Belief Beat

Religious leaders and faith-based groups have taken an active role in the debate over immigration reform vs. enforcement – some louder than others, some conspicuously quiet. The new flare-up over Alabama’s extreme new law is no exception.

Catholic clergy tend to lead the charge against such harsh immigration enforcement policies, given that a) U.S. Catholics have a tradition of championing social justice issues; b) the church’s hierarchical nature makes it easier for the leadership to make clear statements on polarizing issues; and c) immigrant groups, including Mexicans and Filipinos, are vital members of this international body. Plus, it’s the largest Christian denomination in America** and within Arizona, one of several states taking it upon themselves to drive out illegal immigrants.

But where do evangelicals, the next largest umbrella group of American Christians (and by far the biggest in Alabama), stand on this trend? This is a glaring question mark in the coverage – painfully punctuated in Alabama, where Catholic and mainline Protestant clergy have sued to stop the strict law signed by Gov. Robert Bentley, a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday School teacher, GetReligion has observed. The Associated Press reported on the Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution in favor of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in June — a week after Bentley signed his state’s law, coincidentally? — but major outlets like  The New York Times and CNN haven’t delved too deeply into what the SBC and other predominantly white evangelical groups say about Alabama’s legislation.

I’ve done some digging, and here are three stories from smaller outlets that explore this evangelical conundrum:

As evidenced by the viciousness of comments sections on such stories, the view from the pews is even murkier when it comes to “love thy neighbor” vs. “render unto Caesar.”  Plus, the Alabama law is still relatively new — the Interfaith Immigration Coalition hasn’t issued a statement about it specifically yet, although I’m told the group’s press release condemning “Arizona’s example” last year still applies. It’ll be interesting to see how different denominations line up as all the legal challenges work their way through the courts, not to mention the court of public opinion during the Republican primaries and 2012 presidential election.

**The Association of Religion Data Archives 2000 data reports that Alabama’s Christian demographics include 1.8 million evangelicals (almost 80 percent are Southern Baptists), 150,647 Catholics and 437,206 mainline Protestants. In contrast, Arizona’s include 974,883 Catholics,  486,247 evangelicals (about 30 percent are Southern Baptists),  and 222,305 mainline Protestants (fewer than its 251,974 Mormons, for what it’s worth). The entire USA has about 62 million Catholics, 40 million evangelicals (half are Southern Baptists) and 26 million mainline Protestants.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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