WASHINGTON — As a guide for law or legislation, the Southern Baptists’ new resolution on illegal immigrants is virtually useless. It’s vague, confusing and perhaps inherently contradictory. It wouldn’t help Congress pick its way through the political thickets associated with addressing the plight of the undocumented.
Nevertheless, the Baptists have done something very useful: They have established a moral marker for their congregants, some of whom are governors, state legislators and members of Congress. Since so many conservatives in public life like to point to their religious views as a guide for their political acts, the resolution ought to have a substantial influence on immigration debates.
Last week at its annual meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention called for “a just and compassionate path to legal status” for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented workers. The “messengers,” as the convention delegates are called, also denounced bigotry and harassment toward those who are here illegally.
The resolution was hotly debated, and it carries no imprimatur of authority for the millions of Southern Baptists across the country, whose churches take pride in their autonomy. They have no hierarchy — no pope or bishop to enforce adherence to church doctrine.
Furthermore, the clause in the resolution that dealt with legalization barely survived, with just 51 percent of the messengers supporting it in an early vote, according to the Baptist Press.
The delegates later added an amendment which noted that the Baptists were in no way endorsing “amnesty,” a hot-button term without any precise meaning.
Still, the Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest Protestant group and one of the most conservative religious bodies in the country, managed to end up sounding a lot more like President Barack Obama than, say, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who recently signed a vicious anti-immigrant law that harkens back to the days of Jim Crow. As the vote proceeded, Southern Baptist seminarian Russell Moore tweeted: “Our response to the immigrant communities in this country cannot be ‘You kids get off my lawn’ in Spanish.”
The Rev. Bryant Wright, a suburban Atlanta pastor and president of the SBC, told me that the focus of the resolution was on “sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the folks who have come in to the U.S.” He acknowledged, however, that the evangelical mission of Southern Baptist churches could collide with harsh new laws aimed at illegal immigrants.
“I realize that once you start to reach out and deal with those folks’ personal stories, some interesting situations are going to develop. Those are going to be issues that every church ministering to immigrants is going to have to decide,” he said.
Phoenix, where the SBC held its convention, served as the backdrop for the debate, but Arizona is having to share its anti-immigrant notoriety. The Bible Belt — traditional home of Southern Baptists — has also seen a wave of codes and sanctions meant to force illegal immigrants to leave.
Georgia, for example, is struggling with a severe shortage of agricultural workers that many farmers are attributing to a law that Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed in May. Even former Gov. Sonny Perdue, Deal’s Republican predecessor, said the law has created “a real fear and perception that Georgia is probably not a state to be seen in if you’re of a different color.”
But Alabama, my home state, has gone much farther than Arizona or Georgia, passing the broadest and ugliest anti-immigration law in the land. It not only gives law enforcement officials the authority to determine legal status, but it also demands that schools determine whether students have legal documents. (That’s just foolish time-wasting, since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools must educate minors, whether they are here legally or not.)
It would penalize property owners if they rent to persons without legal documents. It also makes it a crime to harbor or transport an illegal immigrant.
That raises the prospect that a faithful church member could be arrested for giving children without papers a ride to Sunday school. Is that what Alabama’s governor, a longtime deacon in a Tuscaloosa, Ala. Baptist church, had in mind?