Southern Baptist Legislators Feud Over Federal Immigration Amnesty Proposal

photo by Greg Nash.

Every couple of years, conservative Christians celebrate the rise of a new wave of conservative Christian politicians into the ranks of state and federal politics. In 2023, conservative Southern Baptists, in particular, celebrated the election of Dusty Deevers to the Oklahoma State Senate and the rise of Representative Mike Johnson to the position of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. 

While the election of Christian politicians gives cause for celebration, as these men openly stand on Biblical principles as the foundation for their policy positions, the history of conservative Christian political downgrade and present compromise by Christians in the U.S. government should give believers pause for reflection. 

Among the greatest political disappointments for Southern Baptists is that the only U.S. Presidents to ever belong to the denomination were Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, two of the furthest-left Presidents of the twentieth century. Both Carter and Clinton began on the left and were never part of the conservative movement. However, if one considers the internal politics of the Southern Baptist Convention itself, the much more common path of downgrade for Southern Baptists is the downgrade from conservatism to a centrist ever-leftward drifting state, a position exemplified by former SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission head Russell Moore.

 In 2005, Moore defended patriarchy, a position to the right of complementarianism that recognizes male headship in the civil sphere, as well as the church. Over a period of nineteen years, Moore drifted from conservative stalwart, defending a form of patriarchy, and even serving as a chairman of the board of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, to vehemently defending egalitarian pastrixes and Lifeway cash cow Beth Moore in his ivory tower as editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. 

Gender roles were only one small part of Russell Moore’s theological drift. His current political and theological positions make him virtually indistinguishable from LGBT apologist David French, whom Moore counts as an ally. On his journey to egalitarianism, Moore meandered left on numerous social issues prior to his departure from the ERLC, which explains the current state of the ERLC as an entity that has defended the building of Mosques, advocated for gun control legislation, and adopted a “whole life” incrementalist position on abortion that advocates for big-government welfare programs as an answer to eradicating the murder of pre-born children. 

In 2010, Oklahoma Southern Baptists celebrated the election of James Lankford, a representative of Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District, to the United States House of Representatives. Lankford’s position as director of Falls Creek Camp facilitated his ascendancy from ordained Southern Baptist Minister to a national political figure in the conservative movement. 

At the time of Lankford’s election, nearly 20% of Oklahoma residents were members of Southern Baptist churches. As a recognizable director and master of ceremonies of Oklahoma’s Southern Baptist youth camp from 1996 to 2009, Lankford was a convincingly conservative figure with grassroots support from Southern Baptists. Who wouldn’t trust an even-keeled, clean-cut pastor who spent much of his professional career ministering to students? 

Pew sitting Oklahomans trusted that Lankford would represent their conservative values, a trust that he successfully parleyed into a successful 2014 run for the United States Senate. Lankford replaced Tom Coburn, a retiring United States Senator and Southern Baptist, then known as one of the most fiscally and socially conservative members of the United States Senate. With Lankford’s conservative constituency, religious pedigree, and the reputation of his predecessor, conservatives expected him to represent Conservative Christian Values as a United States Senator.

In the years since Lankford’s election to the United States Senate, his committee assignments and influence have increased. Often, as Senators advance in seniority, they receive opportunities to advance themselves politically through bi-partisan relationship-building and political compromises. The temptations of Christian politicians to compromise on their core values and policy positions are not dissimilar to the temptations faced by prominent theological figures in Big Evangelicalism. 

Politicians and public theologians have expectations from their grassroots constituencies and colleagues, who are also affected by the winds of change and cultural pressures. Consequently, politicians and theologians alike tend to drift as they gain influence and a platform.

One of the most significant national political issues of 2024 is the rise of unsustainable illegal immigration. As of the start of the year, daily illegal border crossings have risen to more than 10,000 persons per day, a number that equates to 300,000 persons per month, or 3.6 million persons per year.

 Immigrant rights groups and human traffickers coach illegal immigrants to claim asylum, a practice that allows migrants to receive entry into the interior of the United States if they merely promise to appear for asylum proceedings that are backlogged years into the future. Asylum claimants are rarely tracked after release, creating a clear and present national security issue, as some come from foreign nations that are hostile to the United States. 

