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Evangelicals Tightlipped on Immigration

While the Roman Catholic Church, mainline Protestants, Jews and Muslims have backed the emerging immigrants' rights movement, the situation has proved more complex for some conservative Protestants.
( [email protected] ) May 21, 2006 10:12 AM EDT

(AP) — While the Roman Catholic Church, mainline Protestants, Jews and Muslims have backed the emerging immigrants' rights movement, the situation has proved more complex for some conservative Protestants.

Struggling to balance compassion with respect for law and order — and dealing with an increasing number of Hispanics in their churches — evangelicals have lacked the united front they have presented on matters such as abortion and gay marriage, with some groups notably quiet.

"Evangelical leaders are concerned that our voice be a biblical voice that does not send the wrong signal to the growing Latino community," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, Washington spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals

Cizik was one of several officials from evangelical organizations who were briefed Tuesday on President Bush's plans by top adviser Karl Rove — the idea being to gather support and head off opposition. Other groups represented included the Concerned Women for America, Institute on Religion and Democracy, National Religious Broadcasters and Southern Baptist Convention.

Tanya Erzen of http://www.talk2action.org, which monitors and criticizes the conservative Christian movement, said the issue is tricky for evangelicals because they want to mobilize Hispanics behind their favored social causes, and know that many of the street demonstrators are "members of evangelical churches that represent a key constituency."

A report to the NAE board's March meeting said more evangelical converts come from Hispanic communities than from any other sector in America. Cizik counts 600,000 Hispanic converts from Catholicism living in the United States. The NAE board endorsed no immigration policy and its chairman issued a noncommittal call for "a balanced and thoughtful perspective."

Cizik said evangelical leaders object to "wholesale flouting of the law, not just by immigrants seeking a better life but by employers large and small." Personally, he said, he believes it is neither biblical nor realistic to turn millions of illegal immigrants into felons or deport them.

Followers may be less forgiving than leaders, though pastors are reluctant to admit this publicly.

Pew Research Center polling this year showed nearly two-thirds of white evangelicals thought immigrants threaten "traditional American customs and values" and are a burden on "our jobs, housing and health care," well above the percentages for white Catholics, mainline Protestants and the U.S. population in general.

The Rev. Jesse Miranda of California's Vanguard University and president of AMEN, or Alianza de Ministerios Evangelicos Nacionales, an alliance of evangelical Hispanic clergy, said "we don't have the unity of a Catholic Church or a denomination" of Protestants, since 60 percent to 70 percent of such pastors lead independent congregations.

To him, the silence of Cizik's association — which represents 52 denominations plus many individual congregations and religious agencies — and other evangelical groups "is disconcerting. We feel that life issues include immigration" when people trying to enter America are "lying dead on the desert."

Michael Cromartie, evangelical specialist at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and another Rove invitee, said many evangelicals are silent or vague simply because immigration is so difficult, legally and politically.

"It's not like bioethical issues or gay marriage or abortion or the decline of the family. It's more what do we do about this when people are coming in, many though illegal means," he said. "How do you seal the borders without seeming to lack compassion? This doesn't cut along religious or nonreligious lines. It's prudential."

The Rev. Richard Land, the Southern Baptists' spokesman on social issues, probably typifies evangelical views.

After attending the Rove briefing, Land issued a statement that the government must first convince Americans that "it is serious about committing the resources necessary to control the border." After that, work can begin on Bush's guest-worker proposal and "some path to permanent residence for most of those who are in this country illegally and wish to stay."