The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is perhaps one of the most influential Evangelical leaders in the United States, particularly when it comes to representing the interests of Hispanic communities. As the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Rodriguez represents “more than 100 million Hispanic Evangelicals assembled in over 40,118 U.S. churches and over 450,000 churches spread throughout the Spanish-speaking diaspora,” according to his organization’s website. He has worked alongside Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and read a prayer at Donald Trump’s inauguration, making him the first Hispanic Evangelical to ever participate in the ceremony. In the following Q&A with Rodriguez, conducted Feb. 3, the Assemblies of God pastor and bestselling author shares his thoughts on immigration under a Trump presidency.
What is your position in terms of President Trump’s directive about building a wall along the Mexico border and his desire to ramp up deportation efforts for undocumented immigrants?
As it pertains to the wall, the wall is an issue of national security, so I’m one who has articulated since I’ve been an adviser to President Bush, the idea that we do need to increase border security. We need to have some sort of affirmation of our sovereignty. There’s a narco-trafficking war taking place in northern Mexico. It behooves us to make sure that we protect our border. So whether it’s a physical wall, a virtual wall, a wall that’s a hybrid engaging infrared technology, satellite imaging, and so forth, at the end of the day I believe that will be the inevitable outcome. So the law is both a necessity and an antidote to not just illegal immigration but addressing the issue of the narco-trafficking issues impacting the border of Mexico. That’s not necessarily an egregious issue whatsoever.
As it pertains to deportation, I had a conversation with the president last June. I had a conversation with the transition team over a month ago, prior to the inauguration, where they assured me that there will be no deportation force. Where they assured me explicitly that good, God-fearing people, terrific people would not be deported. So until they violate their word, I’m going to trust them that they will execute the very promise that they made me, that they subsequently declared and issued upon “60 Minutes” and in Time magazine. So it’s not anecdotal. It’s a commitment they made to me and 50 other bishops that were on the line [during a phone call] that I facilitated and invited to participate in. But they likewise made that commitment on the “60 Minutes” program the Sunday immediately after the election and in the Time magazine interview. So I do believe at the end of the day…of course, deporting 10, 12 million people is not practical. It would require such a massive police force and that’s not going to happen.
If, by some chance, that were to happen or something close to that happened, how would the churches affiliated with your organization and their communities be affected?
That would be like an extreme, unbelievable … stretch of a hypothetical. So, again, if I were a betting man, which I’m not, I’m 99.9999 percent sure it’s not going to happen. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, for the sake of your question, that there would be a massive pivot and all of a sudden they would attempt to deport 10 million people—because they are going to deport those involved in the nefarious activities and I actually agree with that. I agree with the president. If you’re here and you’re selling drugs, if you’re raping and killing, we’re going to kick you out of America and you deserve to be kicked out. But if you’re God-fearing and you’re hardworking and you’re here, even though you entered illegally, and even if your children were born here, we’re not going to separate families. That’s not who we are as a country. It’s not Christian. It’s not American. So we’re not going to deport them.
But let’s just say, in the worst-case scenario, that there’s this radical policy shift and he violates his promises and they attempt to capture and deport 11 million people, 12 million people, good luck with that. Yes, the churches will become sanctuaries. But beyond that, 11, 12 million people will hide under the shadows… The point is, you know, let’s just say they’ve been hiding for all these years. My people know how to hide. So, good luck with that.
Some Christians have called President Trump’s executive order targeting refugees and other visa holders a “Muslim ban,” because it specifically cites seven majority-Muslim countries. Some have also been critical of Trump promising to prioritize Christian refugees, going so far as to call this preference unbiblical. What are your thoughts on that?
I was very uniquely critical of the president when he was campaigning on his rhetoric regarding immigrants in the Latino community. But then I did have a conversation with him. He did reach out, we engaged and we’ve had constant conversations, and we are in conversations now with his administration on the matter. I’m an Evangelical pastor, so as a pastor, I have this crazy belief that if the good Lord Jesus permits these people to come over to our country, this may be the only way we could ever reach them with the gospel of Christ. So as an Evangelical pastor committed to sharing the good news of salvation exclusively through Christ, I believe these refugees coming here from different currencies and different faith narratives, this may be the only way that we can get the message of hope and love and grace and truth to these people. So that’s me as the Evangelical pastor.
