Evangelical Activists, Evangelical Populace

Jon Merritt, so it seems to me, has hit this one squarely: evangelical activist leaders are for immigration reform, ordinary evangelical Christians don’t much care and, if they had their druthers, might tighten immigration. Here are Jon’s words:

Why is there no widespread concern at the grass roots level with immigration issues among evangelicals? 

As it turns out, the evangelical movement on immigration has been mostly top-down and not bottom-up. It has failed to do the difficult work of convincing and mobilizing (or at least neutralizing) the millions of evangelical churchgoers and voters. As The New York Times reports, while “no prominent pastor has spoken out against the immigration (reform) effort … accord has been less broad among the faithful.”

According to a recent poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution, only 56 percent of evangelicals believe that immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements. That percentage is essentially unchanged since 2006 when Pew reported that 54 percent of evangelicals favored “allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and the possibility of citizenship.”

Perhaps most telling, the PRRI poll reports that 63 percent of evangelicals believe the nation “should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries”—20 percent higher than the national average.

I can guarantee you that I am not the only one paying attention to these polls. Lawmakers are too. They know that evangelical push for immigration reform has failed to penetrate into the core of the constituency. It’s mostly a grasstops movement of high-level leaders, many whom are unlikely to vote anything others than Republican in future elections regardless of whether Congress moves on immigration.

For years, evangelical organizations have enacted political strategies to gather leaders, affix their names to a statement, and lobby Congress for reform. But such efforts create momentum only insofar as those leaders represent the views of their constituencies.

"We can hope and work for a world where no child is ever unwanted... thy ..."

Our God Of Justice
"I perceive that Jesus influenced our culture toward defining love as a commitment to pursuing ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption” and ..."
"Scot, thanks for sharing this. I’ll be offering a pretty heavy critique of Litfin’s latest ..."

Interview: Duane Litfin
"The unborn babies are not having their will considered"

Our God Of Justice

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Way too much momentum in the the Evangelical-Republican union to be disrupted by this issue. This union is now ongoingly strengthened by so many sources (everything from grassroots relationships to culture to media to theological accommodation) that anything or anyone that isn’t Republican is strongly suspect. Even entertaining non-Republican ideas will feel like betrayal for many, many Evangelicals, especially in the South. Just the way it is . . . For now.

  • residentoftartarus


    The only people pushing for immigration reform are Democratic activists and politicians who think immigrants will vote for their candidates once they become citizens and start participating in the election process. This is about votes and political power not immigrants as such. Why should evangelicals hitch their wagon to this kind of nauseating cynicism?

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t know if there’s a way to say this without it sounding bad in some way, but I think one factor is this. Evangelical leaders aren’t afraid of losing their jobs to immigrants. Now, personally, I don’t believe that fear is well-grounded, but it is a real fear among many people. If you’re a church leader who collects a paycheck from a large church or para-church organization, though, you don’t live with the same worry of having your job outsourced to the lowest bidder.

    Like I said, I think those fears are overblown, and I am for immigration reform, but I think this is an issue where a certain narrative surrounding immigrants exists, and it’s hard to break through that.

  • scotmcknight

    Whose cynicism are you talking about, yours or theirs? Reductionistic, too much so. Some people really do care about other people.

  • BradK

    His reply may be cynical, Scot. But he raises some relevant questions. Why should immigration reform be a high priority for evangelicals? There is no doubt that Christ-followers should treat resident aliens well. Does that mean that a Christ-follower must oppose a policy of tightening immigration, even one of totally closing borders to immigration? Some motivations regarding this issue may be more more political than theological, which seems to be residentoftarsus’s point.

  • “The only people pushing for immigration reform are Democratic activists and politicians . . .” I’m neither of these, and I support serious immigration reform, and have for years. As a lawyer, I’m all too aware that laws can be good or bad, and we’ve got a bunch of bad ones in immigration “policy.”

    My reasons are the opposite of cynicism. My mother has a woman in her church whose story I got to know because she needed a lawyer, and my family is often the “go-to” family at my mom’s church. For as much of her life as she can remember, she has been an American. She grew up in foster care, graduated from high school, and now has children of her own. Imagine her shock when she was arrested for illegally voting. She had no idea that she was not a citizen(!), but, as it turns out, she had been born in Haiti, then one of her parents brought her here before dying prematurely. Now, even though she does not speak creole, even though she only registered to vote when she was a senior in high school with the rest of her class, she is now facing federal felonies and deportation to a land in which she has no known connections and does not speak the language. Is this justice? Is this how we should treat this woman, this sister in Christ? But what has the collective Republican Party’s response been to her and the many with similar stories? Tough. Get out. You’re a law-breaker. We’re a nation of laws. No amnesty. You need to go back “home.” That’s what non-whites are increasingly feeling from the GOP. I realize that many want to say, “we just want to enforce the law.” That just avoids the issue; the issue is what the laws should be! We made them, not God. What kind of laws are worthy of our use of force and of our history? What policies are more in tune with God’s own values and concerns?

