A major theme at the Freedom Federation’s Awakening conference last weekend was the need for more effective outreach to Hispanic Christians. Religious Right leaders who are trying to bring more Latinos into the conservative political movement know they are swimming upstream against the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the GOP primaries and the Tea Party, the impact of anti-immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama, and the hostility of GOP elected officials to the DREAM Act. They fear that the well-earned antipathy of Latino voters toward the GOP could prevent them from defeating Barack Obama, which they believe is necessary to prevent the country’s slide into socialist, secularist tyranny.
Several strategies for repairing the breach were on display.
To GOP leaders and the conservatives attending the Awakening, organizers and speakers delivered a surprisingly blunt denunciation of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has led to the disastrously low polling numbers for Mitt Romney and the Republican Party. At Saturday’s panel on immigration, if you closed your eyes you could almost imagine that you were at a La Raza-sponsored gathering. All the panelists talked about the need for multifaceted “comprehensive immigration reform,” a term that has been vilified by right-wing activists and Republicans as code for “amnesty.”
The Southern Baptists’ Richard Land said it was “absurd” to deport teens whose parents had brought them to the US as children. “I was depressed and angered by the response that Rick Perry got at the debate when he was defending the in-state tuition for the children of undocumented workers in Texas,” said Land, who decried those who “would condemn them to the margins of society and waste a precious national recourse.” During the presidential primary, Land lamented, “the Republican party has painted itself into a corner, and then having surveyed the damage, applied a second coat.” He said many people think Florida Sen. Marco Rubio would be the best possible running mate for Romney, because his support for a “conservative DREAM Act” (which falls far short of the real thing) would be a step toward improving a “dismal and indefensible policy by the Republican Party and the Republican candidates.”
Robert Gittelson, a businessman and co-founder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, called strategies to push immigrants to “self-deport” by making their lives miserable – Romney’s stated approach -- “unbiblical” and “cruel.” Barrett Duke, Vice President for Public Policy and Research and Director of the Research Institute of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, talked about a paper he has co-written with Land for Regent University’s law journal, which reviews Bible verses about treatment of strangers. He criticized an “offended citizen” or “law and order” approach to illegal immigration, urging conservatives to take a love-thy-neighbor perspective. “I am not a citizen of the United States first,” he said, “I am a Christian first.”
Panelists even opposed Arizona’s wildly-popular-among-conservatives SB 1070. Regent University president Carlos Campo said the law was “impractical” and made it “almost impossible” for law enforcement not to engage in ethnic profiling. Gittelson worried that if the law is upheld by the Supreme Court, 21 to 23 states would pass similar laws within a year.
And Regent University’s Campo even cautioned against putting too much emphasis on “assimilation,” saying that the “melting pot can burn off some important things.” Land added that the US had been enriched in its culture, cuisine, and music by waves of immigration, though all agreed on the importance of English remaining a common language in the US.
Friday night’s opening session was devoted to Hispanic outreach. Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, was scheduled to give the keynote, but he was kept away by a basketball injury so organizers showed his speech from a previous gathering. Rodriguez tries to sell conservatives on bringing Latino evangelicals into the movement; he gets a warm reception by preaching a Religious Right-Tea Party view of government, saying the big-government “Pharaoh” wants to silence Christians and make people dependent on the government.
But Rodriguez and others are also pushing an even bolder strategy for convincing white evangelicals to take a friendlier view of undocumented immigrants – one that was picked up on by other speakers at the Awakening. You could call it the Hispanic Exceptionalism corollary to the theory of divinely inspired American Exceptionalism that is a constant refrain at these gatherings. According to this Hispanic Exceptionalism theory, illegal Hispanic immigrants have actually sent by God to save America from itself.
Self-proclaimed “apostle” Cindy Jacobs told Awakening attendees that God has gathered Latino people to the United States and given them a special emphasis on families and children. As RWW has reported, Rodriguez recently made the same pitch on evangelist James Robison’s TV show. “Now, why has God permitted these Hispanics to arrive in America in the 21st Century? I think it’s a prophetic purpose, and that is to redeem Christianity or we will end up even worse than post-modern Europe.” Rodriguez said the Hispanic community “can once again help make the gospel of Jesus Christ, the church, the most influential institution in America” and he warned that “when we talk about deporting, we are deporting Christianity in America in the 21st century.”