While the nature of Baptist polity allows for varying perspectives on many issues, there was one resolution that stood out when messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in New Orleans almost unanimously voted in affirmation: A resolution “on wisely engaging immigration” passed with incredibly broad support.
Those outside of the SBC or of the broader evangelical movement might have encountered some mainstream media stereotypes of evangelical Christians as anti-immigrant, but as a lifelong Southern Baptist born and raised in South Carolina, that’s not been my observation. The resolution rightly denounces “any form of nativism, mistreatment or exploitation” of immigrants as “inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ” and commends “the good work of Southern Baptists among immigrants and refugees.”
For the past several years, in my role leading church relationships for World Relief Upstate South Carolina — the local office of a global evangelical organization — I’ve had an up-front view to the many Southern Baptists and other evangelicals who have eagerly stepped up to welcome refugees and other immigrants. We’ve seen the exciting growth of ethnic congregations in our denomination, as many immigrants arrive with a vibrant Christian faith and missional zeal and as others encounter Christ for the first time in the U.S.
As the SBC resolution observes, “The nations of the world are coming to our neighborhoods” and into a context of religious freedom, where we are free to share our faith — and those who might never have encountered the gospel in their homelands are free to decide for themselves, without government restrictions or coercion, how they will respond.
This dynamic of church ministry toward and among immigrants is not unique to my corner of South Carolina. A Lifeway Research survey conducted last year found that more than 3 in 10 evangelicals in the South said their church has an outreach ministry to refugees or other immigrants. These ministries are rooted in our commitment to the Bible, which, as the SBC resolution notes, affirms that all people — including immigrants — are made in God’s image with inherent dignity and value.
Both our reading of Scripture and the relationships forged through outreach ministries have also given Southern Baptists and other evangelicals a nuanced approach to immigration policy, as both this new resolution and the recent Lifeway Research survey reflect.
Southern Baptists certainly believe that our federal government has a God-ordained responsibility to maintain order and ensure safety, which includes — as the resolution states — calling on our federal government to “secure our borders and to provide adequate resources to border patrol and those working in our immigration system.” Overall, 88 percent of evangelicals in the South agree that government should guarantee secure borders.
But evangelicals also enthusiastically affirm the resolution’s other policy positions. Seven out of 10 evangelicals in the South say that our laws should offer protection to those fleeing persecution, consistent with the resolution’s call on government “to maintain robust avenues for valid asylum claimants seeking refuge.”
While most evangelicals do not support amnesty for immigrants in the country unlawfully — that’s supported by just 15 percent of Southern evangelicals — it’s clear that they don’t believe the longstanding call of the Southern Baptist Convention for “providing a pathway to legal status with appropriate restitutionary measures” is synonymous with amnesty. In fact, 78 percent of evangelicals in the South support immigration reforms that include establishing a process by which immigrants in the country unlawfully could earn permanent legal status and eventual citizenship if they paid a fine, passed a criminal background check, and met other appropriate requirements.
A recent bill introduced in the House of Representatives — the Dignity Act, co-sponsored by four Republicans and four Democrats — seeks to do precisely that, pairing $35 billion in increased funding for personnel, barriers, technology and ports of entry improvements at the border, with an earned legalization process for undocumented immigrants. The bill also includes the payment of at least $5,000 in fines, reforms to the asylum system, expansions of legal immigration opportunities and an expedited path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, many of whom currently face an uncertain future as a result of legal challenges to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.
As a South Carolina Southern Baptist, I am praying that our state’s congressional delegations will join these bipartisan efforts consistent with the values of South Carolina Baptists and other evangelical Christians. That Republicans and Democrats find a way to work together and forge consensus is vital because our immigration system really is desperately in need of reforms, and proposals that draw support from just one party have absolutely no chance of actually becoming law in our current, divided Congress, consigning us to a dysfunctional status quo that’s bad for Americans and immigrants alike.
Beyond Congress, as candidates for the U.S. presidency visit our early-primary state, I hope they will look first and foremost to the Bible as their guide as they formulate refugee and immigration policies. The Evangelical Immigration Table, co-led by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, World Relief and other evangelical organizations, has a 40-day immigration-focused Bible reading guide — the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge — that I hope all candidates will allow to shape their policies and rhetoric.
More than anything, I pray that the witness of the church as we respond to the complex realities of immigration will point both immigrants themselves and a watching world to the God who created, loves and wants a relationship with each of them.
— Austin Donahoo is the senior church and community engagement specialist at World Relief Upstate South Carolina and a member of Church at The Mill, Moore.