08/19/2010 02:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Religion Can Save America. Case In Point -- Immigration Reform

Our country is in deep distress. The economy continues to stumble. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs and millions more fear for theirs. Our public discourse, prodded by trash-talking commentators and the Internet free-for-all, has sunk to new lows.

Faced with this crisis, our politicians have failed us. They offer minimal action and little hope.

This is religion's time. Yes, the claim will be made that religion is more a source of division than harmony. But I suggest that at this perilous moment, a grand coalition of religious voices can lift us out of our stupor and move us forward.

Let us take one example. The immigration issue is tearing this country apart. The emotions that it generates are so heated that our political parties refuse to act. In the meantime, anti-immigrant hysteria has reached new heights; the language used every day to describe the 12 million immigrants who are here illegally is vicious, hateful, and utterly shameful. Religious people, in particular, know that such language is wrong and that we are all brothers and sisters under the parenthood of God.

In these difficult times, can religious Americans of both the right and left join together on a common platform? I believe that they can.

We will recognize that the flow of illegal immigrants must stop, or at the very least, be drastically reduced. If immigrants continue to pour across the border at the current rate, no solution will be possible. We will therefore call for greatly enhanced border security and much tougher penalties for employers who hire illegals.

We will state, in plain language, that this great country will not put 12 million people on buses, trucks, and trains and send them across the border. Millions of crying children will not be forcibly removed from their homes. Such a step would be impossible, a violation of all that we hold dear and a blow to our self-image as a compassionate nation. These immigrants will be given a path to full citizenship that will ultimately integrate them into American life, offering the benefits but imposing the duties that all Americans share. Some will cry "amnesty," but in our hearts we all know there is no other way.

These will be the essential elements of our platform, and the key to holding our coalition together will be demanding that it be accepted as a package. Liberals will not talk of citizenship for immigrants without calling for action at our borders, and conservatives will not call for border security without a path to citizenship.

And as religious people, we will frame the issue in religious language that Americans will understand. We will remind them that Americans have done reasonably well at loving our neighbors but not nearly as well at loving the stranger. And we will prod them to recall that the Bible instructs us -- repeatedly, insistently, emphatically -- to treat the stranger in our midst as a native. If you mistreat the stranger or the outsider, you have no claim to being a religious man or woman.

I am not naïve. When Americans are struggling to support their families, fears fester, prejudice grows, and demagogues thrive. It will take courage for religious leaders -- pastors, priests, rabbis and imams -- to drive home a religious message that many in their flock do not want to hear. But it is at precisely such times that religion is needed to be the moral tutor of all humankind.

And it is possible. Evangelicals have recently become active in support of immigration reform. The Catholic Church, mainline Protestants, Muslims and Jews are broadly sympathetic. As hysteria increases and ugly, racist terms like "anchor babies" gain currency, why not join together as religious Americans to send the message that an immigrant, who may not be exactly in our image, is nonetheless in God's image? Why not bring our voices together to say that America can find a resolution to the immigration crisis that will be fair and just, and that recognizes the humanity of our fellow human beings?

And after this is done, this same coalition of religious Americans, inspired by their success and empowered by their faith, can turn their attention to the other crises of American life.