Cliff Williams, 72, a longtime professor at two prestigious evangelical universities, used to be a “staunch conservative.” Through his teaching and his faith, he eventually became passionate about social justice—including immigration reform.
Personally, Williams has nothing to gain from comprehensive immigration reform. His European ancestors came to the American South as far back as 1792, but aside from that, he knows very little about them. Born in Chicago, he grew up in the 1950s in a conservative Baptist family that had no contact with immigrant communities. He spent his childhood in a white suburb, actively ignored current events, and felt disconnected to the broader social transformation that came out of the Civil Rights Movement and second-wave feminism. He and his wife, who married in the mid-1960s, embraced traditional gender roles. In slow, gradual increments, however, through studying scripture and opening their hearts to the compassionate message of the gospel, the couple shifted from a conservative mindset to a more progressive one, all while holding fast to their Christian faith.
Over decades teaching philosophy at Trinity International University and Wheaton College, both renowned evangelical institutions, Williams crossed paths with people from more diverse backgrounds and developed a deep passion for social justice, especially for individuals on the margins of society. When one former student became an attorney with Justice for Our Neighbors, which helps welcome immigrants into local communities, Williams felt “impressed with the importance of immigration reform.”
“What stands out to me is that immigrants have the same feature that African-Americans, women, the poor, and Asian-Americans have, namely, that they are not well accepted by the rest of American culture,” he says.
Williams explains his desire for immigration reform through Jesus’ Golden Rule (“Do to others what you want them to do to you”) and also through philosopher John Rawls’ “original position” concept. In this hypothetical situation, people are asked to shape society from behind a “veil of ignorance” in which they don’t know whether they are rich or poor, healthy or disabled, oppressed or free. “So the question is, what kind of society would you set up if you were in that position?” asks Williams. “The answer is that everyone would think: ‘What if I were the one who got sick all the time or had an IQ of 92 or didn’t have access to a well-paying job? I’d want a social and governmental system in which job opportunities were actively promoted. If I were in a country in which I was persecuted, I would want an international system in which I could flee my country and live somewhere else.”
I believe in justice, fairness and equal opportunity for all. These are the values embodied in Jesus’ Golden Rule.
Williams wants to see the rights and privileges that he enjoys as a white evangelical man spread equally among all people. “I believe in justice, fairness and equal opportunity for all,” he says. “These are the values embodied in Jesus’ Golden Rule.” For these reasons, evangelical support for anti-immigration candidates like Donald Trump and vitriolic rhetoric against immigrant communities, frustrates him. “I feel revolted. I feel ashamed to be called an evangelical,” he says.
Williams says that evangelicals have taken on a public image that is “too oppressive of women, too suspicious, too war-like, too white, too restricted in their public concern to abortion and homosexuality.” Williams inhabits evangelical academia, the very institutions that shape evangelical culture and thought, and like many influential evangelicals, he is calling for a radical change, one that presses for justice for all, including immigrants.