American Evangelicals are gradually joining the push for immigration reform and the impetus behind this shift in emphasis is most apparent in Focus on the Family, a para-church organization founded by the controversial James Dobson. But Dr. Dobson has yielded leadership of Focus on the Family to the irenic Jim Daly, and the difference in approach is beginning to show.
James Dobson started out as a Christian psychologist with a mission to teach Christian parents how to discipline their children. As anyone who has ever spent low-quality time with undisciplined children knows, Dobson was scratching where a lot of families were feeling the itch. Originally, Dobson stayed on message and his avuncular and often humorous presentations were warmly received in Christian churches across North America. As a young pastor, I used his films on Sunday evenings. Parents felt overwhelmed by the challenges of parenting and Dobson seemed to have the answers.
James Dobson grew up with the conservative brand of California evangelicalism that coalesced behind the politics of Ronald Reagan and the UCLA-trained psychologist felt a natural affinity for hard-right politics. Initially, he kept his ideological impulses to himself, but with each passing year his public utterances became more strident and uncompromising. He wasn’t just fighting for the Christian family; he was fighting against the demon of liberalism in all its manifestations.
It is hard to imagine James Dobson signing the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform. He wouldn’t necessarily have opposed the modest proposals expressed in the document, but the Pied Piper of parental discipline had become too politicized by 2012 to embrace any statement that didn’t oppose the liberal agenda in explicit terms. Dobson had become the quintessential culture warrior.
And let’s face it, until recently immigration reform has been a progressive issue. It wasn’t something that white progressives talked about much, of course. So long as moderate-to-liberal politicians could position themselves to the left of the Republican establishment, Latinos showed their appreciation at the polls. Real reform was avoided. Until recently, the immigration policies of the Obama administration were considerably to the right of George W. Bush’s pre 9-11 position.
We shouldn’t read too much into the fact that leading evangelical leaders are supporting incremental immigration reform. The leadership of mainline Protestant denominations like the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopal Church has frequently been far more progressive on moral issues than the folks in the pews, and we may be witnessing a similar pastor-flock divide evolving in the evangelical community. Moreover, most hard right evangelical groups like the Family Research Council or the American Family Association have refused to support the Evangelical Statement on Immigration Reform.
Nonetheless, the change of tone and emphasis reflected in the evangelical statement of principles on immigration is significant and encouraging. Friends of Justice has been using the evangelical-inspired “I Was A Stranger Challenge” because it reflects solid biblical teaching about love for the immigrant and the resident alien. In his June 2012 interview with Christianity Today, Focus on the Family president Jim Daly put it like this:
I think we’re at a fork in the road in the culture now where God’s heart for humanity needs to show through us. With the core sense of the culture—this 24/7 news cycle and the polarization—we cannot take the bait as the Christian community. We’ve got to be more mindful of God’s character and how he expresses himself through us.
Can I get an “amen”?