Dozens of Tennessee faith leaders urged Republican presidential candidates to keep the bitter rhetoric on immigration out of the Volunteer State. Tennessee’s Republican presidential primary is March 6.
The plea came Feb. 9 in the form of a statement signed and released by some 45 leaders representing the Abrahamic faiths across Tennessee.

“We are faith leaders in Tennessee who share the goal to advance the common good,” began the statement. “We teach the Golden Rule and seek to treat others as we would want to be treated. We believe all people of faith and goodwill must welcome the stranger, protect the vulnerable and seek justice for the poor.”

The one-page statement went on to say that Tennessee’s faith leaders have taken several initiatives on the issue of immigration. The statement spoke only in general terms, noting that leaders have been “challenging the negative and untruthful narratives that generate bigotry and falsehoods.”

But in the last three months alone, hundreds of clergy have gathered in Nashville on two different occasions to explore the faith community’s mandate on immigration.

“As Tennessee faith leaders, we are writing to you in advance of the Tennessee Republican presidential primary on March 6, 2012, with a simple but urgent plea,” the statement said. “Please keep the highly charged and negative campaign rhetoric, advertisements and promises on immigration out of Tennessee.”

The statement was sent to national and Tennessee campaign leaders for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rich Santorum and current Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

The statement was delivered prior to the Republican primary and thus directly addressed to the Republican candidates, but leaders also said, near statement’s end, “our deep concern applies to all candidates and campaigns this year.”

More moderate Republican voices on immigration have struggled to get an audience, according to a Jan. 30 newsstory at

As Romney and Gingrich traded barbs on immigration during the Florida primary, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision not to include a bill targeting the undocumented in his new budget drew little attention.

Haslam’s posture on immigration differs from some of his neighboring governors, including Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, signer of the toughest state immigration law in the country, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

But despite Haslam’s moderating statement, Tennessee Republican legislatorshavefiled roughly 30 anti-immigration bills in the current legislative session.

Signatories to the statement sent to Republican candidates included leaders from west, east and middle Tennessee. Rabbis, imams, pastors, bishops, professors, deans and other leaders signed the letter, which reads in part:

“We are dismayed by the destructive discourse of American politics in general and toward the undocumented in particular. We think that the heated nature of campaigns that deny the undocumented their human rights, demonize an entire class of human beings as criminals and deliver unworkable and unjust solutions robs the public square of much needed civility and harms society’s efforts to find common ground to advance the common good.”

Signatories said they respected the rule of law and cautioned against unjust laws, citing as examples segregation of the races, interning Japanese Americans and denying women the right to vote.

“We are concerned that campaign rhetoric may result in unjust laws for the undocumented,” read the statement.

“Please do not inject our state with the language of ‘illegals,’ the unworkable ideas of deporting millions of individuals and thereby destroying families, and the heated claims that characterize the undocumented and their children as a class of criminals,” the statement read.

Signatories include Ben Chamness, resident bishop of the Tennessee Conference of United Methodist Church; H. Julian Gordy, bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School; Frank Lewis, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Nashville; and Melvin Talbert, retired bishop with the United Methodist Church.

Clergy from middle Tennessee gathered in Nashville in November 2011 to hear William Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Willimon said he had come to Tennessee “to repent” for not taking seriously Alabama Gov. Bentley’s anti-immigration campaign promises. In June 2011, Bentley signed House Bill 56, the harshest set of immigration regulations in the country, into law.

“I’m sorry that those of us faith leaders in Alabama, with the exception of the Catholics, were slow to realize how nefarious this immigration legislation would be for us and for our state,” said Willimon at the breakfast sponsored by ClergyforTolerance.

Roughly two months later, clergyfrommiddleTennessee met again in Nashville to screen the documentary “GospelWithoutBorders.”

The documentary, funded primarily by Methodists, produced by Baptists and featuring Catholics, Presbyterians and others, “separates myth from fact, examines what the Bible says about treatment of the ‘stranger,’ shows the experiences of documented and undocumented immigrants, and provides handles for Christians to advance the common good,” according to promotional material.

Clergy for Tolerance continues to gather signatures from clergy who support the letter to presidential candidates.

To read more and to sign the letter, click here.

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