Editor’s note: This column appeared Wednesday in the Tennessean. 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.
Concerned about the rising tide of anti-immigration rhetoric and punitive bills in statehouses across the country, Tennessee faith leaders have taken a number of pro-active initiatives to speak constructively about the moral obligations of our society to treat the undocumented justly.

Some 300 middle-Tennessee faith leaders attended a November 2011 breakfast where William Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, admitted that Alabama’s faith leaders “were slow to realize how nefarious” the new Alabama law was for their state.

In January, 125 clergy attended a screeningofthedocumentary “Gospel Without Borders,” which included a panel of Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist bishops. The bishops spoke to the need for congregations to address the issue.

On Feb. 9, Clergy for Tolerance emailed a statement from faith leaders to 22 officials with the four leading Republican presidential campaigns, urging them not to bring “the highly charged and negative campaign rhetoric, advertisements and promises on immigration” into Tennessee.

“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,” read the statement.

Methodist and Lutheran bishops, rabbis, Islamic leaders, a divinity school dean, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Nashville, pastor of Nashville’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, Episcopal priests, a Lipscomb University professor and others signed the initial letter.

Now, roughly 287 faith leaders have signedtheletter. And the number of signatories continues to swell.

“We…share the goal to advance the common good. 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,” said the document.

The letter added: “We respect the rule of law. We also know that at times the rule of law results in unjust law. For example, segregation was perfectly legal, but reflective of unjust law. The internment of Japanese Americans was perfectly legal, but reflective of unjust law. Denying women the right to vote was perfectly legal, but reflective of unjust law. We are concerned that campaign rhetoric may result in unjust laws for the undocumented.”

Expressing dismay at the “destructive discourse of American politics,” the document said, “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.”

The signatories said that their deep concern applied “to all candidates and campaigns this year.”

Citing President Abraham Lincoln, faith leaders expressed their hope that the presidential campaign in Tennessee will touch “the better angels of our nature.”

RobertParham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, co-producer of “GospelWithoutBorders” and a letter signatory.

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