Protesters Jaren Rodriguez marches to the border with other protesters dressed in cap and gown as they prepare to turn themselves in at the U.S.-Mexico border during a Dream Act protest in Tijuana, Mexico on Monday, March 10, 2014. Approximately 40 protesters turned themselves in at the border in an attempt to get arrested trying to enter the United States, to bring light to deportations by the Obama administration. REUTERS/Sandy Huffaker (MEXICO - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY CRIME LAW EDUCATION IMMIGRATION) Protesters dressed in caps and gowns march to the border as they prepare to turn themselves in at the U.S.-Mexico border during a Dream Act protest in Tijuana, Mexico, on March 10.  (Sandy Huffaker/Reuters)

Last week, I suggested that social conservatives stymied on the anti-gay marriage front might turn their attention to other issues, including those with a moral component, such as immigration reform. Exemplifying this approach, Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, and Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, write that House Republicans should move ahead on immigration reform: “Reform will require moral courage and leadership, but it is necessary. Because of the federal government’s failure to secure the border, antiquated policies and a patchwork of conflicting regulations, there are now millions of people who have overstayed visas or crossed our borders illegally. The current system is inadequate for the country’s needs, and it is inequitable as well.”

They argue that there is more at issue than economic or national security concerns:

The immigrant community is brimming with hard-working, entrepreneurial, family-oriented men and women who yearn for freedom and aspire to be Americans in the fullest sense. Others violate our laws, committing crime and living off the system. As Christians and conservatives, we have had to ask ourselves how to move forward.

First, we need to maintain respect for the rule of law. That means no blanket amnesty or guarantee of citizenship. People who entered the country illegally should admit their wrongdoing, pay fines and back taxes, submit to background checks, learn English, and demonstrate their ability to support themselves.

Those who desire citizenship should take their place behind those who have begun that process. There should be no special pathway for those who entered the country illegally. Criminals need to be deported.

But we also must remember that every individual is created in the image of God and precious in His sight. This means laws for how immigrants will enter the U.S. in the future and how those already here are dealt with should acknowledge each person’s God-given dignity. That means a system that allows new Americans to find safe and legal work to support their immediate families.

In making this argument, the authors adhere to sound rules in dealing with the intersection of faith and public policy.

First, as religious and moral leaders, they have an obligation to identify areas of public concerns that have a faith dimension. In doing so, they force their readers and congregants to consider that they must address the issue from the perspective of U.S. security or U.S. workers and with due regard for the innate value of those here illegally. Whether addressing civil rights or immigration or a safety net for the poor, religious leaders, at a minimum, can alert us to the presence of an ethical issue without necessarily prescribing a specific solution. Calling for empathy — “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9) — is an entirely appropriate role for religious leaders. It is a direct challenge to those who say they have no concern for these people or that they put zero value on their well-being.

Second, the authors make clear that they are not arguing for violation of or disregard for the rule of law. They are not demanding special treatment for people of faith or that religious beliefs take precedence over national concerns. They are asking for the issue not to be ignored. (“Reform is the right thing to do for our economy and needed for a safe and secure border. It is also the smart thing to do for our future and the moral thing to do for the soul of our nation. Congress has an opportunity to act. The House should pass legislation that reflects conservative values of strong and secure borders, the rule of law, economic opportunity, and strengthening of the family. Doing the right thing takes not only wisdom, but courage. We pray that our political leaders will exercise both for the good of our nation.”) Focusing society on a current problem, then, is another important function of religious leadership.

Third, they do not condemn or demonize people with whom they disagree. This is not only consistent with their religious system, but it also is smart politics. If you are going to persuade people, it’s a bad idea to stigmatize opponents. Calling adversaries bigots or evil or selfish is never a good way to get a civil political discussion off the ground.

The piece also contains an implicit challenge to opponents of all immigration reform, whether or not it involves citizenship: What would you do with people already here, and how is that consistent with your religious values? To the degree to which some opponents, including virulent anti-immigrant groups, call for literally rounding people up and sending them home after 10 or 20 years or more in the United States, it is incumbent for them to explain how that is consistent with American values (be they religious or secular). If one preaches the value of traditional family, or looks askance at an oppressive regulatory state or wants to highlight American inclusiveness or opportunity, it’s hard to square that with the sort of police state that would be needed to round up 11 million people, separate them from family members here legally and eject them from the country.

Religious leaders run into trouble when they stigmatize opponents as sinners or suggest religious scripture has specific policy answers. (The graduated income tax is not dictated by sacred texts). But when, as these two leaders do, they add a faith-based dimension to an issue of public policy, demand society address an issue and urge politicians to resolve the issue without trampling on values that are religious and secular, they serve a religious and civic function. The most revered religious leaders have always done so.