Could NAE's Pro-Immigration Reform Stance Open Door to Bipartisanship?

President Obama may get a shot at ushering in a new era of bipartisanship in Washington as he had promised with the largest evangelical body in the country having recently stated its support for immigration reform, including a pathway for 12 million illegal U.S. immigrants to become citizens.

When President George W. Bush was trying to pass immigration reform in 2007, the National Association of Evangelicals – which claims to represent 30 million U.S. evangelicals – abstained from taking an official position on the issue.

Now, two years later, the NAE has taken a firm and very public stance in support of comprehensive immigration reform. Top NAE leaders earlier this month even testified before the U.S. Senate in support of an earned pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Leaders of the evangelical body explained that undocumented immigrants, like legal residents, are made in the image of God. The current immigration system, they contended, however, treats them inhumanely. The NAE has called for more humane immigration laws that treat immigrants with respect, while also reinforcing border security and other measures to protect the country.

Most NAE members are self-described social conservatives. Protecting the sanctity of human life and defending traditional marriage have always been key aims for the NAE, despite the addition of more progressive issues such as climate change and denuclearization to its list in recent years.

As evangelicals are a key constituency of the GOP and have a strong influence on the party's leaders, the NAE's latest immigration resolution has the potential to get Republican lawmakers to join their Democratic counterparts to support immigration reform.

The issue now, however, is whether NAE leaders will be able to convince its constituency to follow its lead.

Back in the summer of 2007, when then-President Bush was working on immigration reform, Republican lawmakers had kept the bill from advancing in Congress. Bush had pleaded with lawmakers in his party to support comprehensive immigration reform, and even made the unusual move of having a Republican luncheon on Capitol Hill in an effort to garner votes.

The luncheon came a week after the immigration reform bill failed a cloture motion and was consequently pulled from the Senate floor.

Though 80 percent of Democrats had voted in favor of ending debate on the bill and moving towards a final vote, only seven Republicans had voted in favor of moving immigration reform forward.

Despite the NAE's recent push for immigration reform, it is unclear when the White House will move the issue forward. Though President Obama has said immigration reform is one of his top domestic issues to address, his administration as well as Congress currently are preoccupied with the economic crisis and the contentious health care debate.

Also, not all NAE members have backed the organization's new position. The Salvation Army, one of the largest groups in the NAE, already made known that it has not endorsed the resolution because it wants to remain neutral on the immigration issue in terms of U.S. policy.

Still, progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis and other religious leaders associated with the Left praised the NAE for its support of immigration reform.

"You know the wind has shifted in Congress when moderate and conservative evangelical leaders testify before the U.S. Senate in support of an earned pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants," wrote Wallis, who is not a member of the more theologically conservative NAE, in a Huffington Post column Wednesday.

The head of the anti-poverty ministry Sojourners went on to compliment the evangelical body for setting a model for all Christians to take "seriously the call of scripture and act prophetically" when it comes to moral issues.