While the Republican presidential candidates compete to take the hardest line on immigration, Joseph Castleberry, president of evangelical Christian Northwest University in Kirkland, is preaching a very different message.
“I’m going to have Mexican grandchildren and I can’t wait!”
Joseph Castleberry, president of evangelical Northwest University in Kirkland, and a conservative who counts Ronald Reagan as one of his political heroes, has a lot of surprises up his sleeve, including this. One of his three daughters, he told the crowd at an Auburn luncheon, is married to a Mexican American. He beamed.
Castleberry delightedly defies expectations, even while challenging you to think about why you have those expectations in the first place. Yes, he is a 55-year-old white Republican who unabashedly supports immigrants — even, to some extent, immigrants who are here illegally — because of the spiritual, cultural and economic revitalization he says they bring to the United States.
That makes him an anomaly this political season. Republican presidential candidates — prodded by Donald Trump, who early on said he would build a “great wall” to stop Mexico from sending rapists and other criminals here and later proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country — launched into a competition over who could take the hardest line on immigration.
Yet Castleberry contends there’s nothing inherently anti-immigrant about conservatism, and certainly not about evangelicalism. He strikes out at “nativist” rhetoric, as he calls it, in his book, “The New Pilgrims: How Immigrants are Renewing America’s Faith and Values,” released last fall in English and Spanish.
He aimed the book at conservative audiences and lucked out in terms of timing.
“I had no idea the issue was going to be as hot as it was,” he said. Some 70 talk-radio programs across the country, along with Fox News and various other TV outlets, have interviewed him. He has also been speaking at churches and Rotary clubs, like the one that co-sponsored the Auburn event.
“Who is doing the greater danger to the rule of law?” he asked at the luncheon. “Immigrants? Or a Congress who knows the system is broken and won’t fix the laws or enforce them?”
Despite the occasional chiding, Castleberry, generally upbeat and inclined toward old-fashioned courtesy learned from his Southern upbringing, mainly expounds upon the positive contributions of immigrants.
Through intermarriage, he said, immigrants infuse the culture with their family values, tempering an individualism that “tends to get out of control in America.”
They are also more likely to start businesses than native-born Americans, he asserts, “whether they be eBay and Google or the local taco truck.” (eBay was started by French-born Pierre Omidyar, and Russian immigrant Sergey Brin co-founded Google.)
Who is doing the greater danger to the rule of law? Immigrants? Or a Congress who knows the system is broken and won’t fix the laws or enforce them?” - Joseph Castleberry
Some of his most passionate reasoning concerns the nation’s spiritual life. “A palpable sense of decline hangs over many sectors of American Christianity like winter clouds,” he writes. And he sees immigrants, who are overwhelmingly religious, and often ardently so, as the sunshine breaking through.
He writes admiringly about immigrant churches like the 1,500-strong, Spanish-language Centro de Vida church in Tacoma. Castleberry speaks there regularly, in Spanish.
“He says that Jesus himself was an immigrant,” laughed Peruvian-born senior pastor Roberto Tejada.
“A child racist”
Castleberry honed his Spanish, and deepened his relationship with its speakers, during 20 years in Latin America. He spent them in periodic stints, including one teaching Greek, Hebrew and the New Testament at Christian University of the Assemblies of God in El Salvador.
His international bent is far from unique in the Pentecostal movement, of which the Assemblies of God is a part. James Wellman, chairman of the University of Washington’s comparative religion program, and a onetime fellow divinity student with Castleberry at Princeton University, pointed out that Pentecostalism has seen tremendous growth in Latin America and Africa.
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“Many Pentecostals have a broader and deeper commitment to equality than most liberal Protestants,” said Wellman, who authored the 2008 book “Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest.” He noted that liberal Protestantism is a mainly “white movement.”
Northwest University is affiliated with the Assemblies of God, and accepts only professed Christians into its undergraduate program. Castleberry came to the school of roughly 2,000 in 2007.
In his office, housed in the Seahawks’ former headquarters and overlooking the athletic fields, the president explained his pro-immigrant feelings are also linked to growing up in what was then “one of the most racist communities in America”: the small Alabama town of Demopolis.
