In a twist, vague evangelicals all oppose immigration reform

Stop me if I sound like a broken record.

Once or twice or maybe even three times, I’ve complained about major media reporting that the nation’s evangelicals — all acting in lockstep — have jumped on an immigration reform bandwagon.

My concern about these stories has been purely journalistic: a lack of adequate reporting and sourcing to back up broad generalizations about a vaguely defined group of Christians.

For a twist, how about we consider a story from the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City daily newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

In GetReligion-esque fashion, the Deseret News takes issue with media coverage of evangelicals and immigration. Let’s start at the top:

It’s been in the headlines for months.

“Evangelicals push Congress for immigration changes.”

“Among U.S. evangelicals, surprising support for immigration reform.”

“Obama’s immigration plan encourages evangelicals.”

Outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Reuters and numerous others have written more or less the same story on the subject.

The problem is that it’s not exactly true. Evangelicals are not largely behind comprehensive immigration reform, which is commonly taken to mean a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and, simultaneously, measures for improved enforcement of immigration law.

Since our focus is journalism, anyone see a problem with that lede?

My first problem is a personal one. In other words, I’ll leave open the possibility that my opinion could be wrong. But if I were the editor, I’d suggest the reporter focus less on other media and more on reporting the actual facts. Do some digging, and write a news story on what’s happening with evangelicals and immigration. Save the media weeping and gnashing of teeth for GetReligion.

My second problem is the same one I’ve had with previous reports by CNN, the Tampa Bay Times and The Dallas Morning News: Blanket statements about evangelicals with no named attribution. Who says evangelicals are not largely behind comprehensive immigration reform? How do you know this? These are basic, Journalism 101 kinds of questions.

The story continues:

Yes, scores of leaders, including prominent conservatives from the Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family, have signed on to such coalitions as the Evangelical Immigration Table, Christian Churches Together and G92 — all of which advocate for comprehensive reform.

But among the rank and file, the attitude is something closer to “not so fast.”

Again, according to whom?

Keep reading, and to its credit, the Deseret News quotes some folks on both sides of the issue. But like the earlier reports that pursued an opposite thesis, I’m left wanting more insight and information to back up the claims made.

More from the story:

Allan Wall, an Oklahoma schoolteacher and practicing evangelical who writes about immigration, put it this way: “Despite the stereotype of some kind of monolithic army of evangelical zombies being controlled by their leaders, in reality it’s a rather fractious bunch.”

Data appear to support Wall’s view. A June 2012 Pew Forum survey found that evangelicals prioritize “better border security” over “creating a path to citizenship” by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1. Among the American public in general, the ratio is 1 to 1.

“Appear” can be a dangerous verb in a news story, and a survey’s findings can differ depending on who’s doing the analyzing. What was it Mark Twain said about “lies, damn lies and statistics?”

In a comment on my previous post, GetReligion reader Matthew Soerens takes issue with the Deseret News’ interpretation:

The Pew survey they reference … does not support their conclusion that evangelicals “in the pews” disagree with increasingly outspoken evangelical leaders: that survey found 54% support a path to citizenship, which is a majority even if not a dramatic majority. They also fail to mention that Pew’s survey was only of white, non-Hispanic evangelicals, which is a critical detail (in my experience, the non-white evangelical, whom Pew estimates are about 20% of all American evangelicals, are often a major reason that leaders feel the impetus to speak out, in addition to their reading of Scripture).

I greatly appreciate Get Religion’s valiant efforts to keep religion writers honest and help them to understand the many nuances of religious issues which often get oversimplified. It’s a valuable service.

That last part of Matthew’s comment doesn’t really relate to this post. But hey, I couldn’t resist sharing it.

So … do most evangelicals support immigration reform? Or do most evangelicals oppose it? We’ll keep watching for mainstream media coverage that hits the mark.

Stay tuned.

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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.

  • Will

    What exasperates me is that EVERY position is labeled “immigration reform” by its proponents.

    What this is, of course, is the usual attempt to exert emotional blackmail by equating “Whatever we happen to want” with “reform”. (“Abortion reform”, “marijuana reform”….) As Roscoe Conkling said, “When Johnson called patriotism ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’, he overlooked the possibilities of the word ‘reform’.”

  • Darren Blair

    FYI – While the church does own the Deseret Morning News, it’s my understanding that it’s a “hands-off” relationship. Rather, the News is simply one of the several dozen companies that the church created in order to support the local residents.

    This actually goes back to the whole Bloomberg Business Week fiasco from last summer: the church has a history of creating ventures to either meet the needs of the membership (such as Deseret Book, which prints the church’s instructional manuals, scriptures, and magazines) or meet the needs of the community as a whole (such as Deseret Morning News), but the ventures are allowed to support themselves with minimal interference from the church. This is how Deseret Book became the #1 source for Mormon books and kitsch of all sorts, how BYU came to specialize in business and medicine (the Marriott School of Business tends to be a top-40 ranked B-school), and how other such “Mormon” companies came to grow and succeed.

    • John Pack Lambert

      BYU does not even have a medical school, so I highly doubt anyone would say it “specializes in medicine”. Even if its president is a medical doctor who at one point was dean of a medical school, there are zero plans by it to ever have a medical school. No one would say the Church’s approach to BYU is “habnds-off” since they bar people who have been excommunicated from enrollment, make all students and faculty have eccesiastical endorsements (although non-LDS students can get such from their own eccesiastical leaders), and make all students and faculty, whatever their religion, abidbe by the Word of Wisdom (no alchohol, tobacco, etc) and law of chastity. The last two presidents of BYU have also been general authorities, so there is a very close connection between the Church and the school at multiple levels. They also have weekly campus-wide meetings, many of which have general authorities as speakers.

      In the same way, especially since Joe Cannon first became editor, the Deseret News and the Church have a fairly close relationship. Still, the Church does not proactively screen articles in the Deseret News, and some of the comments are downright hostile to the Church.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Just a reminder that comments must be focused on journalism and media issues.

  • John M.

    What the heck is a “practicing evangelical?”

    -John

  • http://www.schmidtgladstone.com/immigration Stacey Schmidt

    I liked the piece of content but it did seem more based on other media vs taking facts and driving discussion based on the facts. Not bad though, I’d like to know and understand more details about the “vague” evangelicals as well as how they directly “oppose” immigration reform.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I think the biggest issue with this article is it is largely supported by just one person, Wall. Wall presents his views as “the grass roots”, but there is no particular reason to assume that his views of the grass roots are comprehensive. It would be a lot more convincing if it provided multiple voices. The issue of the survey only covering white Evangelicals is more a problem with people creating surveys that present data that is not what it claims to be. Still, I think pointing out that a groups leaders advocating something does not mean that the groups members really want it is a good point. I see the same thing happening in the LDS Church, where despite clear support for family unification being a consideration in these policies as the leaders speak about them, there are lots of rank and file members who seem to just want to engage in mass deportation.


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