The Borderline Spectator

When Church Impedes on State

The United Methodist Church is railing against Alabama's new immigration law.

By 7.29.11

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Religious groups increasingly advocate liberalized immigration policies for the U.S. -- ones that pursue a more compassionate alien legalization process. The National Council of Churches, the Episcopal Church bishops, and United Methodist agencies want virtually open borders. The National Association of Evangelicals has endorsed legalization. Most recently, the Southern Baptist Convention endorsed legalization while also calling for border enforcement.

This all comes at a bad time for God-fearing Alabama. The state -- with its 120,000 illegal immigrants -- has followed Arizona with a strict new policy, which Alabama's governor boasts is the "strongest immigration bill in the country." A local United Methodist bishop, meanwhile, contends that it's the "meanest immigrant legislation bill in the nation."

Presbyterian Church (USA) clergy Kay Campbell, an editor and reporter for the Birmingham News, recently reported for the liberal website Red Letter Christians about a religious demonstration against Alabama's law. Once an English teacher at a Miskito Indian village to victims of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, Campbell wrote of her former students: "I wondered if they'd grown up to fight with the Sandinistas that would attempt to return democratic rule to their land. I wondered if they'd grown up to sneak into America (there being no legal line for penniless, unskilled laborers) so that they could send money back to their little sisters living in the traditional one-room cabins still built on stilts despite the distance from their traditional fishing grounds."

Of course, these wonderful Sandinistas who tried to "return democratic rule to their land" were notorious for their persecution of the Miskito Indians, not to mention their overall Marxist-Leninist attempts to impose a Soviet-backed police state in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Campbell wondered if illegal immigrants should be "any less able to cross borders for opportunities than corporations," and in so doing proved that reporters even in Birmingham can be left-wingers.

Some of Alabama's United Methodist clergy, in conformity with denominational policy, have prominently denounced the new law. "The purpose feels like intimidation and meanness," Birmingham-based Bishop Will Willimon told the local newspaper, citing "frustration," "disappointment [and] embarrassment." He complained: "One of the most nefarious aspects of this law is it appears to criminalize Alabamians in the act of being helpful and compassionate," citing the law's prohibition against knowingly giving a ride to illegal immigrants. "One thing our church is hoping to show our Spanish-speaking friends is that this law is not in our spirit," the Bishop said. "We want the world to know that this does not represent the best of Alabama."

It's doubtful that Alabama state troopers will be swooping down on church volunteers feeding or giving doctor-rides to illegal immigrants. But the United Methodist Church, like most of the Religious Left, officially rejects any immigration restrictions. Any border enforcement is commonly derided as "militarization." And illegal immigrants are routinely likened to the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt, or Abraham searching for the Promised Land.

Bishop Willimon and other Methodist clergy have sent an open letter to Alabama's governor denouncing the immigration law. Citing Martin Luther King, they declared that Christians have a "moral duty to obey just laws, [and] they also have a moral duty to disobey unjust ones."

They admitted the law's supporters are "well-meaning individuals" with "valid concerns" about "unemployment in this fragile economy" and state expenses for health care, police, fire protection, and education. But the Methodist clergy insisted the law "contradicts the essential tenets of the Christian faith." They cited Old Testament sojourners, the Good Samaritan, and St. Paul's rejection of distinctions among Christians. "We believe that God's call for the United Methodist church is to be a church for ALL people, to be in ministry to ALL people," they declared.

The government's vocation is very different from the church's, as fuzzy-thinking religious critics often forget. St. Paul affirmed the state's police and military responsibilities to protect its people. Bishop Willimon, formerly the dean at Duke University's prestigious chapel, is a pacifist neo-Anabaptist who rejects traditional Christian understanding of the Apostle's teaching.

Insisting that the state must behave like the church in offering unlimited hospitality to all people is untenable, of course. It also contradicts traditional Christian understanding of the state's divinely ordained duties. Alabama's laws may or may not have flaws, but its religious critics don't seem to offer serious arguments against it.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.