At Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition “Road to Majority” conference in Washington this week, conservative activists and Republican lawmakers are straining to portray themselves as compassionate Christians, particularly with regard to the heated immigration debate. But the compassion they say they have for immigrants — or “illegal aliens,” as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) repeatedly referred to them in her speech — comes with a number of caveats.
On Thursday, activists were dispatched to Capitol Hill with talking points on immigration, same-sex marriage, and the Internal Revenue Service. Immigration got top billing, and the lead argument was religious: “The Bible instructs God’s people to show compassion and love for the foreigner and the immigrant.” These activists say they take the Bible literally, but their compassion isn’t unconditional. The goal of immigration should be to “strengthen, not undermine, loving and intact families,” the talking points go on, yet “we vehemently oppose amnesty and guaranteed paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently residing in the country.”
Speakers have been at loggerheads about what the Bible says about immigrants, and about compassion. At the kickoff lunch, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has proven himself capable of talking out of both sides of his mouth on the immigration bill he co-sponsored, described the immigration debate as “very divisive and conflicted.” He tried to appeal to his base’s religious instincts, saying the “essence of immigration policy is compassion,” reading from Matthew 5, prevailing on the audience to heed Jesus’ command to be the salt of the earth.
But Colleen Holcomb, executive director of the anti-immigrant Eagle Forum, insisted there is “no Biblical mandate for amnesty.” She noted that Leviticus 19:33 contains a mandate to treat the sojourner and stranger kindly — a mandate she argued applies to individuals, not the government. “As a person of faith,” she said, “I get profoundly offended when faith leaders imply that there is some sort of Biblical mandate” to pass immigration reform.
Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), the sponsor of a border security “poison pill” amendment to the Gang of Eight bill currently being debated in the Senate, avoided discussing immigration altogether. He focused, as many lawmakers addressing the group have, on the “threat” of “big, intrusive, all-encompassing government.” While the government is voraciously destroying America, only the family — or rather, a certain kind of family — can save the nation and its “exceptional” role in God’s plan and the world.
Jeb Bush, who urged his party to adopt a “hopeful” and “optimistic” message, argued that the right kind of immigrants — “fertile” ones — could make up for a demographic decline that he said undermines the conservative vision of the role of the family. Bush highlighted not compassion, but how immigration could help “rebuild the demographic pyramid.”
Fertility rates in the U.S., said Bush, “are below break-even.” But, he added, “Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families, they have more intact families.” Immigrants, he said, can be an “engine of economic prosperity.” Immigrants should “learn English, play by our rules, embrace our values, pursue their dreams in our country with a vengeance and create more opportunities for all of us.”
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the pro-reform National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, spoke with a preacher’s flair that drew far more enthusiasm than any of the politicians, or even conservative icons like Gary Bauer and Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly. “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” he told the audience, that making 11 million undocumented immigrants citizens “will automatically” mean there will be 11 million new Democratic voters. Latino evangelicals, he argued, are committed to the conservative values of “life, family, and religious liberty” and do not want to be “perpetually enslaved to entitlements from government.”
“Broaden your optics,” he added, “we need to put some salsa sauce on top of the conservative movement.”
But Steve Montenegro, a Republican state legislator from Arizona and the only Latino to vote for that state’s draconian immigration bill, insisted that most Latinos do not make immigration reform a priority. “We want to reach out to the Hispanic community, the issue is compassion,” he said. “But we have to be careful not to be seen as pandering.”
Schlafly, a long-time and vociferous opponent of immigration reform, had a warning for elected officials. “If you think your senator is going to vote wrong on this Gang of Eight amnesty bill,” she said, “call him and tell him you will support a primary opponent.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, center, greets attendees as he is followed by Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, left, after he spoke at the “Road to Majority” conference in Washington, Thursday, June 13, 2013. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak