Right's message to immigrants: No room at inn

December 24, 2007|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- The politics of the Grand Old Party's ultraconservative religionists produce the oddest cognitive dissonance. This campaign season has illuminated the jarring contrast between the public piety of conservative Christians - a significant faction in the Republican Party - and their intense anger toward illegal immigrants.

That hostility is all the more jarring at Christmastime, when Christians around the world commemorate the birth of Christ. You'd think that the season would bring forth an outpouring of compassion, mercy and generosity. After all, the Bible includes several admonitions to practice kindness toward "strangers."

But kindness doesn't seem to be much in the minds of Bible-thumping conservatives.

Sadie Fields, head of the Georgia Christian Alliance, has long criticized public benefits such as health care for the children of illegal immigrants. "We're against illegal immigrants because we must uphold the rule of law," she has said. "We are a nation of law. Our biblical worldview mandates that we be a people of law."

According to polls, immigration is a much more important issue among Republican voters than among Democrats. That's especially true in early voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina, where sizable pockets of illegal immigrants have settled only in the last decade or so.

The intensity of the resentment has come as a surprise to Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister. As an abortion-detesting, evolution-denying homophobe, Mr. Huckabee is fast winning the devotion of his party's Christianists, who seem to confuse the office of president with that of preacher or priest. But he has one glaring flaw: He has shown compassion toward illegal immigrants.

As governor of Arkansas, Mr. Huckabee supported legislation that would have made undocumented college students eligible for college scholarships and in-state tuition prices. Mr. Huckabee says he wouldn't "hold children responsible for something their parents did," crossing the border illegally.

For that, he is being hammered by Mitt Romney, who wants his Iowa lead back. Though he was relatively moderate on immigration as governor of Massachusetts, he now presents himself in an ad as the leader who bravely "stood up and vetoed in-state tuition for illegal aliens, opposed driver's licenses for illegals."

Polls notwithstanding, Mr. Huckabee's position seems more biblically correct.

"We welcome the stranger because the savior himself was not welcomed in mainstream society," said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. "The whole teaching of `no room at the inn' was about someone poor and marginalized and pushed off to a stable."

For Republicans less comfortable with mixing the Bible and ballots, there are worldly reasons to be wary of the deep-seated resentment of illegal immigrants among a significant GOP constituency. As President Bush has warned, Republicans risk permanent minority status if they alienate Latinos, the fastest-growing and largest ethnic group, accounting for about 15 percent of the population.

Indeed, a recent poll by the Pew Hispanic Center shows the last several months of shrill nativism have proved costly. About 57 percent of registered Hispanic voters now lean toward the Democratic Party, while only 23 percent lean toward the GOP - a gap of 34 percentage points, the poll showed. Just a year ago, the gap was just 21 percentage points.

Still, the steady drumbeat of anti-illegal-immigrant demagoguery continues on the Republican campaign trail, even as the candidates try to hype their biblical bona fides. It's a strange spectacle in a season ostensibly dedicated to peace on Earth and goodwill toward all humankind.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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