Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent for Roman Catholics and most mainline Protestants. In some of the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church as well as in the Armenian Apostolic Church, Lent started on Monday. It’s a season of repentance, prayer, and self-denial, to prepare the believer for the commemoration of Christ’s suffering and death and for the celebration of his resurrection.
And a group of Evangelical grandees has decided to mark the holy season by prostituting scripture for political ends.
The Evangelical Immigration Table, a lobbying project of Sojourners, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, and others, is intended to promote passage of SB 1, the vehicle for the Schumer-Rubio amnesty bill (when they finish writing it).
The lobbying coalition’s most arresting product is a video featuring various Evangelical figures reading the “I was a stranger” passage from the Gospel of Matthew (25:31–46). The video’s forthright message is that those who do not support amnesty for illegal aliens “will go away to eternal punishment,” “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The message is not metaphorical: It is suggested that opponents of congressional plans for “comprehensive immigration reform” face eternal damnation. Just as the advocates of liberation theology characterized Christ as a Marxist revolutionary, these practitioners of what might be called open-borders theology characterize him as a member of the National Council of La Raza.
Another scriptural passage used by this and similar efforts is Leviticus 19:33–34:
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat him. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
Like the leftist who argues that Matthew 19:24 requires confiscatory taxation (“it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”), the Evangelical amnesty campaign claims these lines from the Hebrew scripture as proof that laws against illegal immigration are unbiblical. But, in the words of Stephen Steinlight, former vice president of the National Conference of Christian and Jews (and now a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies):
One of Scripture’s great expressions of human empathy, the passage from Leviticus is not a press release from God’s Legislative Affairs Office endorsing “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” It says nothing about immigration — for which there is no word in Biblical Hebrew — or amnesty, extended family reunification, bilingualism, birthright citizenship, guest workers, identity theft, ICE raids, eligibility for Obamacare, etc.
Old Testament scholar James Hoffmeier, author of The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, explains that the problem with such uses of scripture “is that they make a simplistic correlation between the ancient Israelite social law and the modern situation as if the Bible was addressing the same problem.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but few members of the Evangelical amnesty campaign are likely to make such a “simplistic correlation” between, say, Leviticus 20:13 and the legal status of homosexuality in the U.S. in the 21st century.
One might wonder why Evangelicals are involved in such a political effort, since they are seen as largely conservative. For some member organizations, the reasons are obvious. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition, for instance, is simply lobbying for its members. Sojourners, a leader in the coalition, is a Soros-funded group led by left-wing activist Jim Wallis, so there’s no surprise that it’s pushing amnesty.
But the more mainstream members, such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, are, I think, experiencing a delayed onset of that divide, between elite and popular opinion, that afflicts all denominations (and other institutions) with regard to immigration. The Roman Catholic hierarchy and the headquarter staffs of mainline Protestant denominations long ago adopted expansionist positions on immigration, contrary to the views of most of the people in the pews.
Evangelical Protestants are only slightly more hawkish on immigration than are Catholics or mainline Protestants, so that alone doesn’t explain why the Evangelical elite are so late in arriving at the amnesty party. Evangelical institutions have steered clear of joining in the open-borders crusade until recently probably because of their democratic character. Compared with Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, Evangelical institutions are more decentralized and more likely to be governed from the bottom up. Up to now, that worked to keep Evangelical elites more faithful to the immigration views held by church members outside leadership roles. But lately Evangelical elites have drifted from the rank and file over the immigration issue. The rift between the two sides has begun to mirror that found in business and labor and among ethnic minorities.
Also influencing Evangelical leaders to support amnesty for illegal aliens is civil-rights-movement envy. The phenomenon of later generations’ trying to recreate a golden age is common enough in other contexts; many in Occupy Wall Street, for instance, lent the impression that they felt they missed out on the Sixties and the chance to protest against the war and that lying son of a bitch Johnson. Likewise, every other journalist is a wannabe Woodward-and-Bernstein, seeing another Watergate behind every zoning-commission meeting.
The moral clarity of the civil-rights movement exerts the same kind of pull on much of the clergy. Those too young to have faced down water cannons in Alabama are always on the lookout for another chance to show that they are not as other men are. Some even see pushing for amnesty as a way of expiating past sins. Bill Hamel, the president of the Evangelical Free Church of America, told ABC News: “I missed the civil-rights movement, I watched and did nothing and for decades I have regretted those days. I’m committed not to sit this one out.”
The theatrical self-righteousness of the Evangelical amnesty campaign makes one yearn for the honesty and sincerity of Chamber of Commerce immigration lobbyists. This is a policy issue that has many costs and benefits, winners and losers. Sifting through these competing interests, one must prioritize with an eye for the common good. To imply that those who arrive at conclusions different from yours are condemned to hell has no place in democratic discourse.
To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the application of Christian principles to immigration policy must come from Christian lawmakers and Christian policy analysts, not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write immigration law in their spare time.
— Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.