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Saturday, December 3, 2016

For a bright, shining moment, it seemed that the abiding spirit among conservative Protestants was one of hospitality and compassion toward the “stranger.” But that turned out to be an illusion. Despite signs that Southern Baptists and other evangelicals might finally embrace the unauthorized immigrants living among us, many conservative churchgoers remain ambivalent or outright hostile to any plans to provide a path toward citizenship.

That helps explain why House Speaker John Boehner and his rebellious caucus have denounced a comprehensive immigration reform proposal recently passed by the U.S. Senate. House Republicans believe their constituents, who include most conservative evangelicals, find comprehensive immigration reform a bit of heresy — amnesty granted to lawbreakers and grifters. There is research to back that conclusion: 55 percent of white evangelical Protestants view immigrants as a “burden,” while 58 percent believe they “threaten” traditional American values, according to the Pew Research Center.

Optimists had concentrated on a less antagonistic — and slightly contradictory — finding from that Pew survey, conducted in March: An overwhelming majority of white evangelicals, 62 percent, said that undocumented workers should be allowed to stay in the country legally. While other religious groups showed greater support, even evangelicals appeared solidly behind the Biblical imperative to treat the “stranger” with charity and acceptance.

And there were other signs that conservative evangelicals might have experienced a road-to-Damascus epiphany, a realization that their belligerence toward undocumented newcomers borders on persecution. Two years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest and most influential denomination of conservative Protestants — called for “a just and compassionate path to legal status.”

Sure, the language was vague enough to give skeptics room for cover. Still, it denounced bigotry and harassment of the undocumented, which seemed a big step down the path of righteousness for a denomination that didn’t get around to apologizing for endorsing slavery until 1995.

More recently, several prominent evangelicals organized a group called the Evangelical Immigration Table to push to legalize undocumented workers. Prominent SBC pastors — including Richard Land and the organization’s current president, Bryant Wright — have endorsed the Table’s principles.