Southern Baptists are not often known for their practicality, especially when it comes to public policy. Perhaps that is changing.

Recently, Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, partnered with 10 or so leaders from the Religious Right in encouraging President Obama to give a speech on immigration. They called for a speech of the oratorical magnitude of the President’s statement on race during the election race. On July 1 President Obama gave that speech and Land’s response to it was hopeful and supportive of what he believes are bipartisan efforts by the president. Though many of Land’s policy positions are smack-dab on the right of conservatism, he advocates for immigration reform that flies in the face of Arizona-style detain-and-deport policy: Land wants both secure borders and new pathways to obtaining legal status and even citizenship.

His reasoning? “If the new conservative coalition is going to be a governing coalition,” Land told NPR last week, “it’s going to have to have a significant number of Hispanics in it, that’s dictated by demographics, and you don’t get large numbers of Hispanics to support you when you’re engaged in anti-Hispanic immigration rhetoric.”

Back in 2006, Southern Baptists passed a Resolution on the Crisis of Illegal Immigration that speaks to Land’s concerns of border security and exploitation of undocumented people living and working in the U.S., but it said little about how to achieve change. The Resolution calls for both government prosecution of employers who hire undocumented workers and also encourages Southern Baptists to start English classes on a “massive scale” — solutions that neither address root causes of undocumented immigration nor propose viable long-term reform. What’s different between that resolution and Land’s current lobbying is the reasoning behind it. The resolution cited scripture about caring for the foreigner and helping anyone in need of assistance, which resulted in murky rhetoric that could be read as pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant, depending on the reader’s political perspective. Instead of focusing on scripture, Land cites demographics and history.

Richard Land doesn’t mince words when he speaks about historical anti-immigration policies aimed at Italians and the Irish – he doesn’t hesitate to admit those were both losing campaigns. Within Evangelicalism, Hispanics are a growing population, and Land told one reporter, “I don’t want to come back here 15 years from now and apologize to Hispanics.” At least in his public speeches, it’s history not scripture that has convinced Land to welcome Hispanics, especially Southern Baptists, and to advocate for their needs. After all, that’s his job.

But it’s also more than a job. It doesn’t take long to understand that Land’s position goes much deeper than his paycheck, and empathy makes all the difference. It’s likely that Land knows families who do not have legal immigration status. It is also likely that Land has sat next to an undocumented person in a pew or shared the Lord’s Supper with someone whose Green Card had expired. I’m speculating here, but Land’s earnestness comes from a place that understands, or has tried to understand, the struggles of those for whom he advocates.

I speculate, because I spent my first 18 years attending Southern Baptist services on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, and often weeknights, too. The Southern Baptists dunked me in a pool of water when I wanted to be baptized. The Southern Baptists gave me a primer in geography and cross-cultural differences through our annual foreign missions fundraiser. While many of the people within my church community were not interested in politics-at-large, they knew that if someone was sick, the best thing to do was to bring dinner to the infirmed. And now, as our country decides what is to be done with the millions of underpaid, undocumented workers (and some non-workers) who have crossed our borders, Southern Baptists like Land are saying that they aren’t criminals, but neighbors. In some cases they are members of our congregations. We can’t just deport them and wash our hands clean.

Once Southern Baptists are convinced of an issue’s practicality in preserving the way of life they know best, they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. For years, the U.S. has watched the fervor with which the Religious Right, including hoards of Southern Baptists, have expressed on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. This sort of fervor is fitting for a group of people who believe that once a person makes a decision, whether that decision is to become a Christian or to advocate for undocumented members of a congregation, the next logical step is immersion. Southern Baptists have their strategy down: first, minister to the people most affected by an issue through practical services like crisis pregnancy centers and English classes; then, send Richard Land to Washington.

 
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Jessica Belt

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