The Nation's Pulse

Evangelicals and Immigration

The National Association of Evangelicals moves in the direction of the National Council of Churches.

By 10.21.09

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The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has adopted a new pro–liberalized immigration stance that is creating ripples among its conservative membership. Although NAE had touted its board's supposedly unanimous backing, at least one prominent NAE member, the Salvation Army, has apparently already disavowed it.

Professing to represent 30 million U.S. evangelicals, NAE has just over 40 member denominations, the largest of which appears to be the nearly 3 million member Assemblies of God.

Essentially the NAE has endorsed the failed Comprehensive Immigration Act (CIR) of 2007, calling for a path to citizenship for illegals that critics call amnesty, and urging "a realistic program to respond to labor needs." Here's the resolution. NAE's news release unequivocally announced, "NAE Approves Resolution Supporting Comprehensive Immigration Reform."

Specifically, NAE urged establishing "a sound, equitable process toward earned legal status for currently undocumented immigrants, who desire to embrace the responsibilities and privileges that accompany citizenship." NAE's president, Minnesota megachurch pastor Leith Anderson, unveiled NAE's new advocacy earlier this month to the U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship. "We believe that undocumented immigrants who have otherwise been law abiding members of our communities should be offered the opportunity to pay any taxes or penalties owed, and over time earn the right to become U.S. citizens and permanent residents," Anderson testified. "The process of redemption and restitution is core to Christian beliefs, as we were all once lost and redeemed through love of Jesus Christ."

Subcommittee chair Chuck Schumer, Democrat U.S. Senator from New York, excitedly embraced NAE's position as a tacit endorsement for his own effort to revive CIR. "Evangelicals' community support for immigration reform is a moral imperative for all people of faith," Schumer exclaimed. Lest anyone miss the point, the New York Democrat read aloud from supportive letters from other prominent evangelicals. "The urgency for immigration reform cannot be overstated because it is so overdue," Schumer quoted Florida megachurch pastor and NAE official Joel Hunter as saying. Suburban Chicago megachurch pastor Bill Hybels was also approvingly quoted: "We believe that most Americans would be moved to pass comprehensive immigration reform if they could see the faces of immigration as we have seen them." (Here's my colleague Jeff Walton's report about the testimony.)

NAE President Anderson was, in a very Minnesota way, largely understated in his testimony: "Why is immigration policy important to evangelicals?" he asked. "Certainly because we believe what the Bible teaches about treatment of 'aliens in the land.' It is also because so many Hispanic, African and Asian immigrants are evangelical Christians who are in our denominations and churches by the millions. They are us."

National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference chief the Rev. Sam Rodriguez, a prominent NAE official, also testified to Schumer's committee. When the New York Democrat asked him whether pro-CIR pastors face negative pressure from their congregations, Rodriguez replied: "There's a disconnect between the pulpit and the pews, particularly in non-ethnic congregations." The pastor added: "That's why today's resolution by the National Association of Evangelicals is historic; this is no longer a Latino thing or a Hispanic church issue, now it's the collective evangelical community saying 'we're in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.'"

Still, Anderson proclaimed that NAE's board had voted with "no dissent" for the pro-CIR stance. Unmentioned was that evidently some NAE board members had abstained, including the Salvation Army. "Please know that Salvation Army leadership chose to abstain from signing the final resolution on immigration reform," reported an Army spokesman. "While the [NAE] news releases did not report this specifically, the fact remains that any resolution produced by the National Association of Evangelicals does not automatically become the official policy of a member organization (ie: The Salvation Army) unless they choose to make it so. In this case, The Salvation Army chose not to adopt the resolution nor will it become our stance on immigration reform. In actuality, The Salvation Army has never established any official position on this topic and has chosen to remain politically neutral on the matter."

Even more definitely, the small Churches of Christ in Christian Union (CCCU) also disavowed the NAE immigration stance. We do "not support the NAE resolution on illegal immigration," its General Superintendent declared. "We are a member of NAE, but our opinion on the resolution was never requested. The Churches of Christ in Christian Union support legal, regulated, and fair immigration." 

The NAE website shows only 11 of NAE's over 40 member denominations endorsing the immigration stance. And only 11 individuals are signers, though reportedly 75 NAE board members voted for it.

Another prominent NAE member, the 340,00 member Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), issued a statement, more defensively, but also asserting that NAE does not speak for member churches. "The NAE Immigration Resolution of 2009 has not become the PCA position on immigration," insisted PCA Stated Clerk Roy Taylor, who also chairs the NAE's board. But he still affirmed his own support for it: "The NAE Immigration Resolution of 2009, in my view, is a biblically-based, theologically reflective, carefully balanced, concise document."

In fact, NAE's resolution admits "the Bible does not offer a blueprint for modern legislation." So on what precisely does NAE base its political counsel? It's not clear. As my colleague Alan Wisdom points out, the NAE stance somewhat dismissively refers to "rule of law" and implies potential skeptics of its immigration position are "simplistic." It fails seriously to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, and similarly fails to admit the different responsibilities of the state versus the church. NAE also does not distinguish refugees fleeing persecution from other immigrants seeking economic advance.

Coming in the wake of NAE activism on Global Warming and U.S. terror interrogation techniques ("torture"), NAE is now gearing up next to call for nuclear disarmament. NAE's official stances for traditional marriage and sanctity of life seem to be taking a back seat. So how is NAE now substantively distinct from the old, left-leaning National Council of Churches (NCC) for which it was partly founded as a conservative alternative (at least for the NCC's predecessor) more than 60 years ago? 

The NCC became mostly irrelevant when its Mainline Protestant voices stopped speaking for its churches and started speaking "prophetically" to them. Similarly, the NCC moved beyond issues of Christian consensus to adopt more morally ambiguous, and ostensibly more fashionable, political causes du jour. This sad history should be familiar to evangelicals. But the NAE seems determined to repeat what has already been tried and failed.

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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.