizenship.”

But the source of the statement is somewhat surprising and quite significant: the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention. Richard Land, president of the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has repeatedly called for comprehensive immigration reform, meaning that in addition to more secure borders, a path to citizenship for the undocumented must be made available.

In March, Land went so far as to stand on stage with other religious leaders and Ted Kennedy in support of comprehensive reform. In an article entitled “Immigration Reform and Southern Baptists,” Land defended comprehensive reform quite eloquently.

Reaching out to people as unwanted as undocumented aliens is absolutely Christian. Christ famously admonishes us to welcome the stranger in the New Testament, and according to one Bible scholar we are admonished to care for the alien no less than 103 times in the Old Testament.

Leviticus 19:33-34 reads: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.”

Unfortunately and surprisingly, Land did not support the immigration bill that came before the Senate in June. For all intents and purposes, Land and the Baptists sat out the debate.

Now, it may be that there was some particular aspect of a long and much amended bill that Land found objectionable. If this is the case, Land should have identified the bill’s shortcomings. The bill’s authors were amenable to reasonable amendments and desperately in need of support especially from conservative political forces such as the Baptists. Land would have likely gotten a fair hearing for his concerns.

The other more troubling reason for not supporting the bill is suggested by Land’s postmortem of the failed Senate bill. He said that Congress had failed to craft a bill that would get a consensus behind it. This is highly problematic for two reasons.

First, it underestimates the crucial role Baptists could play in forging such a consensus. Second, it seems to imply that Christians are not expected to take unpopular stands.

This, with respect to Land and the Baptists, is nonsense. From time to time leaders, especially religious leaders, must take unpopular stands on moral issues. Over the years, the Baptists, perhaps our leading evangelical denomination, have been quite willing to take stands, consistently demanding that the church live according to biblical values and not those of the world. They have taken a leading role in groups such as the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family, which try to shine a biblical light on today’s society.

Baptists have defiantly refused to be influenced in their stands by the direction the cultural or political wind is blowing. Instead, they have sought to be what Christian political activist Jim Wallis says prophetic Christians must be: wind-changers.

Recently, Baptists have begun to take up new causes such as environmentalism, African debt relief, AIDS ministry, and Hurricane Katrina Relief. A recent USA Today article cites statistics showing that no denomination has sent more volunteers to Katrina-affected areas than the Southern Baptists. One Katrina volunteer described her role as being “the hands and feet of Christ.”

It is undeniable that Baptists are committed people who do good works and take the biblical injunction to love their neighbor literally. They form the backbone of many, perhaps even most, Southern communities. They coach Little League, visit shut-ins, and pray for the sick.

On the immigration issue, they have an opportunity to extend the open arms of Christ to souls who are more unwanted in the United States than any group in quite some time. Baptists do not have the luxury of some worldly rationalization for not helping the needy. The Bible says what it says.

Baptists claim to believe it, so that must settle it. Now is the time for them to act. They could truly be the “tipping point” that comprehensive immigration reform needs. They could change the direction of the political wind.

It is time for Baptists to take a long, hard look in the mirror and do what they have always done: act in good faith.

Sean McKenzie, a Methodist, teaches high school in Calhoun, Ga. This column appeared Sept. 25 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is used here with the author’s permission.