  • Jeremy B.

    He raises an important question, but I think you’re wrong on his point. “some” and “may” are nowhere in his reply. He’s making concrete, pejorative claims about people he doesn’t actually know (I’m guessing ‘at all’).

    Also, the claim isn’t that this should be a priority, but rather that it should at least be on the radar. We are talking about a marginalized, demonized and exploited sub-section of the population that often includes children stuck between a place they don’t remember and a place that doesn’t want them.

    Also, every cause will invariably be abused by someone that wants power. I don’t think that’s a valid reason to dismiss it.

  • residentoftartarus

    “Whose cynicism are you talking about, yours or theirs?”

    This is an equivocation. My (jaded) cynicism toward the current state of our politics is not the same thing as the (sinister) cynicism with which certain politicians advance their agenda.

    “Reductionistic, too much so.”

    Not in the least. Political power and votes are what’s driving the current push. Any other interpretation is naive.

    “Some people really do care about other people.”

    True. But they aren’t the ones with political power driving the current push. Also, there are well-intentioned people who care about the environment, national overpopulation, and the jobless rate on the other side of this issue as well.

  • residentoftartarus

    T Freeman,

    That’s a nice story you have there but the national political situation for the last generation has been to unevenly enforce our immigration laws (if at all) and then irregularly grant an amnesty of some kind. This has been going on because the newcomers are 2-1 Democrat voters once brought into the electoral process and the Democratic Party is the overwhelmingly preferred party of the nation’s media, academic, and governmental elite. It’s much easier for the latter to realize their agenda by allowing enough newcomers to become citizens then it is to convince the non-immigrant public. Really, it’s all about the powerful realizing their agenda, and while they don’t care about your sob story in the least they’re happy to cynically exploit it.

    “That just avoids the issue; the issue is what the laws should be!”

    No, you’re the one avoiding the issue by ignoring the political realities of the current situation.

    Moreover, the problem with your moralistic rhetoric is that there are many injustices in this country, including some brought on by unevenly enforcing (if at all) our immigration laws. Can you give to them, T Freeman?

  • Wow. I could give other reasons that I’m for immigration reform other than this woman’s story, but I don’t think it would make a difference to you. Yes, I’m aware that, for every activity, even preaching the gospel, some people are doing and or advocating for it out of improper motives. But you’re right, I don’t let that fact keep me from pursuing activities for motives that I believe in.

    I do find it ironic that your first comment spoke of “nauseating cynicism.” You maybe meant, based on this last comment, something more akin to “nauseating opportunism.” In any event, your comments are among the most cynical things I can recall reading.

  • Levi

    I don’t have access to the polling data, but my hunch is that there is broad consensus among evangelicals that legal immigration should be streamlined and expanded. The sticking point is the treatment of the 10-20 million illegal immigrants already in the country or the predictable influx of additional people an amnesty program would attract, as occurred in the 80’s.

    (Yes, there is a vocal handful of nativists as well as political partisans who would adjust their position based only on the expected voting patterns of the immigrants in question. But those groups are hard-pressed to produce sound Biblical arguments in support of their ethnocentricity, job protectionism, or electoral machinations.)

    I have heard sermons and read several articles on the biblical emphasis on justice for aliens, refugees, and sojourners. Certainly those Biblical protections apply to legal immigrants. The open question is whether that extends to those who broke civil law (intentionally or otherwise) by emigrating outside established legal procedures. After all, migration practices 2-3,000 years ago certainly did not include things like passports, visas, and green cards. An argument can be made that law-breaking should not be rewarded with favorable treatment.

    From where I sit, this is largely a conflict between Romans 13-type respect for civil authority and those who view current law as necessarily oppressive to aliens and sojourners.

  • residentoftartarus

    T Freeman,

    Does the American Southwest have enough water resources to support its current population long-term? Probably not, though I don’t know for sure. In any case, the media-academic-governmental elite class don’t care one wit because California now regularly (if not always) votes statewide for the Democratic candidate.

    “I could give other reasons that I’m for immigration reform other than this woman’s story”

    And I don’t oppose what passes for immigration reform simply because of the legions of sob stories on the other side as well.

    “In any event, your comments are among the most cynical things I can recall reading.”

    And this proves what exactly?