The recent rise in immigration has been driven chiefly by economic migrants who travel to the United States in search of jobs and better economic circumstances. Illegal immigration is expected to continue to increase throughout 2024, as human trafficking rings and economic migrants anticipate that the unimpeded immigration pipeline into the United States will be cut off if the Republican front-runner for President wins the election. Red-state governors with a heavy influx of migrants, namely Florida and Texas, have been busing immigrants to blue states to ease pressure on their budgets. Consequently, Democratic mayors and blue state governors who have received these migrants are now pressuring Washington for a comprehensive immigration solution. 

The problem with illegal immigration is not a new one. For the past 40 years, there have been numerous efforts to solve the issue by simply offering amnesty to illegal migrants and making administrative changes that have little effect on the flow of migrants. As long as the United States is a welfare state with greater benefits than most countries in the Western Hemisphere, a porous border, and immigration laws with numerous legal loopholes, it will be a destination of choice for economic migrants. Any attempt to solve the problem without addressing all of these issues is a fool’s errand.

Enter James Lankford, who, throughout 2023, criticized the Biden administration for its failure to address the border crisis. Lankford shows some understanding of the underlying issues that affect immigration, notably the asylum loophole that allows for nearly unlimited catch and release of untracked migrants who make asylum claims. 

Lankford, however, has joined hands with Senators on the left, Kyrsten Sinema (I, AZ) and Chris Murphy (D, CT), to negotiate a bad deal on immigration. Lankford and his Democratic colleagues claim that the agreement will end the illegal immigration crisis, but the real purpose is to secure additional Republican votes for the Ukraine aid package that is attached to the bill, with the faux promise of southern border security.

Fox News and The Immigration Accountability Project released a tentative list of proposed measures that were leaked in what has been dubbed the “Schumer-Lankford border deal.” 

The proposal was immediately rejected by Senate majority leader Mike Johnson, who, along with every other conservative who has been observing how Washington has repeatedly failed to solve the immigration issue, recognized that Lankford’s bill would actually make things much worse by facilitating the passage of more illegal immigrants based on false asylum claims. 

Oklahoma State Senator Dusty Deevers also promised to file a resolution condemning the bill in the Oklahoma Senate if the final text of the deal resembled what was leaked to Fox. 

James Lankford fired back at the attacks from his fellow Southern Baptists, with a Spurgeon quote to boot in typical Baptist fashion, claiming that he was a victim of an internet disinformation campaign designed to misrepresent the bill. At the same time, in his heavily ratioed response, he refused to offer any specifics on how the leaked details of the deal were inaccurate. 

Reports surrounding Lankford’s recent posturing on the issue of immigration, however, indicate that contrary to his claims that his position has not shifted, he has begun to soften his stance, with the basis for the change rooted in statements made about his faith. When questioned about the crisis by the Wall Street Journal, Lankford responded that he was told by a pastor that “it was the senator’s job to ensure that immigrants follow the law, it was the pastor’s job to love all immigrants equally regardless of their legal status.” Lankford agreed with the pastor’s statement that “We have got to be able to do both those things.”

While the idea of loving the immigrant is scriptural, the notion that scripture supports the idea that legal and illegal immigrants should receive the same treatment from governing authorities is a misnomer. Disorder at the porous southern border annually kills more than 500 people and subjects thousands of women and children to assault and rape while providing cover for Mexican drug cartels that funnel Fentanyl into the United States, killing more than 70,000 Americans annually. 

The loving thing to do, to save lives, is to ignore the antinomian wing of Christianity that creates the false dichotomy between loving illegal immigrants and justly enforcing immigration laws. The most loving law that any politician could pass would functionally seal the border, strictly enforcing points of entry where only lawful legal immigrants could pass into the United States at a flow rate controlled by Congress. Asylum applicants could then make the application and wait on the Mexican side of the border for their asylum hearing at the point of entry. Anything less than a comprehensive solution such as this is akin to merely slapping a piece of ineffective administrative flex tape over the leaky mess that is the southern border, allowing the chaos and death to continue.

James Lankford should take note that his constituents are watching. The citizens of Oklahoma who thought he was the next stalwart conservative like Tom Coburn will turn on him if he goes along with anything that resembles what has been leaked. As for every other conservative Southern Baptist who aspires to be politically or theologically influential, to be the next James Lankford or Russell Moore, take note, lest you be swept away in the leftward drift.

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