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The public clamor about a planned Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City and calls to amend the U.S. Constitution to deny citizenship to children born in the United States whose parents are undocumented immigrants share a common feature. Most faith leaders have been conspicuously silent and unseen.

Perhaps they don’t want to lend their moral authority to the controversies. Perhaps they don’t know what to say about the issues. Perhaps they are afraid to say or do anything that might displease members of their fellowships or expose them to criticism.

Whatever the reasons, public discourse about the moral and ethical implications of these issues has lacked contributions from the men and women who lead most religious people in thinking and acting about moral and ethical implications of living.

This situation is unfortunate and unhealthy. Supposedly, faith leaders are “called” to a life of contemplation and engagement concerning moral and ethical concerns, whether they affect personal or public living. It would be very unfortunate, for example, if physicians refrained from commenting on personal and public health issues. Faith leaders profess to be moral and spiritual healers. When they refrain from contributing to public discourse about moral and ethical issues, our opinions are less informed, to say the least.

The conspicuous silence and absence of faith leaders in the public discourse about pressing social and political issues is also unhealthy. Without honest and searching contributions from faith leaders, the debate about whether an Islamic center should be constructed near Ground Zero has become dominated by political opportunists.

There is no legitimate reason the Islamic community or any other religious group should refrain from constructing a center near Ground Zero. Faith leaders should be saying so and should chide political and media pundits about bearing false witness against Islam by linking the planned center to the 9-11 attacks committed by a political terrorist group – Al Qaeda.

Another unhealthy result is that the media tend to focus on religious people who hold fringe views. If more congregational leaders would speak up, the public could at least have a broader range of moral and ethical perspectives to consider.

It is morally indefensible to deny the benefits of citizenship to any person born in the United States based on the immigration status of one’s parents. Infants do not control where they are born, let alone whether their parents have valid immigration status.

Beyond that, any suggestion that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship to all persons born in the United States should apply only if a parent is a citizen or documented immigrant is blatantly discriminatory.

But self-proclaimed Bible-believing people are publicly condoning this discriminatory idea without a contrary word from popular religious figures. Meanwhile, Leviticus 19:33-34 states: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself …”

Exodus 22:21 reads, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien …”

Leviticus 19:35 states, “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight or quantity.”

To deny citizenship to an infant born in the United States to alien parents is to cheat that child of social, legal and political status for no reason other than animus toward its parents. Faith leaders should say so from our pulpits and in other forums. The public should question why we don’t.

I suspect that more than a few faith leaders avoid public discourse to avoid being criticized for their opinions by persons in and outside their congregations. But the “call” to ministry is not a summons to popularity, material comfort or even acceptance. It is, if we are to believe the sacred writings of most religions, a summons to be prophetic.

Soldiers who fail or refuse to be vigilant and energetic when threats to national security arise make poor sentinels. Cowardice, timidity and dereliction of duty in the face of conflict are unbecoming for soldiers.

Sadly, too many faith leaders don’t see the connection between the sentinel function of soldiers and the prophetic responsibility of faith leaders. The possibility that many faith leaders somehow may not care enough to live up to our prophetic responsibilities is even more disheartening.

People disobey prophetic exhortations. That doesn’t excuse prophets from the obligation to utter them.

Wendell L. Griffen is pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., and owner/CEO of a consulting firm. He lives with his wife in Little Rock.

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