Now, Samuel Rodriguez the American, who wants to protect his children and his children’s children, the word “ban” is a strong term because in reality, what the president is doing is a temporary moratorium until there is a rigorous system in place that will vet those that are attempting to come into this country. So I resonate with that. I just think the roll-out, the way it was rolled out, the bureaucracy could have been done better, meaning dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s, addressing issues of green card holders and visa holders and so forth so people won’t be stuck in airports, I think that should have been done in a more fluid way. We should have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s. So the spirit or the motivation behind it, as it pertains to protecting Americans from those who want to cause us harm through a very vigorous reading system, I agree with. The roll-out could have been done better.
As an Evangelical pastor though, we need to continue to become a nation that will welcome refugees and we welcome those that are legitimately seeking asylum and freedom from persecution and prosecution because of their faith narrative or their ethnicity and so forth. Now as it pertains to Christians becoming the majority, well the number one most persecuted group on the planet right now are Christians. As you know, well-documented by the United Nations. The number one most persecuted religious group on the planet are Christians. So in my world, when he says we should prioritize Christians, I don’t know if we should prioritize Christians. But I do believe [it] should be that from a numerical standpoint, the rubric should be respective of current global reality as it pertains to those who are being persecuted and prosecuted. Which means 20 years from now, if the majority of people being persecuted and prosecuted around the world are Muslim, then a refugee sort of grace card should be extended and reflective of that current reality.
You worked closely with President Obama’s administration on immigration and a few other issues, and just mentioned that you spoke with President Trump before he was sworn in and in communication with his administration. Do you see yourself down the road possibly working closely with President Trump as closely as you did with the previous administration? Or do you feel that there would be differences?
My affinity for President Obama is very well publicized. I just don’t like President Obama, I love President Obama. I respect him. I disagree with him on a number of issues but I have great love and respect for the man. I thanked him for his leadership. When I finished my inaugural prayer, I turned around and he stood up and I was able to thank him again for his leadership and for his presidency. So I have great affinity for him. But, likewise, I was with President George W. Bush and we conversed there a bit where he acknowledged me and, of course, I acknowledged him. But I was an adviser to George W. Bush likewise. So I was an adviser to Bush, I was an adviser to Obama.
If President Trump invites me to be a formal adviser, I would be inclined. I’m nonpartisan. I’m independent. I’m a Lamb’s agenda guy. I have my values that drive me, but I’m a Lamb’s agenda guy. So I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. But if the good Lord permits me to have access at the highest court of power, of political power in order to speak truth to power and advance the common good, then I will manage that with integrity and humility. So yes, if he invites me, I would be more than inclined to serve the President of the United States. And I don’t have to agree with him on every occasion, just like I did not agree with President Obama on every occasion. But I hope that my presence and my input will help bring public policy that will bring people together rather than tear them apart.
For your inaugural prayer, you read a version of the Beatitudes found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). Why did you choose that text?
It’s going to seem overly spiritual, but it is a matter of fact… The Holy Spirit compelled me, convicted me to read that passage of Scripture, simply stated.
And why do you think that is?
I know that because I have a relationship with Jesus and I have a relationship with the Holy Spirit, and I’m a former agnostic so if it’s not 100 percent God, I won’t do it. It was 100 percent God. I asked the Lord, “Give me what you want me to share, because there’s over a billion people watching on the television and social media platforms around the world and it’s not just to America, it’s to the world. In that time, what do you want me to share?” And the message that I heard from the Lord was, “Be light. First of all, address issues of people that are hurt and broken, like the poor, the marginalized, the suffering. So reach out to those that are hurting and bleeding. Then reach out to everyone, and just tell everyone that instead of focusing on the darkness, turn on the light.” So that was the message conveyed in that amount of time that I was allotted.
You often mention the “Lamb’s agenda.” How do you define that? What is the “Lamb’s agenda?”
The Lamb’s agenda is reconciling Billy Graham’s message with Dr. King’s march. It is a Christ-centered, Bible-based, spirit-empower prophetic movement committed to both righteousness and justice. Which means it’s committed to the centrality of Christ and preaching the gospel to people getting saved, delivered, and healed and filled with God’s spirit, vertically. Horizontally, we take care of the poor and the widow and the orphan. We fight for education equality, we fight for racial unity. We come against every message of bigotry and intolerance and discrimination. That’s the Lamb’s agenda. It’s when Billy Graham and Dr. King come together and we live out one selective message of righteousness and justice.
I imagine immigration might not be the only issue you’re focused on right now?
Immigration, the Supreme Court nomination, and educational equality. It will be life, religious liberty, immigration, education equality… These are some of the priorities taking place right now. «