An April 13, 2013, New York Times article by Julia Preston 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 â€œEvangelical leadersâ€ and the majority of evangelicals, or â€œthe faithful.â€ According to Preston, â€œEvangelical leadersâ€ have â€œbroadly unitedâ€ behind immigration reform, including the reform commonly called a â€œpath to citizenshipâ€ for immigrants who are here illegally. These leaders are expanding their political influence â€œbeyond abortion and same-sex marriageâ€ through organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals and coalitions such as the Evangelical Immigration Table. In contrast, Preston writes, â€œthe faithfulâ€ 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 â€œpivoted into a larger menu of political issuesâ€ 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 â€œwhite 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.â€ 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 â€œpath to citizenshipâ€ allowing â€œimmigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements.â€ Hence, it is not clear what liberties â€œEvangelical leaders,â€ or so-called elites, might be taking with the views of the â€œfaithful.â€ Simply put, an opinion gap between â€œEvangelical leadersâ€ and â€œthe faithfulâ€ (Preston) or an opinion gap between â€œEvangelical elitesâ€ 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 Partyâ€™s vulnerability vis-Ã -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 â€œvaluesâ€ identified by the PRRI/Brookings researchâ€”the importance of the family, and human dignityâ€”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 â€œâ€™believe their own eyesâ€™ when they look, are dumbfounded, and are then motivated to change attitudes about the plight and agony of â€˜illegal aliensâ€™ 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.â€ 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 â€œpersonal encounters with immigrants in church.â€ 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.
Julia Preston, â€œFor Evangelicals, a Shift in Views on Immigration,â€ New York Times April 13, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/us/evangelical-christians-increasingly-favor-pathway-to-legal-status-for-immigrants.html?pagewanted=all
Mark D. Tooley, â€œEvangelical Elites Immigration Agenda,â€ First Things (a blog published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life), April 17, 2013. http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/author/mark-tooley/
Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox, Juham Navarro-Rivera, E. J. Dionne, and William A. Galston, â€œCitizenship, Values, and Cultural Concerns: What Americans Want from Immigration Reformâ€ (Washington, D.C.: Public Religion Research Institute, 2013). http://publicreligion.org/research/2013/03/2013-religion-values-immigration-survey/
Martin Marty, â€œEvangelicals Change and Make Changes,â€ Sightings, April 15, 2013.
Author Noah Toly is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations, and Director of Urban Studies at Wheaton College. He is a 2012-13 Senior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center where he is working on the project: The Macondoization of the World: Reckoning with Scarcity, Tragedy, and Risk.
Editor Myriam Renaud is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.
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