Local and State News

Evangelical Preachers Push for Immigration Reform, But Will Their Flocks Follow?

By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013

As a small group of Upstate ministers visits Capitol Hill this week to lobby South Carolina’s congressional delegation in support of comprehensive immigration reform, how far the evangelical flock back home is willing to follow remains very much in question.

It’s a concern that surely occupies the minds of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s campaign staff, as the senior senator and Tea Party antagonist with bipartisan tendencies gambles again on achieving a broad immigration deal — one that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here — before next year’s election.
It’s this sort of center-right leadership that has drawn him three hard-right primary challengers and earned him the sobriquet “Sen. Graham-nesty.” But this go-round, Graham has unprecedented political cover in the form of church leadership — not the brimming-with-tolerance liberal sort either, but Southern Baptists of both the mega-church and the back-road ilk.

That said, it’s a public relations firm closely aligned with Graham, the Greenville-based Felkel Group, that has organized and promoted the pastors’ trip to Washington, D.C., and conflicting convictions on immigration continue to be hotly felt across the Palmetto State.

“I haven’t seen an issue like this in quite a while — a lot of passion on both sides,” says Oran P. Smith of Palmetto Family, an evangelical group that hasn’t taken a position on the issue. He says the divide runs between those who want a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country and those that want to focus on enforcing current immigration laws and view a path to citizenship as amnesty.

“You’ll have those on the enforce-the-law side insist that that’s the Biblical position, that there’s respect for law built into the Scripture,” Smith says. “The path-to-citizenship supporters say it’s reflective of Christ’s command to welcome the stranger and feel that they are just as scripturally sound as the other side.”

Rev. Jim Goodroe of the Spartanburg County Baptist Network vocally represents the latter camp, having narrated an ad paid for by the national Evangelical Immigration Table that ran on about 15 Christian radio stations in South Carolina earlier this year.

Goodroe says an increased familiarity with growing immigrant communities has contributed to a “slight shift” among South Carolina’s Christian evangelicals on the immigration question, but he says the chief catalyst has been theological.

“Evangelicals are waking up to just how much the Bible does have to say about immigrants, and, as evangelicals, what the Bible says carries a whole lot of weight,” Goodroe says.

Goodroe cites the “Great Commission,” the instructions that a resurrected Jesus Christ gave his disciples to spread his teachings, according to the gospels of the New Testament. These are the Biblical passages upon which the evangelical practice of proselytizing is founded.

“Probably the biggest eye opener for evangelicals is that this is a missions mandate we have, and the people that we’ve always been responsible for reaching all over the world, God has now been sending them here in large numbers in the last couple of decades,” he says.

But, as Goodroe concedes, not all evangelicals are eager to come around. Asked whether he’d sensed any discernible opinion shift, S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Berkeley), a self-identifying evangelical Christian and “lead sponsor of the toughest immigration bill in the nation” voiced skepticism.

“It sounds more like a political consulting group trying to give the impression that the evangelical community in this state is embracing something that it’s not,” Grooms says.

Likewise, Richard Cash, one of Graham’s GOP primary challengers who brandishes his Bible proudly, sees the evangelical push for reform as top-down stage management.

“It’s a very gut-level kind of issue. It might not be quite as visceral as Second Amendment or pro-life, but it’s not too far beyond that for some people,” Cash says, adding, “Their convictions tend to run pretty deep, and some statements by leaders are not necessarily going to switch their minds.”

Cash went on to say that while the Bible does instruct Christians to help the weak and vulnerable, that mandate should not negate the rule of law, the conservative principle prominent in the Old Testament.

“I think the breakdown happens when people try to make that jump, saying this applies to people who have broken our laws to come here illegally. You’re not going to find the word ‘illegal’ before the word ‘alien’ in the Bible,” Cash says.

Goodroe acknowledges that he might have upset a few folks, but he says the grievances have numbered in single digits.

“Most of the criticisms are prefaced by one of two things: Either real early in the conversation, they tell you they’re against Obama, and [immigration reform] helps Obama; or they say the administration has not been enforcing the immigration laws that we do have, and there’s no reason to change them if the government is not going to enforce them anyway,” he says.

But those arguments don’t detract from Goodroe’s belief that, as he puts it, “the Bible is one of the most pro-immigrant books around.”

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