For the next 13 days, all stops are off when it comes to debating the issue of illegal immigration.
The Obama administration’s court challenge to the Arizona law that gives its peace officers the authority to stop and impound undocumented residents is already serving as a stick to a wasp nest in Georgia’s race for governor.
Former congressman Nathan Deal’s first TV ad of the primary season on Wednesday focused on illegal immigration and a promise that Georgia would soon have an Arizona-style law.
On the answering machines of tens of thousands of GOP voters, former secretary of state Karen Handel left a message of endorsement from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. Expect to see Brewer at Handel’s side before the July 20 vote.
The climate doesn’t brook dissent. Democrats have been uniformly silent on the Arizona issue.
So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that one of the most prominent voices pushing a bipartisan deal on immigration — and urging more cautious rhetoric when discussing it — belongs to an institution of the solid Southern right.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. It is through his Nashville offices that the nation’s largest Protestant denomination engages Washington on topics such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research. The SBC is against both.
But last week, when President Barack Obama gave his speech demanding action on immigration reform, Land was among those invited to sit in the audience. Because he had been among a group of conservative evangelical leaders who asked Obama to deliver it.
“I met with the president’s people about 10 days prior to that and urged them — for him to give a major speech on the issue,” Land said Sunday, after he’d delivered three sermons in Flowery Branch. “I said, ‘He needs to give a speech like the race speech he gave —which makes it clear that he understands both sides.’”
Afterwards, Land praised the president’s speech as a good start, likening it to an “initial proposal” of marriage.
“We need to call upon our congressmen and senators to behave like statesmen. Politicians think about the next election. Statesmen think about the next generation,” Land said.
And the Arizona law? “To me, it’s a symptom. It’s a cry for help from a state that feels the federal government has let it down and is not doing its job,” he said.
Land and his Baptist brethren were among those who supported the Ted Kennedy-John McCain compromise on immigration reform that exploded in 2007, damaging every Republican close to it — including U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.
Land’s position remains much the same. Among active Southern Baptists, he said, “there’s clearly a consensus behind comprehensive immigration reform that secures the border first — and then lays out a compassionate, just pathway to earning citizenship or legal status.”
Obtaining that legal status would take about 10 years. “That’s not amnesty. What Jimmy Carter gave those who avoided service during the Vietnam war — that’s amnesty,” Land said.
While on the stump, in search of applause, it has become common for politicians to boast that they would load every illegal immigrant onto a yellow bus pointed for the Mexican border.
Land says the forced deportation of millions of people crosses another border — one that separates the humane from the inhumane. The punishment doesn’t suit the crime.
“We bear some responsibility for the fact that we haven’t enforced our own laws for the last 24 years,” he said. “And we’ve had these two conflicting signs up at the border — ‘No trespassing’ and ‘Help wanted.’”
Neither Obama nor Land is likely to get his way. With November at stake, the prospect of Democrats and Republicans tackling anything as volatile as immigration reform is beyond the politics of the possible.
Yet Land and like-minded Southern Baptists are significant on two counts. First, they provide a moral measuring stick that is often missing in red-meat politics.
Southern Baptists have also, in the past, served as a harbinger of the Republican party’s future. The denomination’s purging of moderates in the ’80s and ’90s served as a warm-up for a similar fight for conservative purity in the GOP that continues today.
Land says he’s been told that the Southern Baptist position on immigration threatens to shatter the conservative coalition that powers the Republican party.
“It may split the old one,” Land said. “It won’t split new one. If the conservative coalition is going to be a governing coalition, it’s going to have to include a majority of Hispanics. And you don’t get a majority of Hispanics by engaging in anti-Hispanic immigration rhetoric.”
There’s also the bothersome matter of history. The public policy chief noted that Southern Baptists ignored interior voices who urged the denomination to support African-Americans and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
Had Baptists listened, he said, “we wouldn’t have had to have gone back and apologize to them.
“And I don’t want to come back here 15 years from now and apologize to Hispanics. It’s a kingdom issue,” Land said.