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Column: Evangelical Activism Reclaims Its Noble Legacy

The scene at the Church of the Reformation in Washington last week, just a couple of blocks from the U.S. Capitol, was a mixture of resolve and celebration, equal parts political rally and family reunion. People milling about on the front steps posed for photographs, greeting old friends and making new acquaintances.

No gathering of evangelicals these days, even a political rally, is complete without music, which generally means a “praise band” — keyboard, drums, a couple of guitars and several vocalists. The congregation was strikingly well dressed and multicultural, a mixture of Hispanics, African-Americans and Anglos. A few raised their hands and waved their arms to the music, a gesture of openness to the Holy Spirit.

The congregation sang The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor, inspired by Psalm 34. “Let the lowly hear and be glad,” the lyrics read, “the Lord listens to their pleas.”

The pleas on this day revolved around immigration reform. Jesus instructed his followers to care for “the least of these,” and a poster outside the church quoted Jesus in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

As the gathering in Washington attests, a growing diversity of evangelicals are taking those commands seriously. The Evangelical Immigration Table, the umbrella organization pushing for legislative reform of immigration laws, includes such affiliates as Liberty Counsel on the right and Sojourners, which tilts toward the left. A church van across the street from the art-deco church read “Love Memorial Baptist Church, Goldsboro, NC.” Bill Hybels, who founded Willow Creek Community Church in the lily-white northwest suburbs of Chicago, addressed the group as did Lee de Leon, pastor of Templo Calvario, an evangelical congregation in Santa Ana, Calif. They stated the case for immigration reform, including a path to citizenship. Orlando Findlayter, senior pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Brooklyn, prayed that God would touch Congress. “Take away their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh,” he intoned.

Even Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, one of the more reliable shills for far-right policies, threw his support behind immigration reform. For too long, Land said, our government has had two signs at the border: “No Trespassing” and “Help Wanted.” This is a propitious moment, he added.

Gabriel Salguera, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, delivered the call to action, alternating smoothly between Spanish and English. “The time has come,” he told the gathering. “Nothing changes without courageous people demanding it.” He led the congregation in one of the standards of the civil rights movement, Ain’t Gonna’ Let Nobody Turn Me Around, and issued a rallying cry: “We’re going to be walking the halls of Congress, and they don’t know what’s coming.”

One of the activists working behind the scenes for immigration reform is Ali Noorani, who is not part of evangelicalism but who recognizes its political potential.

“The faith community is the most important voice in this conversation,” he told me, because of the close relationships between pastors and their congregants. “That relationship doesn’t exist anywhere else in society.”

As this gathering in Washington suggests, evangelical political activism may finally be coming of age. Evangelicals in the 19th and early 20th centuries crowded toward the left of the political spectrum. They worked for the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women and the formation of public schools. Evangelicals opposed dueling as barbaric, marched in the vanguard of peace crusades and advocated for the rights of labor. Many prominent evangelicals, from Charles Grandison Finney to William Jennings Bryan, excoriated the ravages of unbridled capitalism.

The aberration in evangelical political behavior emerged with the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s. In their quest for political influence, evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson cast their lot with Ronald Reagan to defeat Jimmy Carter, a fellow evangelical. Over the ensuing decades, the Religious Right marched in lockstep with the Republicans and became the party’s core constituency. Politically conservative evangelicals supported massive increases in military spending, for example, while opposing equal rights for women, positions utterly at odds with their evangelical precursors. Opposition to abortion and to same-sex marriages became their signature concerns.

Beginning with the 2008 election, however, a younger generation of evangelicals began to discern a much broader spectrum of “moral issues,” including war, poverty and the environment. The evangelical groundswell for immigration reform suggests a maturing of those concerns. More than three decades after the emergence of the Religious Right, many evangelicals are pushing for a realignment of evangelical politics, moving away from hard-right policies to reclaim the mantle of 19th-century evangelicalism, which invariably took the part of those on the margins of society, those Jesus called “the least of these.” The evangelical embrace of immigration reform represents a kind of redemptive symmetry. Just as a path to citizenship allows immigrants to emerge from the shadows and seek a better life, so, too, evangelical advocacy on their behalf allows evangelicalism to reclaim its noble legacy.

Following a box lunch in the church basement, these evangelicals fanned out to congressional offices for meetings with staff members and elected officials. Despite Richard Land’s earlier characterization, this would not be a propitious day for congressional action; the Senate that afternoon voted not to vote on expanded background checks for gun sales.

Still, organizers of the Evangelical Immigration Table remained confident, in part because of the range of evangelicals lending their support. “Left, right and middle are all pushing for reform,” Noorani said. “Evangelicals see immigration reform as their fight right now.”

Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College, has just completed a biography of Jimmy Carter (Basic Books). His column appears monthly in Perspectives.