More vague evangelicals jump on immigration bandwagon

Last week, I complained about a front-page Tampa Bay Times story filled with broad generalizations about vague evangelicals advocating immigration reform.

This, of course, wasn’t the first time I raised concerns about media treatment of this subject.

Unfortunately, The Dallas Morning News did not get my memo.

The Texas newspaper — duplicating the sketchy Florida report in a way that only Xerox could top — splashed this main headline and kicker across the top of Page 1A on Thursday:

Applying Bible to U.S. borders

Evangelical Christians calling for path citizenship

Once again, we have a major newspaper story making sweeping statements about a largely undefined group of Christians who — at least according to those pushing the story — suddenly have changed their position on immigration reform.

Let’s start from the top of the Dallas Morning News story:

AUSTIN — After years of silence and even hostility to modifying immigration laws, conservative evangelical Christians have become unlikely allies in pressing for a path to citizenship for those here illegally because, they say, the Bible told them so.

A coalition of religious leaders in Texas and elsewhere, many with strong credentials as social conservatives, is engaging congregations in a coordinated call for Congress and the White House to deal with 11 million illegal immigrants.

“Circumstances culturally and politically have thrown evangelicals back on their biblical authority to ask, ‘What does the Bible really say about this?’” said George Mason, senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. “There may be lots of political positions that differ on how we accomplish it, but they want to be on the side of God in their minds.”

While moderate and liberal religious groups have long been a part of the immigration debate, the increasingly active involvement of conservative evangelicals marks what Mason called “a sea change” by an important group that could help move Washington toward political consensus.

By now, GetReligion readers should be familiar with that storyline (did I already mention this post and this one?).

The vagueness in the Dallas story extends to the hard data (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) used to back up the thesis:

White evangelical Protestants have been among the least supportive religious groups on a comprehensive immigration approach. A Pew Research poll conducted six years ago found a majority of white evangelicals believe immigration to be a threat to American culture and a burden on the economy.

But a recent survey found considerable evangelical support for keeping families together and following the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger — two themes in a campaign by a national network of diverse religious leaders, the Evangelical Immigration Table.

A recent survey? Um, care to elaborate on this Generic Survey and even link to it online?

Considerable evangelical support? Wow, talk about precise newsgathering! I am ambiguously impressed.

Once again, we fail to hear from any of those previously silent and hostile Christians who — according to the story — have changed their position. Once again, we fail to hear from any theologians who might weigh in on the notion that the Bible can be interpreted only one way concerning immigration. Once again, we fail to hear from any evangelicals who might remain steadfast in their opposition to clearing a path to citizenship.

Once again, we have one side’s press release masquerading as a news story.

Although, to be fair, the Dallas Morning News report does skirt closer to quoting an actual naysayer:

“Dedicated Christians may disagree on what the solution is, but everybody acknowledges there must be a solution,” said the Rev. Rick Scarborough, an East Texas evangelist and head of the politically conservative Vision America.

Scarborough said he has been “conflicted” on the issue as both a socially conservative Republican and a Christian pastor. But he said if a solution couples border security and a requirement that illegal immigrants seeking naturalization go to the back of the line, “the majority of evangelicals will sign on.”

Please don’t misunderstand my point. I have no doubt that there’s a newsworthy story here. But so far, the reports we’ve critiqued have failed to present a full, accurate picture.

Here’s what I’d like to see: a reporter take the coalition’s talking points and go interview ordinary evangelical Christians. My suspicion is that a little legwork would generate a variety of interesting viewpoints — not all of them in lockstep with the easy storyline.

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.

  • FW Ken

    These article sent me to some websites (face it: every named coalition or network has a site) where I got a lot of information that could have enriched the article. For example, the leadership of the Evangelical Immigration Table includes Richard Land and Jim Wallis, which I find interesting.

    The thing that bugged me, though, is the quote from the pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church placed along with references to conservative evangelicals. Wilshire its a member out the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

  • FW Ken

    … of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the liberal Baptist body, and makes a point of having women deacons and, presumably, women clergy. I want to say it’s a gay-friendly congregation, but I could not confirm that. In. any case, its not conservative evangelical.

  • http://www.worldrelief.org Matthew Soerens

    As an employee of one of the organizations that has helped to form the mentioned Evangelical Immigration Table, I think the concerns raised here are valid–citing “a recent survey” without naming or linking it leaves a lot of questions–but, as you note, that does not mean that there’s not a shift occurring among evangelicals, only that the reporter hasn’t fully made the case.

    In reality, the last survey I’m aware of on this topic was Pew’s June 2012 survey that found 54% of white evangelicals support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants either as a stand-alone goal of immigration reform or as an equal priority with border security; the latter is the position of the Evangelical Immigration Table’s statement.

    But that survey occurred at almost the exact same time of the launch of the Evangelical Statement of Principles on Immigration Reform on June 12, 2012, which for many strategic national evangelical leaders (such as the leaders of well-regarded parachurch ministries like Focus on the Family, World Vision, Prison Fellowship, InterVarsity, LifeWay Research, and the Navigators) was the first time they spoke publicly on the topic. Since then, we’ve launched the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge, a significant effort to ask pastors to challenge their congregations to read 40 Scripture passages related to immigration, relying on the denominational networks of the Southern Baptist Convention and the various member denominations of the National Association of Evangelicals (as well as multiple networks of Latino churches) to get the word out. (That’s an ongoing effort, as we get more requests for bookmarks each day).

    What we do know from Pew’s research (as analyzed by Gordon College’s Ruth Melkonian-Hoover) is that white evangelicals who have heard a positive message about immigration from their pastor are much, much more likely to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (81% compared to 54% of all white evangelicals). It would seem likely that the many churches participating in this Bible-reading challenge as well as the increasing presence of vocal, politically conservative evangelicals speaking about the need for reform will shift upward the overall percentage of evangelicals who support a path to citizenship, which is arguably the most controversial element of reform. To what extent that is actually happening, though, is difficult to measure conclusively, unless Pew decides to repeat their survey. For now, we’re mostly left with anecdotal evidence, such as the quote from David Fleming (who is a decidedly conservative evangelical pastoring a large Southern Baptist Church in the Houston area) .

    To be fair, I think you’d also do well to also analyze this more skeptical article in the Deseret News: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765623158/Not-so-fast-Evangelicals-differ-with-their-leaders-on-immigration-reform.html. The Pew survey they reference (the same one I referenced above) 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.

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