Evangelical Immigration Table Misuses Scripture, Critics Say

WASHINGTON – Evangelicals have been misusing scripture in support of immigration reform, some evangelical leaders argued at a Friday panel discussion at The Heritage Foundation.

The Hebrew word that is most often translated as "foreigner" would be more akin to a legal resident, or the holder of a green card in the United States today, explained Dr. James Hoffmeier, professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern History and Archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

The Evangelical Immigration Table is a group of close to 200 evangelical leaders calling for immigration reform based upon a set of six principles. As part of its "I Was a Stranger" challenge, supporters are asked to spend 40 days reading and praying about 40 different scripture references to foreigners or strangers. Bookmarks are available showing the 40 passages.

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Three different Hebrew words are translated as "foreigner" or "sojourner," Hoffmeier explained, but the most common one, by far, is ger, which appears 160 times. Under biblical law, a ger was legally recognized and entitled to certain rights, responsibilities and social benefits. They could participate in community worship. They were expected to observe kosher dietary laws. And, they could not be charged interest.

"People who are using scripture for the undocumented immigrant are trying to credit the non-legal resident with the same rights the biblical law calls for a legal foreign resident," he said.

Hoffmeier, author of The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, explained that he is not taking a position in the immigration debate, but his main concern is how scripture is being used in the debate.

"Because of the goodwill of people who want to treat people well, they misuse scriptures to advance a case," he claimed.

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, made a similar point. IRD does not take a position in the immigration debate, but he warned against using scripture in support of a political cause.

"Neither the Bible nor Christian tradition offers definitive guidance on U.S. immigration law in 2013," Tooley said. "There are sincere people of faith on many sides of this debate. Quoting scripture and citing religious principles in support of a political argument can be fine if done with some humility and recognition that on most political issues none of us can claim to know God's will with absolute certainty.

"Much of politics is, after all, not about absolute good versus absolute evil, but about competing interests. Christians and other people of faith who organize for a political cause must also constantly remember that in our fallen world good intent and lofty principles are not sufficient. Religious activists who claim the Bible offers direct and indisputable political answers forget the moral hazard and unintended consequences of all human projects, especially vast social and political engineering. Christian realists from St. Augustine to Reinhold Niebuhr caution against confident political crusades."

(Tooley's full remarks are available here.)

Carol Swain, professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt Law School and editor of Debating Immigration, and Kelly Monroe Kullberg, founder of Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration, raised concerns about increasing legal immigration, which is one of the goals of some of the legislation currently being debated in Congress.

Increasing the number of new immigrants would harm current low-skilled workers in the United States, Swain argued. Kullberg claimed that a large increase in new immigrants would place too much strain on government spending and debt.

"I'm not convinced we're positioned right now for good hospitality," Kullberg said. The Senate immigration reform bill "would likely grow the federal debt, the government and the welfare state, further weakening our nation. It would not even keep half of the EIT's stated goals."

Video of the panel can be viewed at The Heritage Foundation website.

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