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Opinion

March 19, 2013

Strangers and evangelicals: Forging a path for America's immigrants

Forging a path for America's immigrants

It’s an old story, the immigrant story. A biblical one, in fact. Consider Abraham, Moses, even Joseph and Mary, all of whom spent a good part of their lives displaced from their home countries, immigrants, if you will, in search of a promise fulfilled or a promised land.

Why, then, have those who today identify with the Bible’s narrative, those who call themselves “evangelical Christians,” found the topic of immigration in the U.S. such an explosive one?

Until recently, I think the problem in part has been one of leadership. Pastors of largely white evangelical churches have either avoided the issue because of its political hot buttons, or hadn’t explored all of the theological or demographic implications of what it might mean to “welcome the stranger.”

But with congressional discussions of comprehensive immigration reform making daily headlines, key leaders within the evangelical community have begun to shift their stance. And in recent years, they’ve been instrumental in the support of versions of reform that attempt to balance moral imperatives of justice and mercy. They have been involved at the political level, issuing formal policy statements and lobbying, as well as at the congregational level, educating and mobilizing faith communities.

Changing demographics are part of the story, but not enough to explain the gradual, principled shift of evangelical leadership taking place over the last decade. The trend toward support of reform has come about for a variety of reasons, including:

Many congregations have grown more multiethnic;

Agendas have broadened to include more than the traditional “two” evangelical issues (life and marriage);

New Christian leaders (including Hispanic evangelicals) have assumed key positions in American evangelicalism, resulting in evangelical social and political engagement becoming more diverse.

In recent years, evangelical leadership on immigration has become so extensive that the Obama administration now considers top evangelical leaders a “go to” religious group on the question of reform. When President Obama pushed for more discussion of immigration two years ago, he asked for support and input from what one reporter called his “evangelical cabinet on immigration reform.” Two weeks ago, evangelicals were a key part of a team of faith leaders with whom Obama met to review his newly prioritized efforts on immigration.

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