Immigration Reform : by Martin E. Marty

January 28, 2013

Tomorrow is the beginning of what will be a congressional battle over immigration reform. The subject was rarely and lightly handled in the political wars last year, perhaps because both parties found other issues to be more important for the country or more exploitable by their candidates. Whoever thought that the issue would remain relatively quiet and subject to merely partisan but still civil debate has found or will find that it is as potentially uncivil and vitriolic as most contentions are in this polarized society.

A signal of possible change appeared early last week, for example, as reported in the Chicago Tribune last Tuesday. Brian Bennett reported on how conservative evangelicals, long presumed to be anti-immigration reform, were now seeing the emergence of various important voices in a coalition of supporters. They are pushing their political kin in GOP legislator ranks to change. Instead of right versus left or Republican versus Democrat, this time it is "conservatives versus conservatives," observed libertarian Alex Nowrasteh from the Cato Institute. On this issue many libertarians, U.S. Chamber of Commerce types, and conservative Christian organizations are surprising publics who thought immigration reform was a cause of the left.

While Republican strategists dub the coalition "Bible, badges, and business," a network of evangelical pastors will encourage their congregations to publicize and read 40 biblical passages about how to treat foreigners, calling this push the "I Was a Stranger" Challenge. The Evangelicals, seen as newcomers to the political battle on this side, are not alone. A canvass of websites shows that liberal, moderate, and mainline Protestant denominations and most of their non-denominational cousins have been strong on this front for years. Catholics are strongly on their side, being able to cite official documents of their church, texts which enhance the arguments in the forty biblical passages. Jews, Orthodox Christians, Mormons, and others provide religious rationales, drawing on their sacred texts.

Is the coalescing, action, and support of immigration reform going to make it easy to pass legislation for reform? Not likely. Those who wish for a taste of what's "out there" will find it in the scores of violent postings against church leaders who support reform. I punched "Print" on my keyboard, bringing up the story about evangelicals, and instantly found 44 pages of critique, almost all of it on the "against" side. Many if not most of the reactions are, admit it, hateful, dismissive, violent, rarely religious or theological. This faction will be busy and will be heard. Still, that they may not win everything they want as "anti-s," is evident by the affirmations of the religious voices here declares by the libertarians, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others.

Here's the key: these joiners to the debate may or may not be friendly to religion, but they see business reasons to "welcome the stranger." They will add clout to the religious coalitions, which usually lack it. Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute in the Wall Street Journal offer seven succinct paragraph-length reasons to support immigration reform. They know, as do the religious leaders, that there is no single healthy course for these reforms. They know that there will be some legitimate criticism from people who do not cite religion, but favor the practical issues which have inspired the furious rhetoric of the religious "anti-s" or the anti-religious voices promises a season of tumult and, one hopes, helpful legislation.


Brian Bennett, "Poll: GOP can woo Latino voters with shift on immigration," Chicago Tribune, January 23, 2012.

Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick, "Solving the Immigration Puzzle," Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2013.

Melissa Steffan, "New Video Launches 'Largest Ever' Immigration Reform Effort by Evangelicals," Christianity Today, January 14, 2013.

"Immigration reform: Religious voices add to growing momentum," Religion Link, January 14, 2013.

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at