Loving Strangers, Courting Votes
Published: July 26th, 2013
By: Steven and Cokie Roberts

Loving strangers, courting votes

Republicans have long portrayed themselves as the party of faith, and religious practice is a reliable indicator of political behavior. Among voters who attend worship services more than once a week, 63 percent backed Mitt Romney last fall, while 36 percent supported President Obama. For those who never darken a church door, the numbers were exactly reversed.

On immigration reform, however, House Republicans are badly out of the step with the leaders of two religious groups that strongly backed Romney: white Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Many of these clerics vigorously support giving undocumented immigrants a clear path to citizenship, but GOP legislators have stoutly resisted a Senate-passed measure that would create such a path.

So far, political and economic arguments have failed to sway these House Republicans. Maybe a little Bible study will help them see the light.

Even many Republicans think their House brethren are clinging to a position that's both morally indefensible and politically irrational. The shopworn metaphor of a circular firing squad doesn't quite capture their suicidal impulse. They seem intent on burning themselves at the stake.

Most attention has focused on the political repercussions. More than 70 percent of Hispanics and Asians voted Democratic last year. In an increasingly nonwhite country, alienating the fastest-growing segment of the voting population smacks of supreme stupidity.

The economic arguments are equally compelling. Immigrants generate jobs, income and growth, and House Republicans are angering a business community that desperately wants legalization.

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The religious dimension of this debate has been largely ignored, however, and that's highly unfortunate. Doing good should count as much as winning elections or earning profits.

The Roman Catholic Church in this country was built by immigrants, so its receptivity to newcomers is well-known and long-standing. One example -- the presidents of more than 90 Catholic colleges recently wrote to Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (both practicing Catholics): "Catholic teaching values the human dignity and worth of all immigrants, regardless of legal status. We remind you that no human being made in the image of God is illegal."

Evangelicals have been far slower to embrace the immigrant cause. As Jenny Yang of the National Association of Evangelicals noted recently in the Washington Post, evangelicals were "the most anti-immigrant" religious denomination as recently as 2006.

That view was revised in part by "a more careful and thoughtful reading of Scripture," Yang wrote. There are almost 100 references to immigrants in the Old Testament alone, but the most persuasive verse is from Deuteronomy: "You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt."

Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a ferocious foe of immigration reform, said on Univision that "legal Americans do not have a moral obligation to solve the problem" of the 11 million undocumented strangers now living here. But the Bible contradicts him.

Two evangelical leaders, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez and Mat Staver, wrote on the Fox News website: "Our agenda is driven not by the Donkey or the Elephant but by the Lamb. ... We believe that Scripture provides principles that compel us to advocate for reforms to immigration policy."

There is a practical motive here as well. Catholics have always depended on immigrants to fill their pews -- Poles, Irish, Italians -- and today many of their parishioners are Hispanics and Asians, particularly Filipinos. But now evangelical churches are depending on the same source of recruits. Rodriguez argues that deporting illegals would mean "deporting the future of American Christianity."

Professor John Green of the University of Akron, an expert on evangelicals, told the Arizona Republic: "A lot of this simply has to do with the sense among many evangelical leaders that the immigrant community, particularly the Hispanic community, is very important to the future of evangelical churches, that the missionary opportunities are very large."

It's not just where these newcomers worship; it's what they believe. Rodriguez and Staver point out that "in reality, most Latino voters are social conservatives" who would consider voting Republican, but for them, immigration policies "trump all other issues." If social conservatives really want to advance their ideas in the political marketplace, they must "earn a hearing" with immigrants by embracing immigration reform. If they "kill such policies," they will endanger their own agenda.

Pass the matches.

"Respect the law" is a profound Biblical admonition; so is "love the stranger." Religious leaders are telling House Republicans to put love before law, to temper justice with mercy. That's good moral advice. And good political advice, too.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.