Based on interviews with evangelical leaders, political strategists, and policymakers, this is an inside look at how the evangelical movement became a major backer of immigration reform, how it turned traditional political allegiances on their head, and what the future holds.
The West Wing wanted to have a faith leader introduce President Obama's major address on immigration reform at American University in June 2010. Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, but it was clear that this effort would require conservative constituencies to push recalcitrant Republicans -- especially in the Senate -- along. So when the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was asked to recommend an evangelical to introduce the president, Bill Hybels was the clear choice (full disclosure: I served in the office at the time).
Hybels is the pastor of the 12,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, and he's also one of the most respected voices in church leadership around the world, with a leadership-and-training network including thousands of churches worldwide. And, for moral and practical reasons, he and his wife Lynne have long been strong supporters of comprehensive reform.
Hybels explained to me that his interest in immigration reform was at first a result of the makeup of his congregation. In 2003, Willow Creek started a Spanish-language service to accommodate their congregants, and soon learned that as many as nine out of 10 participants were undocumented. "That led us on a journey where we searched the scripture and we asked, 'What does God say about immigrants and the strangers within our gates?'" Hybels said. He concluded that the immigration system was broken, and that existing laws were "not serving the purpose for which they had been established."
Hybels was convinced reform was necessary, and so when he received the call from the White House, he left his vacation early and made his way to American University. "I wanted to send the signal that there are tens of millions of serious and intelligent Christ-followers in this country who actually believe we need to forge a better way forward for those who are undocumented," Hybels explained.
Before the speech, Hybels met the president backstage briefly, and Obama thanked him for leaving his vacation early to make it to the event. Chuckling, Hybels recalled that he and Obama asked each other the same question at virtually the same time: "Are you serious about this?"
They both laughed. Hybels said, "I'm dead serious about it." Obama replied, "Great -- so am I." They then shared a brief moment of prayer, and Hybels walked up to the podium to introduce the president of the United States.
At a time when many believe the influence of faith is waning in American life, the White House's top second-term legislative priorities -- immigration reform, gun control, climate-change legislation, nuclear non-proliferation -- all depend on an active religious lobby. On immigration progressives and Democratic strategists embrace, to a striking degree, the central role evangelicals will have to play in any successful attempt at reform.