  • Matthew Soerens

    I appreciate Jonathan Merritt and, as one of the organizers of the Evangelical Immigration Table, am grateful that both he and you, Dr. McKnight, have affirmed the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform at http://www.evangelicalimmigrationtable.com. But my sense, from the comparison to the Evangelical Climate Initiative (which Jonathan largely coordinated, and which I personally would absolutely affirm and cheer, but which from what I understand is basically a statement affirmed by national evangelical leaders), is that Jonathan may not be aware of the extensive efforts at the local church level to challenge evangelical Christians to think about immigration from a distinctly biblical perspective. The work of the Evangelical Immigration Table goes far beyond the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform. World Relief (where I work) and other organizational members of the Evangelical Immigration Table have staff and very committed volunteers at work all over the country leading Adult Education classes and small groups, encouraging pastors to discuss the topic from the pulpit, and highlighting discipleship resources such as the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge (www.evangelicalimmigrationtable.com/iwasastranger), which is basically a bookmark listing forty Scripture passages related to immigration that we’re challenging folks to read, one verse per day. We’ve had requests for more than 120,000 bookmarks nationally. As someone who began doing this work in 2006, the shift that has occurred in reactions to our message on immigration from both pastors and lay people really is dramatic (and, I believe, the work of the Holy Spirit).

    I’d also be quick to note that we’re not arguing that Scripture directs us toward one specific immigration policy, but we do believe that there are principles in Scripture that should inform how we–as individuals, as churches, and as a society–should respond to the presence of immigrants within our communities. When it comes to a governmental response, we think that those principles should include both a respect for the rule of law, on one hand, and a commitment to unified families and caring for those who are uniquely vulnerable, on the other. We advocate neither amnesty (a blanket pardon of the offense of unlawful entry or overstaying a visa) nor mass deportation, but think that an earned process by which undocumented immigrants could pay a fine to get right with the law and then, eventually, be allowed to embrace the responsibilities of citizenship if they show that they are willing to earn that opportunity through a multi-year process. Along with enhancements to border security and interior enforcement, instituting a mandatory workplace authorization verification system, and dramatic reforms to our archaic visa system, that conditional legalization and citizenship process is essentially what the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill would do.

    I also think that there are a few problems with Jonathan’s analysis of the data on evangelical views on immigration. That Pew finds evangelicals tend to view immigrants as a threat is a significant concern: most of my work is focused on trying to change that attitude, because I’m convinced that too many Christians have accepted a politically-motivated view of immigrants as a threat and, as a result, miss out on the missional opportunity that many missiologists believe immigration presents for the North American Church. But the same Pew poll that finds a slight majority of white evangelicals view immigrants as a threat also finds that 56% of white evangelicals support a conditional path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which is precisely the policy advocated by the “elites” of the Evangelical Immigration Table. Jonathan cites this statistic, but the implication of his statement that “only 56% of evangelicals” support this policy seems to miss the reality that most white evangelicals support the same position as the Evangelical Immigration Table. When leaders advocate the same position as the majority of the people they represent, that’s not “out of touch.”

    It’s also important to note that those surveys are of white evangelicals, an incredibly important qualifier that Jonathan seems to overlook, and non-white evangelicals are a significant and quickly-growing segment of American evangelicals. Hispanic and black evangelicals support an earned path to citizenship at rates much higher than white evangelicals. Denominational executives and other leaders of organizations and institutions with multi-ethnic constituencies are certainly conscious of these shifting demographics. The Assemblies of God, for example, is about 40% non-white within the U.S. The Southern Baptist Convention’s fastest growth–actually, its only net growth–is among other-than-white congregations, particularly Latino and African-American.

    Finally, the data cited is already a bit out of date, given the extensive efforts at the “pew level” to encourage more distinctly biblical views of immigration and the significant media attention given to this issue in Christian press in recent weeks. The CBS News poll released today finds fully 75% of evangelical Christians support a conditional path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57595766/are-the-tides-turning-for-immigration-reform-in-the-house).

    Finally, regardless of what evangelical Christians as a whole actually believe, it just is not accurate to describe the effort as “not working.” A lot of Members of Congress seem to be significantly influenced by the statements and advocacy of evangelical leaders. In Washington, D.C. last Wednesday, more than 300 pastors and other evangelicals from 27 states met with more than 100 different congressional offices, and we heard over and over again from Republican Members of Congress and staffers that the support of evangelical Christians–which they’re hearing from their constituents, as well as from their representatives in D.C.–was making a huge difference in the immigration debate this time around as compared to the last significant congressional debate on this topic, in 2007. Case in point (though evangelicals are only one part of this shift; Latino voters in the November 2012 presidential elections and the courageous activism of undocumented young people, in particular, probably deserve more credit): listen to last week’s House Immigration Subcommittee’s hearing on undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and compare the rhetoric of most of the Republican elected officials (Rep. Steve King of Iowa excepted) with the rhetoric used during the floor debate over the DREAM Act in December 2010. Something certainly has changed, and I think the vocal advocacy of evangelical Christians–both leaders and lay people–is a part of that shift.