Evangelicals find “the heart of God” on immigration

American Evangelicals are gradually joining the push for immigration reform and the impetus behind this shift in emphasis is most apparent in Focus on the Family, a para-church organization founded by the controversial James Dobson. But Dr. Dobson has yielded leadership of Focus on the Family to the irenic Jim Daly, and the difference in approach is beginning to show.

James Dobson started out as a Christian psychologist with a mission to teach Christian parents how to discipline their children. As anyone who has ever spent low-quality time with undisciplined children knows, Dobson was scratching where a lot of families were feeling the itch. Originally, Dobson stayed on message and his avuncular and often humorous presentations were warmly received in Christian churches across North America. As a young pastor, I used his films on Sunday evenings. Parents felt overwhelmed by the challenges of parenting and Dobson seemed to have the answers.

James Dobson grew up with the conservative brand of California evangelicalism that coalesced behind the politics of Ronald Reagan and the UCLA-trained psychologist felt a natural affinity for hard-right politics. Initially, he kept his ideological impulses to himself, but with each passing year his public utterances became more strident and uncompromising. He wasn’t just fighting for the Christian family; he was fighting against the demon of liberalism in all its manifestations.

It is hard to imagine James Dobson signing the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform. He wouldn’t necessarily have opposed the modest proposals expressed in the document, but the Pied Piper of parental discipline had become too politicized by 2012 to embrace any statement that didn’t oppose the liberal agenda in explicit terms. Dobson had become the quintessential culture warrior.

And let’s face it, until recently immigration reform has been a progressive issue. It wasn’t something that white progressives talked about much, of course. So long as moderate-to-liberal politicians could position themselves to the left of the Republican establishment, Latinos showed their appreciation at the polls. Real reform was avoided. Until recently, the immigration policies of the Obama administration were considerably to the right of George W. Bush’s pre 9-11 position.

We shouldn’t read too much into the fact that leading evangelical leaders are supporting incremental immigration reform. The leadership of mainline Protestant denominations like the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopal Church has frequently been far more progressive on moral issues than the folks in the pews, and we may be witnessing a similar pastor-flock divide evolving in the evangelical community. Moreover, most hard right evangelical groups like the Family Research Council or the American Family Association have refused to support the Evangelical Statement on Immigration Reform.

Nonetheless, the change of tone and emphasis reflected in the evangelical statement of principles on immigration is significant and encouraging. Friends of Justice has been using the evangelical-inspired “I Was A Stranger Challenge” because it reflects solid biblical teaching about love for the immigrant and the resident alien. In his June 2012 interview with Christianity Today, Focus on the Family president Jim Daly put it like this:

I think we’re at a fork in the road in the culture now where God’s heart for humanity needs to show through us. With the core sense of the culture—this 24/7 news cycle and the polarization—we cannot take the bait as the Christian community. We’ve got to be more mindful of God’s character and how he expresses himself through us.

Can I get an “amen”?

Alan Bean

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About the Author
Alan is executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that creates a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment. Friends of Justice is committed to building a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. Dr. Bean lectures frequently at universities, legal conferences, churches and community organizations on the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy and criminal justice reform. He has been quoted extensively in leading publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today, La Monde and The Chicago Tribune and CNN and his work with Friends of Justice been featured in the religious media outlets such as EthicsDaily.com and the Associated Baptist Press. Dr. Bean is the author of "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas," an insider account of the events surrounding the Tulia drug sting. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Nancy, a special education counselor and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

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  • Emma Kaeding

    No you cannot get an amen.  I find your comments lacking in Christian charity and ill-motivated.  You can make your points in favor of what you believe without trashing those who refuse to sign on to your beliefs and you can argue against other’s views without trying to demonize another individual or group of individuals.  Try arguing the issues, not the person.  It is a good thing to do.

  • Noah172

    I don’t like politics in the church — not left-wing, not right-wing, not any wing. Church leaders should not be endorsing or opposing specific public policy positions, nor candidates, factions, or parties. One can preach gospel principles — e.g., helping the poor — without marrying the gospel to a political platform, which is antithetical to the whole of Christ’s earthly ministry. Too much politics hasn’t helped the NAE in the past: Ted Haggard, lest we forget, was a political player, with frequent conference calls with President Bush (a supporter of so-called “comprehensive immigration reform”).
    Why would it be a good thing (as the author seems to think that it is) for evangelical leaders (some self-appointed) to push a political agenda against the objections of a large portion (likely a majority) of their flocks? The Protestant tradition — the Baptists especially, I would think — is by nature anti-authoritarian.
    Moreover, I don’t see what is so “progressive” about supporting mass immigration policies that depress the wages of American workers (especially at the lower end of the wage scale), inflict crime on the American people (everything from identity theft to drunk-driving to drug- and human-trafficking to murder), increase traffic congestion and environmental degradation, drive up the cost of housing (immigration was a big factor in the housing bubble and burst), and make it more difficult for previous immigrants to assimilate into the American mainstream?