When President George W. Bush consults Catholic bishops and Hillary Clinton invokes Jesus, you can bet politics are in a prayerful heat.
The issue that sends politicians on both sides of the aisle scurrying to the pulpit for direction is illegal immigration. Few issues are as tricky.
How does a nation of immigrants criminalize the human yearning for freedom and a better life? On the other hand, how can we absorb all those millions who want to come here and who, by their actions, disrespect our laws?
More to the heart of most Americans' concerns, how can a nation fighting a war on terror NOT seal its borders?
In search of answers, the White House has been consulting with Catholic leaders, who have a special interest in illegal immigrants, given that Hispanics - who comprise a majority of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. - are mostly Catholic.
Hillary Clinton went to an even higher source as the U.S. Senate prepares to debate immigration reforms next week. Voicing her opposition to some of the more draconian measures under consideration, Clinton dropped the J-Bomb.
Clinton specifically took aim at a House bill passed last December that takes a hard line against illegals, including making it a felony (instead of a misdemeanor) to be in the U.S. illegally. The House bill also provides for a 700-mile border security fence, an electronic verification system with fines up to $40,000 for failure to comply, and has no allowance for guest worker permits.
Said Clinton: "It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scripture because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."
Well, the lady did say back in 2004 that Democrats had to take religion back from the Republicans. As a lifelong Methodist, Clinton may be one of the few Democrats who can pass the straight-face test when she summons Jesus to her kitchen Cabinet.
If Americans thought they were tired of Biblical recitations during the last couple of presidential elections, they may want to take an extended vacation through November 2008. Given that Clinton is the likely Democratic presidential candidate - and given that she will be aiming to out-witness Republican evangelicals - Jesus probably isn't going anywhere.
Meanwhile, of the various bills up for debate next week, the one most likely to be well-received is a bipartisan bill proposed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), which includes provisions for Bush's own proposal for a guest worker program.
The bill would allow those already here illegally to "regularize" their status, but not without first admitting guilt. Or should that be sin? As proposed, illegal immigrants would have to pay a fine as well as back taxes, remain employed for a specific period of time, and also go to the end of the citizen waiting line behind legal immigrants.
Taking this approach allows legislators to say they're not granting amnesty. Instead, in the Christian tradition of redemption, illegal immigrants essentially would have to admit they're wrong, seek redemption through taxes and fines, and then pay further penance by waiting in line. (Brambles optional.)
The McCain-Kennedy bill would also allow employers to hire foreigners through a temporary visa program, assuming they can prove that they couldn't hire Americans for the same job. Supporters reason that a visa program would discourage new illegals from entering the U.S. because employers, who could be fined, would be less likely to hire them.
What makes sense on paper in Washington, of course, doesn't always make sense to "Ordinary Americans," especially to those in border states or who can't find jobs because they're already taken by non-citizens.
Critics say the McCain-Kennedy bill is amnesty with an asterisk, and that illegal immigrants aren't doing jobs Americans won't do; they're doing jobs Americans used to do, just doing them cheaper.
But cheap labor isn't necessarily cheap. The National Research Council estimates that the net fiscal cost of immigration is $11 billion to $22 billion per year, most of which comes from state and local coffers through services to a population that earns little, pays few taxes and consumes a high rate of government services.
However things gets hashed out next week, polls show that the single operative word in the debate for most Americans is "illegal," which, minus one 'l', is the same in Spanish as it is in English.
Who doesn't understand it?