Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention/The Tennessean
By Chris Echegaray, The Tennessean
When Nashville's Richard Land talks to Hispanic Southern Baptists this month, he'll tell them the denomination supports establishing a path to U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants.
After borders are secure, he'll say, there needs to be a way for them to pay back taxes, take a civics course and get in line with others seeking legal status.
Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, admits it's a message that will test some of the church's mainstream membership, but it's one that needs to be said.
"It's love your neighbor, do unto others," Land said. "This is a kingdom issue. They are disproportionately suffering because they are forced to remain in the shadows because of their illegal status."
Land's June 13 speech to the National Hispanic Fellowship of Southern Baptist Churches in Orlando, Fla., comes as the nation turns its attention to a new Arizona law that gives police the authority to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. On Thursday, President Barack Obama met with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to express his disapproval. The Tennessee House passed a resolution commending Arizona for protecting its legal residents.
Religious leaders are trying to find middle ground. Most illegal immigrants in the U.S. are Hispanic, a growing demographic with socially conservative views that could be tapped to increase churches' numbers.
"Do all agree with me? No," Land said. "But (Hispanics) are hard-wired to be social conservatives unless we drive them away. They are family oriented, religiously oriented and pro-marriage, pro-life ... tailor-made to be social conservatives."
The move for immigration reform may rankle evangelicals, said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, a Washington-based conservative think tank. Studies show Southern Baptists are mostly evangelicals, and about half of them vote or lean Republican.
"They will find that at best churches are very divided," Tooley said. "But this is a more favorable issue than hot button ones like abortion and homosexuality. It's presented superficially, with a feel-good inclusiveness that gets media attention. For church leaders, it's somewhat of an easy out."
Plan is similar to Bush's
Land's position is similar to the immigration plan former President George W. Bush presented in 2007. That one never gained traction because Republicans thought it was equal to amnesty. Land said he has heard similar complaints about his message, but insists he isn't advocating amnesty.
Land may not even find support with all Hispanics, even those preaching to members who would be most helped by reform.
Pastor Rafael Blanco of the Hispanic Baptist Church of Hendersonville doesn't believe in political lobbying from the pulpit. While reform is needed, Blanco said, there can be false expectations set up for political favor.
"My feelings are that, yes, we are a Hispanic church, and I know we've had some undocumented people," he said. "Our struggle is tenacious. But I'm personally not in favor of mixing religion and politics. We have to clean the pulpits."
Three young men from the 80-member church were deported last year, and Blanco helped as much as he could by driving to the detention center and getting them legal help. Reform is in the hand of political leaders and voters, he said, not Baptist religious leaders.
"I pray to God to change the hearts of our leaders when it comes to reform," Blanco said. "We should participate in politics, like any good citizen. And we have the right to identify with a party, but it shouldn't be done in church. If I'm wrong about that, may God forgive me."
Push will be scrutinized
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, said Land's push for Southern Baptists to embrace immigration reform will be scrutinized. When Nashville was divided over a proposed measure to have all city business done in English, Southern Baptists were not part of the conversation, Parham said.
"That's an indication of where they really are," said, Parham, who started the nonprofit, moderate Baptist organization to provide ethics resources to churches. "The best way to know a person's position is to see the past."
Parham said evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, fall into three camps: those who support social justice based on the Bible's message; those who strongly oppose immigration reform, sometimes using hateful rhetoric; and those who talk about helping illegal immigrants but want to penalize them because they perceive that group as lawbreakers.