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The Fiction of Evangelical Friction Over Immigration

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A New York Times article by Julia Preston, published on April 13, reports a shift of opinions on immigration policy among evangelical Protestants in the United States.

In her article, Preston suggests that there is a division between “Evangelical leaders” and the majority of evangelicals, or “the faithful.”

“Evangelical leaders” have “broadly united” behind immigration reform, including the reform commonly called a “path to citizenship” for immigrants who are here illegally, according to Preston.

These leaders are expanding their political influence “beyond abortion and same-sex marriage” through organizations, such as the National Association of Evangelicals, and coalitions, such as the Evangelical Immigration Table.

In contrast, Preston writes, “the faithful” are less inclined to support immigration policy reform.

Preston is not the only commentator to suggest such a gap. In a recent post to First Things, Mark D. Tooley, president of a conservative Christian think tank, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, suggests that the evangelical masses are being misrepresented and led astray by elites who have “pivoted into a larger menu of political issues” with specious biblical and theological warrant.

Such assertions do not match the data, however.

Drawing upon recent survey research by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution, Preston notes “white evangelical Protestants were the least likely of the religious groups surveyed to support a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally, with only 56% of them favoring that approach.”

In other words, while white evangelical Protestants are by no means a monolithic group, a majority of white evangelical Protestants do favor immigration reform, including a “path to citizenship” allowing “immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements.”

Hence, it is not clear what liberties “Evangelical leaders,” or so-called elites, might be taking with the views of the “faithful.” Simply put, an opinion gap between “Evangelical leaders” and “the faithful” (Preston) or an opinion gap between “Evangelical elites” and the masses (Tooley) does not exist.

Nor is the evangelical Protestant majority being led astray by bad shepherds. Not that the efforts of evangelical leaders in favor of immigration reform have been in vain, but the data give the lie to oversimplified elitist theories of change.

Rather than support the claim that the favorable shift among the evangelical majority can be ascribed to a few leaders, the PRRI/Brookings report suggests other possible causes of change, such as generational differences, social class, educational attainment and party affiliations.

With regard to political commitments, a pragmatic recognition of the Republican Party’s vulnerability vis-à-vis growing numbers of Latino voters is leading to an about-face on the part of some voters, including perhaps some evangelical Protestants. The overall softening of evangelicals on immigration is due, at least in part, to these factors.

None of this excludes the possibility that evangelical Protestants are indeed thinking through the policy issues from a biblical and theological point of view.

But given that two of the top five relevant “values” identified by the PRRI/Brookings research – the importance of the family, and human dignity – are staples of evangelical political discourse, this may not signal biblical or theological innovation.

Instead, it might signal that evangelical Protestants are making connections between their core commitments and the plight of many immigrants.

As Martin Marty writes, evangelicals “‘believe their own eyes’ when they look, are dumbfounded, and are then motivated to change attitudes about the plight and agony of ‘illegal aliens’ and so many others.

And they also believe their own eyes when they look at their Scriptures, which put the need of the strangers, exiles, aliens and newcomers first as bidders for consideration and change.”

Typical evangelical Protestant convictions are being expressed in new or unexpected ways.

Why would this be? Preston suggests that familiarity with the stories of immigrant families may play a major role.

She recounts changes of heart by a pastor and two parishioners whose positions on immigration reform shifted because of friendships and “personal encounters with immigrants in church.”

As significant as is the impact of polls, podiums and pulpits, shifts in the debates on immigration policy reform among evangelical Protestants may depend on the frequency and quality of concrete relationships between those sitting in the pews. How neighborly.

Noah Toly is associate professor of politics and international relations, and director of urban studies at Wheaton College and a 2012-13 senior fellow in the Martin Marty Center. This column first appeared on Sightings.