Whatever pundits make of Donald Trump’s August 31 “what the hell are we doing?” speech on immigration policy, the Republication nominee -- win or lose -- has put the issue atop the U.S. national agenda where it will remain following Election Day.
On the religion aspect, for reasons that blend history, solidarity or moral conviction, U.S. Catholics, ethnic and minority Protestants, white “mainline” denominations, Judaism, Islam and other non-Christian religions generally favor liberal policies. But what about the conservative and evangelical Protestants, the sizable source of so many Republican votes?
Consider the huge Southern Baptist Convention, a bastion of conservatism in theology and many socio-political matters. A resolution from the SBC’s 2011 annual meeting expressed the complexity of this issue, favoring fairness and charity toward aliens alongside respect for the nation’s laws. The Baptists said that once the borders are secured, “a just and compassionate path to legal status” should be provided to “undocumented immigrants” who make “appropriate” restitution.
The 2016 SBC meeting urged churches to welcome and aid refugees, although it favored “the strictest security measures possible in the refugee screening and selection.” Reporters simply must keep watching the SBC, with its rising number of African-American and Latino churches, as well as some leaders who are speaking their minds on race and immigration (think the Rev. Russell Moore).
The billionaire’s unusual candidacy has rocked and split the Republican Party. Particularly for churchgoers who are committed Republicans, or those who vote Republican because of moral and cultural issues, it’s worth thinking about the far more desperate political party chaos before the Civil War. It's time for some history.
In 1848, former President Martin Van Buren’s new Free Soil Party opposed extension of slavery to the western territories and won 10 percent of the presidential vote, followed by 5 percent in 1852. The Democratic Party advocated a states’ rights policy on slavery. Its chief rival, the Whig Party, began unraveling after 1852, largely due to its internal conflicts over slavery.
In 1856, the Free Soil cause was taken over by the newborn Republican Party, which won an impressive 33 percent of the popular vote in its first presidential campaign. From the start, the Republicans took a moralistic tone. The founding platform denounced “those twin relics of barbarism -- Polygamy, and Slavery.” (The Mormon church shed its polygamy practice under federal government pressure in 1890.)
There was another religio-moral issue in 1856, pressed by the new American Party. Its nominee, former President Millard Fillmore, was also endorsed by the Whig remnant and won 22 percent of the vote. This virulently anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant faction was nicknamed the “Know Nothings” for its secrecy. The party wanted a 21-year wait before an immigrant could qualify for citizenship, and said only citizens would hold public office. It also stated that no office-holder should harbor “allegiance or obligation” to “any foreign prince, potentate or power” -- an obvious swipe at the papacy.
The victorious Democrats of 1856 took a strong pro-immigrant stance. The Republican Party ducked this dispute entirely while focusing on slavery.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans won the White House for the first time with a plurality due to a three-way split among Democrats. That changed the course of U.S. history. The Republicans could well have calculated they’d benefit from an anti-immigrant appeal, since 22 percent of the populace had favored Fillmore. Instead, they added an important new platform plank:
“The Republican Party is opposed to any change in our naturalization laws or any state legislation by which the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad.”
Whatever the 2016 election results, Republicans (and thus Christians who are Republicans or Christians who tend to vote Republican) will need to decide among the Lincoln approach, Trump’s proposed crackdown, the SBC’s mediating outlook or something different.