The son of a paper-mill worker, he recalled his “career as a child racist,” going door to door during the civil-rights era to get support for an anti-busing campaign. He radically changed his mindset after being bused to an African-American school and making his first black friend.
“When you grow up in a sewer, you know what it smells like,” he said, citing the “racist tones” he hears in the current talk about immigrants.
He observed that Republicans will have to get past this if they want to recruit immigrant voters. That was a primary goal expressed after the last presidential election, when GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s famous comment about “self-deportation” cost him the Latino vote, and arguably the election.
“It’s not a fixed law of nature that immigrants have to become Democrats,” Castleberry said. He noted, like Republican analysts after the 2012 election, that many immigrants are socially conservative.
Maybe so, but some conservatives remain suspicious. “Do they vote their values?” asked KTTH 770 AM talk-radio host Todd Herman after having Castleberry on his program last fall. “It doesn’t appear they do.”
In the end, said Chris Vance, a Republican challenger this year to Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, and a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, “the people in the party who wanted to reach out to Hispanics got shouted down by the people who don’t.”
Losing the culture wars
And there’s never more shouting than when it comes to specific policies, which divide even people who welcome immigrants into their religious fold.
“For me as a Christian American, to be hostile to people from other places is to violate my spiritual mandate,” said Joe Fuiten, pastor emeritus of Cedar Park Church in Bothell, which has had thriving Iranian, Japanese and Spanish wings.
Yet Fuiten supports building a wall on the border “if that’s what it takes” to keep illegal and dangerous immigrants out, and views Muslims with particularwariness.
While recognizing that Islam “has a problem” with terrorism, Castleberry, in contrast, said he and his friends see Muslims primarily as “neighbors that they want to share the gospel with.”
As for illegal immigration, the university president criticized President Obama’s executive order halting deportations for roughly 5 million people living here in the shadows — an order the U.S. Supreme Court announced in January it will review. Yet, Castleberry’s critique lies in his belief that the president exceeded his authority, not in the order’s substance, with which he is sympathetic.
That’s heresy in some conservative circles, where the order is viewed as an outrageous “bureaucratic fiat,” in Herman’s words. Added the talk-show host, “We’re talking about people who broke a law.”
Castleberry concedes the point, which is why he said he’s not in favor of “amnesty.” Yet he said the U.S. is guilty, too — of a “moral dishonesty” that seeks to punish immigrants who are in the country illegally while at the same time taking advantage of their labor.
Consequently, he said, deportation is too harsh a punishment, preferring the idea of a fine.
A number of evangelical leaders across the country are on the same page. Along with Castleberry, many are part of an Evangelical Immigration Table, which lays out a set of principles, including allowing immigrants a path toward legalization.
That would seem to set the stage for evangelicals — known for conservative stances on issues such as abortion, prayer in the schools and same-sex marriage — to exert a different kind of political influence.
Yet, the Cruz win in Iowa suggests that rank-and-file evangelicals may differ with their leaders on immigration. “Sometimes social class values will outweigh religious perspectives,” Castleberry said, adding, “some, not all, working-class white people are taking the bait to blame immigrants for the so-called disappearance of the middle class.”
Whatever their views, evangelicals may do little more than vote. This generation has largely backed away from politics, according to Castleberry. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, he noted, is defunct.
He explained it this way: “The culture wars are already over, and evangelical Christians lost.”
“It’s not what it was,” agreed Vance, speaking of the evangelical force in politics. He said back when Ellen Craswell ran for governor as the Republican nominee in 1996, speaking about “God’s plan” for Washington, “you saw people coming to Republican party meetings with Bibles.” Those people have dropped out, replaced by Tea Partiers bringing copies of the U.S. Constitution.
Castleberry isn’t exactly trying to get evangelicals back into politics. But he is trying to change hearts and minds.
And he had some success at least with Roger Tyson, a retired physician who doesn’t identify with any party but leans conservative. After Castleberry gave his speech in Auburn last month, Tyson walked up to the university president and asked tough questions, including about immigrants taking away American jobs.
Castleberry cited a 2015 study showing that immigrants, by increasing consumer demand, actually create jobs — on average 1.2 per immigrant.
“He had a really good response,” Tyson conceded afterward, noticeably impressed.