Comprehensive immigration reform in the current Congress appears dead, another painful reminder of how broken Washington is and another promising opportunity for the church to be the church.
“[W]e have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill,” announced House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last week. “The idea that we’re going to take up a 1,300-page bill that no one had ever read, which is what the Senate did, is not going to happen in the House.”
Boehner said House Republicans favored a “step-by-step approach,” not a comprehensive one that the Senate and White House advanced.
Democrats and partisan immigration reform activists swiftly blamed Boehner and House Republicans for the failure of immigration reform.
That is a tidy narrative – and a false one.
As The Hill’s two-part series disclosed, the failure of immigration reform is shared across Washington. President Obama, Senate Democrats and House Republicans all contributed to the failure.
And they were not alone. Christian leadership played a role.
After all, leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family, Bread for the World, World Relief and Sojourners all joined the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) to push for comprehensive immigration reform.
EIT included denominational heads, presidents of evangelical universities, editors, professors and an array of pastors.
EIT supported the Senate bill and purchased advertisements praising the senators who voted for it.
In addition to EIT, liberal mainline Protestant heads and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pushed for comprehensive reform.
Given the push of so many Christian leadership organizations, what does it say about the role of Christian leaders in America?
First, it might say that denominational leaders are “all hat and no cattle.” They have the religious titles, but not enough moral influence on congregants to carry the day.
Second, it might say that faith leaders did a poor job of converting Christian House Republicans who oppose immigration reform. Faith without works is dead. Dogma without doing isn’t real faith. Mental assent to doctrine without the practice of justice is truncated Christianity, American style.
Third, it might say that too many denominational leaders practice “resolutionary Christianity.” That is, they think passing resolutions and signing statements is an effective way to create moral change.
Leadership by press release and photo op is no substitute for the hard work of meeting with small groups of clergy and laity outside the beltway to press the case, of keeping the issue at the forefront of all activities, of challenging the critics of change and the bullies of bigotry.
Fourth, it might say that Christian leaders turned too quickly to Washington to fix a moral wrong and social problem. They should have turned first to houses of faith to do the needed moral education. Perhaps many didn’t do the necessary biblical education and the basic communication about the plight of the undocumented.
Fifth, it might say that in their desire to buddy up to political leaders, faith leaders failed to challenge the negative narratives used by leaders of both parties about the undocumented. In other words, faith leaders allowed political leaders to undermine reformation with their framing of the issue. Then, faith leaders reinforced the framing by using the same negative language.
Faith leaders should have reprimanded President Obama, former Gov. Romney and a host of others when they used negative narratives against the undocumented. One such narrative is that “they” don’t pay taxes. Another is the undocumented must get in line. And faith leaders should have avoided using those same narratives.
If comprehensive immigration reform in Congress or even a step-by-step approach isn’t going to happen, then it’s time for the church to think about what it does next.
The failure of Washington need not set the agenda of the church. Our agenda ought to be set by the biblical witness, which is abundantly clear about treating the undocumented kindly and seeking justice for them.
From my vantage point, we need to go back to basics. We need a lot more education in churches about the plight of the undocumented and how to think morally about the issue. We need churches more involved in ministries with the undocumented.
And we need a long view. The social justice arc is long, a lot longer than an instant gratification society can tolerate. That means goodwill Christians stick with it when all appears lost or unlikely.
If Protestant pastors will focus as faithfully as many Catholic bishops did in their parishes on immigration, then the wheels of change will grind forward.
Maybe I’m a hopeless Baptist who believes too much in the power and potential of the local church. But I’m convinced that the local church has the key to social change – change that will result in the treatment of immigrants as spelled out in the biblical witness.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Editor’s Note: No better moral education tool exists than “Gospel Without Borders.” Consider using the long version of the documentary over four weeks in your Sunday school classes.