Definition, please: Who are these evangelicals?

The Tampa Bay Times broke big news on its front page the other day.

According to the Florida newspaper, there are 100 million evangelicals in the United States. Amazingly, all of them have decided to support immigration reform.

Who knew evangelicals were so like-minded and all willing to follow the same unnamed leaders? But I digress. Again.

Let’s start at the top of the story, which also ran in the Miami Herald:

WASHINGTON — I was a stranger and you invited me in.

Evangelicals nationwide are turning their Bibles to Matthew 25:35 and praying that Congress is listening to those words — part of a highly-coordinated effort to spur progress on the long unresolved and contentious issue of immigration.

Faith leaders and their congregations have become an unlikely but powerful ally to reform advocates, framing the question over what to do with 11 million unauthorized residents as one of moral compassion, and tapping into influence among Republicans to soften opposition to a pathway to citizenship.

“Immigration is an issue that speaks to coming to the aid of the most vulnerable,” said the Rev. Joel Hunter, head of the megachurch Northland near Orlando. “We want to develop in our people a heart for those who are disadvantaged and give them a fair shake.”

After the vague references up high to “evangelicals,” “faith leaders” and “congregations,” give the Tampa Bay Times a little credit for quoting a named source — finally — in the fourth paragraph, although some might quibble and suggest Jesus is the “head” of the church and Hunter only the “senior pastor.”

Sarcasm aside, this story has two major problems:

• First, the broad generalizations that it attaches to a vast, vague group of Americans that it characterizes as “evangelicals.”

As the reader who submitted the story link to GetReligion put it:

Just who are the evangelicals? I can’t get any sense of who they are or what they believe from reading this.

The story needs to be much more specific on (1) what it means by evangelicals, (2) who is involved with the group lobbying for immigration reform and (3) how representative this group is.

Moreover — if the goal is to write a news story and not a one-sided press release — is there not a single evangelical voter or leader who might offer a different perspective?

• Second, Scriptural references are presented as if the Bible has one simple, easy-to-understand position on the U.S. immigration debate:

To elevate their cause, the faith leaders, who have come together under the name Evangelical Immigration Table, have begun a campaign called, “I was a Stranger.”

It calls for church members to read the 40 verses of Scripture that relate to immigration — Exodus 23:12, for example, calls for resting on the seventh day and allowing the “stranger” or “foreigner” to refresh as well — and pray that legislators take the same Bible-led approach.

Who is the source on the claim that the Bible has precisely 40 verses that relate to immigrants?

As I shared previously,wrote a story myself last year in which I noted that Leviticus 19:33 declares, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.” On the flip side, however, Romans 13:1 says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

In a nutshell, the immigration issue — even as it relates to that homogeneous group of Americans known as evangelicals — is much more complex than the Tampa Bay Times story would lead readers to believe.

By failing to reflect that reality, this Page 1 story falls short.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Mark

    It’s worth noting, Bobby, that Romans 13:1 is actually one of the 40 verses included in the “I was a stranger” campaign.

    As you point out, though, the phrase “the 40 verses in Scripture” obviously betrays some ignorance on the part of the writer — the idea that there would be exactly 40 verses that deal with immigration is absurd. He needed some copy editor to just toss out that “the” and leave “40 verses in Scripture.”

  • http://costlygrace.blogspot.com The_Archer_of_the_Forest

    There is very wide spectrum of varying traditions that vie for the title “Evangelical,” at least in the US. This ranges from everything from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to Evangelical Church of the Brethren to the New Right “Jesus was a Reagan Conservative” crowd and everything in between. Evangelical is one of those very squishy terms that no one can probably to agree on. It is not unlike trying to define what a “fundamentalist” is.

    I would probably tend to define it as the more conservative branches of American Protestantism that tilt toward either the Pentecostal/Holiness/Charismatic or from the Arminian/Calvinist controversies and in whom believe some version of Sola Scriptura. I realize my Evangelical brethren who are reading this will likely be frothing at the mouth as such descriptors, but that is at least what comes to my mind when I hear the term “Evangelical.” I realize my definitions above are disgustingly broad (and probably unfair), but that’s just what pops into my head when I hear the term, fair or not.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      But if everybody has a slightly different definition, isn’t the journalistic point that the writer/newspaper need to be clear about who they’re talking about?

  • Alan Cochrum

    I understand the concern about the idea that all evangelicals are on board with this, although I think that in writing (perhaps journalistic writing in particular), the line between the implication that *all* members of a group are doing something vs. that a *lot* of them are doing it is sometimes blurry.

    The fact that “evangelical” is not defined here does not bother me much. Newspaper writing is all about conciseness, and there’s an assumption of a certain familiarity on the reader’s part with the terminology in any given area of news. (Of course, that’s sometimes an erroneous assumption, but …)

    And speaking as a former longtime copy editor, I would just like to say that Mark is now my new favorite commenter.

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    I guess it’s time for another rebranding campaign! I hate being lumped in. I really do

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The problem is that much of the mainstream media has the attitude that conservatives of any kind (religious or political) are nothing but thoughtless robots who run in packs and never have a single independent thought or opinion. They are so convinced of this that it colors all their news coverage.
    But the reality is that too many media people are the ones engaging in pack thought as in “pack journalism.”

  • Chris Bolinger

    The only thing better than “Evangelicals nationwide are…” would have been “A number of Evangelicals nationwide are…”. That would have satisfied about four pet peeves of mine in six words.

  • Terry Webster

    It would also be nice if these articles would at least throw a bone to the many mainline church’s that have talking about the same thing for years and years (remember the Sanctuary movement?). It is as if the issue didn’t exist until the evangelicals got on board.

  • William Harris

    The article has been taken down, evidently, so I will have to reference from memory.

    First, the sponsoring organization (Evangelical Immigration Table) is in fact something of a national body, at least by its formal signatories. I seem to recall discussion of the group earlier in the Fall, no? Moreover, the folks quoted in the article are also among the leaders of the organization: Luis Cortez and Richard Land. I took Joel Hunter (a signatory) as part of the local color. Plus, there was a quote from a Bread for the World official (the organization being another signatory).

    Second, are these all Evangelicals, at least as understood sociologically? The denominations represented certainly fit the bill.

    And third, I thought the article did a good job contextualizing the evangelical voices in terms of evangelical public opinion of the past ten years. In recent times, polls have shown a greater skepticism on immigration among self-identified evangelicals (I took this to mean something like the “religious Right”). That said, given that some 80% of Evangelicals voted for Republican candidate for President, one would expect to find still substantial numbers being skeptical. It is a legitimate question, one left unexplored, whether these official Evangelicals represent a significant new movement, or are simply the same pro-Immigrant wing made more visible. That is entirely unclear.

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