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Pastors Are Ceding the Pulpit on Immigration
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Pastors Are Ceding the Pulpit on Immigration

The stakes are too high for them to stay silent.

Migrants participate in church services at a shelter near U.S.-Mexico border area. (Photo by Carlos A. Moreno/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Immigration is certainly a biblical issue: Immigrants are often mentioned alongside orphans and widows in the Old Testament as uniquely vulnerable people whom God loves and commands his people to love. And from Abraham to Moses to Jesus—who was carried across a border into Egypt as a child refugee at the end of what we think of as the Christmas story—many of the protagonists of the Bible were themselves immigrants. But for many Evangelicals, immigration is first and foremost a political issue. 

That conflict has left many pastors afraid to speak out on immigration and risk inviting controversy into their sermons. But the stakes are too high for them to stay silent. 

In churches where Republican congregants may outnumber Democrats 3-to-1, it’s understandable that pastors feel addressing the topic is likely to generate angry emails, encourage congregants to withhold tithes, or engage in vitriolic social media commentary. 

It’s no surprise, then, that only 3 out of 10 U.S. Evangelicals say they have ever heard a message from their church encouraging them to reach out to immigrants. Fuller Theological Seminary’s Alexia Salvatierra, who has been working with Evangelical churches to address immigration issues for decades, once told me that many pastors came to her “like Nicodemus at night” to discreetly discuss immigration, fearful of backlash from their congregants. 

Some pastors worry that encouraging a pro-immigrant worldview could lead to policies that actually threaten public safety or harm the U.S. economy, despite strong evidence that immigrants actually commit crimes at significantly lower rates than U.S. citizens and contrary to the broad consensus of economists that immigration is a net benefit to the U.S. economy. Even if they do not personally share those concerns, the presumption that many in their congregation do fuels many pastors’ reluctance to discuss the topic from a biblical perspective. That lack of discipleship creates a vicious cycle: Just 20 percent of Evangelicals say the Bible is the primary influence on their views on issues of immigration—significantly fewer than cite “the media” as their main influence.

However, a new study from the Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated Lifeway Research challenges the idea that most Evangelicals are opposed to immigration. Instead, the majority of Evangelicals consider the presence of immigrants in their communities an opportunity to show them love and introduce them to Jesus.

At least 78 percent of Evangelicals agree with each of the Evangelical Immigration Table’s six biblically guided principles for immigration policy reform in the U.S. And 83 percent of Americans with Evangelical beliefs say they would value hearing a sermon on how biblical principles can be applied to immigration in the United States. 

I’ve found in my own experience that the vast majority of Evangelicals really do appreciate this perspective. At one megachurch where I led an adult education class on immigration, 94 percent of attendees who completed evaluations said they would recommend the course to others. 

Yet, there’s always a vocal minority whose angry feedback many pastors are fearful of receiving. The problem is that such feedback tends to be a non-representative sample, as the Lifeway study shows.  And the same sampling error often deceives politicians, of course. 

A long-shot bid by Sens. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Arizona) to tackle immigration reform before the end of the current congressional term fell short. The plan would have created a path to citizenship for most Dreamers while also boosting border security. News stories said the duo ran out of time and cited Congress’ heavy agenda during the last few weeks of the year. But it’s also true that there was little public support from congressional Republicans. Congressional offices undoubtedly experienced an uptick in negative feedback from constituents.

Many such calls are likely coming from a vocal minority who view any legalization process—even for those brought to the U.S. as children decades ago, many of whom have been lawfully present under the DACA program for a decade—as “amnesty.” Others are likely complaining that they find the approach to the border to be inhumane. 

But according to a poll released last week, two-thirds of Republican voters want bipartisan reforms that combine a path to citizenship for Dreamers, improved border security, and reforms to ensure a legal, reliable agricultural workforce to pass this year, as do 83 percent of Democrats. Yet as with Evangelical church-goers, those who were pleased with the now-dead immigration reform package are likely not calling their congressional offices with encouragement. 

Christians are sometimes called to danger, to fear God more than “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28) and do what’s right no matter the cost. While U.S. Christians—whether pastors or politicians—are unlikely to lose their lives in immigration debates, they may someday be called to lose their position of leadership for obeying their consciences. 

But the wild thing is that leading on immigration right now—whether a pastor preaching a biblical message or a U.S. senator crossing the aisle to forge a bipartisan consensus—isn’t even risking that, even if it feels dangerous. Americans—including more than 70 percent of Evangelicals—want immigration reform. They heed Jesus’ message that by welcoming a stranger, they welcome him. It’s time for pastors and politicians to show they hear their congregants by taking a bold stand on immigration.