During the immigrants’ rights marches on May 1, you could see many clergy collars in the crowds. These were pastors and priests”rabbis went incognito since they rarely wear Christian clerical garb”who felt strongly enough about advocating for the poor and vulnerable among us that they decided to go public with their convictions.

I understand where they are coming from. I just wish they would have not worn symbols that make it seem like they are speaking for the whole Church. Here’s what I mean.

I think people in faith communities ought to heed the advice of Ecclesiastes 3:1,7 which teaches, “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: . . .a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

When the Church has understood its identity and mission correctly, it has been an advocate for the powerless to the powerful. That’s what Bishop Oscar Romero did in El Salvador, and that’s what the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. did in the United States. Both got killed for taking that stand. If an independent, free press is the Fourth Estate in our culture, then faith communities ought to be the Fifth Estate. That is, religious folk should be marching to a different drummer and make a lot of noise when powerful people get too far out of step.

I think that’s what all those professional religious leaders were trying to do by getting involved in the demonstrations. They were trying to show solidarity with vulnerable immigrants. The problem is that virtually every American I’ve heard speak on the issue during the last two and a half weeks feels the same way. With the exception of a few skinhead neo-Nazis, every American I know believes in the principle that this country should welcome immigrants and especially refugees.

So, those clergy were either fighting a battle that had already been won or they were being perceived as favoring a particular implementation of the principle, like amnesty or like a guest worker program. In my opinion, the Church has always been good at proclaiming principles like justice, compassion and hospitality. The Church, however, has gotten into trouble when it has anointed one specific proposal for implementation of a principle or another as the “Word of the Lord.”

Let me give you an example. Every Christian”Republican and Democrat”I know would say that it is God’s desire that every human being enjoy prosperity. The Republicans I talk to argue that the way to do that is to be pro-business. It is entrepreneurs, they contend, who start businesses and it is new businesses that create jobs.

The Democrats I know reply that it doesn’t work as neatly as the Republicans make it sound. They argue that the only trickle down effect of tax breaks for the wealthy is water leaking through the unrepaired roofs of poor people’s homes. A rising tide does not lift the leaky boats that the poor fisherman cannot afford to repair.

Now, when I listen to my friends from both sides of the political spectrum, they all make some sense to me. Often I am unsure where to come down on the continuum between labor and management, or the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate or all the ideas regarding when and how to get out of Iraq. When I leave worship, I am sure that I believe in the principles of economic justice, prosperity, the sanctity of human life, respect for people’s right to make choices, and peace in the world. The same is true for all of my friends. It’s when we get down to specifics, to determine how to make those principles become concrete realities in a less than perfect world, that we tend to see things from different points of view.

Our faith communities have expertise in proclaiming principles, and they need to hold the rest of society accountable to a standard higher than blatant self-interest. But principles are by nature general and not specific. Most often principles cover a range on a continuum rather than one particular point.

For example, most people agree that on the pro-business vs. pro-labor continuum there are many possible points of compromise that could be acceptable to all parties. The Church’s role is to shout loudly when it observes decisions being made that move toward one extreme of the continuum or another. The Church’s role is to keep its mouth shut and allow folks with more expertise in the nitty gritty of application to have their time at the microphone when it comes to determining where to come down within the parameters defined by the principle.

Right now, there seems to be a consensus in this country on three principles: our mission to welcome immigrants, the right of every nation to protect their borders and regulate the flow of people into their countries, and the responsibility of governments to take reasonable steps to protect their citizens from harm by terrorists. The Church’s role in the immigration debate is to keep those principles front and center.

How to apply those principles is up to that messy, frustrating and noble process called political decision making. As long as the process embraces all the different stakeholders in society, the Church per se usually doesn’t have much insight regarding which of the specific options to choose.

An eighty year old man who grew up on a farm in Buchanan County, Iowa told me the other day about the 1936 presidential contest between FDR and a fellow named Landon. The parish priest in the town, Fr. McDonald, told his parishioners that if they were good Catholics, they would vote for Landon. Now the county was almost 100 percent Irish Catholic. When the votes were counted, however, there were over four hundred for Roosevelt and only two for Landon. When he asked his father why so many Catholics voted contrary to the command of their priest, the father replied, “Johnny, religion is one thing. Politics is another.”