White evangelicals and immigration

Molly Worthen’s New York Times article on white evangelical support for immigration — “Love Thy Stranger as Thyself” — summarizes most of the reasons why I see this as a hopeful, and perhaps very important, development. At the same time, Worthen’s report ably illustrates many of the reasons that hopefulness is a bit qualified and tenuous.

First, the positive:

Evangelicals’ growing support for immigration reform suggests an important shift in how conservative Protestants — who policed the boundaries of our national identity for almost four centuries — think about what it means to be American. It may also point to the beginnings of real change in how evangelicals understand the problem of justice in a fallen world, and the challenge that Latino and other minority Christians pose to the assumptions of the culture wars.

Overall, this is a Good Thing. It’s a promising sign that white evangelicals today are supporting comprehensive immigration reform rather than joining in the anti-immigrant nastiness of the tea party. But Worthen notes that this shift in ideology — and to a lesser extent in theology — is not an unambiguously Good Thing:

From the anti-Catholic paranoia of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s to today’s Tea Party tirades about immigrants’ taking American jobs, each wave of nativist hysteria has had its own enthusiasms. But all have feared that newcomers would subvert democracy and sabotage citizens’ claim to the American dream. Racism often inflamed this anxiety …

AP photo by Dave Martin. Click the pic for the link.

Yet the more basic fear — underlying warnings that Irish Catholics corrupted elections by voting in blocs or, more recently, that undocumented Mexicans and their “anchor babies” sponge off the welfare state — has always been this: These foreigners don’t respect our values and if we let them in, they will destroy us.

For much of American history, most white Protestants shared in the belief that immigrants were vectors of anti-democratic viruses like Catholicism, anarchism and Bolshevism. Although by the 1950s liberal mainline Protestants had come around to the idea of relaxing immigration restrictions, the conservative National Association of Evangelicals opposed the liberalizing reform act of 1965, fearing “infiltration by influences subversive of the American way of life.”

Today, the culture wars and the constant skirmishes over the size and scope of the welfare state have convinced conservatives that the country’s direst enemies are not “subversive” foreigners, but homegrown liberals.

International experience has connected more American evangelicals to Christians living in immigrant-sending countries, and they now view them as ideological allies. Organizations ranging from Focus on the Family to Anglican splinter churches have been building relationships in the global south for decades. They have come to see Latin Americans and Africans as defenders of traditional gender roles and Christian civilization.

So at least part of this shift toward support for immigration seems to be an attempt to welcome lots of reinforcements for the culture wars over “traditional gender roles” and “Christian civilization.” Worthen quotes Southern Baptist spokesman Richard Land and Focus on the Family president Jim Daly making this argument:

“We have a very positive ‘immigration problem’ in this country, in that the Latino community coming in, both legally and illegally, generally possesses a value system that is compatible with America’s value system,” Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, told me.

But Worthen also cites poll data and quotes from non-white evangelicals that suggest Daly is mistaken if he thinks immigration reform will provide a new wave of foot-soldiers to help him win the culture war he’s been losing.

Richard Land seems to share Daly’s notion of immigrants as new recruits for the culture wars, but despite his role as soon-to-be-former official in the Southern Baptist hierarchy, Land doesn’t primarily speak about immigration as a Southern Baptist or as an evangelical. He speaks as a Republican. Land makes it very clear that his foremost concern is promoting immigration reform as a means of revitalizing the GOP:

Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader who was among the 300 evangelicals who went to Washington last month for “a day of prayer and action for immigration reform,” said that once Republicans toned down their anti-immigrant rhetoric, Latino voters would follow.

“They’re social conservatives, hard-wired to be pro-family, religious and entrepreneurial,” he told me. Mr. Land pointed to Senator Marco Rubio as the face of this “new conservative coalition.”

“Let the Democrats be the party of dependency and ever lower expectations,” Mr. Land added. “The Republicans will be the party of aspiration and opportunity — and who better to lead the way than the son of Cuban immigrants?”

That won’t preach. Land isn’t making a religious or moral argument. He’s not even making an argument based on partisan ideology. He’s simply offering his guess that, in the long run, Republican support for immigration reform will benefit the Republican agenda because he believes that Latino voters are “hard wired” to support it.

(I’m not sure how Land would respond if it were suggested to him that he, as a white Southerner, was also “hard-wired” to support that agenda. Would he be offended at such a categorical, color-coded generalization? Or would he embrace it as a tribal badge of honor? My guess is both, depending on who was asking and who he thought was listening.)

The contrast between Land and Daly is interesting. Across the board, they’re in lockstep agreement on nearly every political question. And they even seem to agree that their religious right is being dragged down due to its close association — its near-total identification — with the Republican Party. But Land imagines the solution is to try to rehabilitate the GOP’s reputation while Daly seems to think the solution is to de-emphasize  partisan rhetoric in order to create the impression of greater separation between the party and groups like Focus on the Family. This tactical disagreement might be due to Land’s long-time residency in a very red state as opposed to Daly’s residency in bluish-purple Colorado.

Worthen’s contention that evangelical attitudes about immigration have been influenced by “international experience” with “Christians living in immigrant-sending countries” seems sensible, but it raises a puzzling question: Why now? After all, this international experience is nothing new for American evangelicals, and it’s arguably less of a factor today than it was, say, at the height of the missionary movement. Southern Baptists have emphasized foreign missions since before they even became Southern Baptists. The missionary guest preacher and slide-show was already a tradition in white evangelical churches by the time the NAE came out against that immigration bill in 1965. There’s something disconcertingly colonial — or even imperial — about sending Christian missionaries all over the world while simultaneously fighting to make sure that none of their converts were allowed to emigrate here.

Worthen reflects on the century-old split between Social Gospel mainline Protestants and white evangelicals who instead emphasized individualistic conversion. This is another place where the long-standing evangelical support for the missionary movement raises puzzling questions. The evangelical backlash against people like Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel said that Christians ought to be making converts and disciples, not building schools and hospitals. But at the same time, those same evangelicals were generously supporting foreign missionaries who traveled overseas to build schools and hospitals.

The recent wave of white evangelical support for immigration, Worthen argues, might indicate a newfound openness to the bigger picture and broader perspective of the Social Gospel. And, she says, Latino immigrants could influence American evangelicals even further in that direction:

Conservative evangelicals decried Social Gospelers as liberals who replaced soul-winning with social work — or worse, socialism. They stressed personal responsibility and argued that genuine social change could come only through converting one sinner at a time to Christ.

Latino Protestants may share the core doctrines of white evangelicals, but not the fusion of Christianity and libertarianism that has come to pervade the right, perhaps in part because they have intimate experience with the inequalities ingrained in American institutions.

I don’t think this is exclusively true of Latino Protestants. The “fusion of Christianity and libertarianism” — or, really, the fusion of Christianity and Social Darwinism — that characterizes white evangelicalism in America isn’t characteristic even of white evangelicals in Australia or the UK either. It’s a distinctively American phenomenon, born of the distinctly American biblical hermeneutic specifically created in order to bandage the staggering cognitive dissonance experienced by Christians attempting to justify their “owning” other Christians as property to be bought, sold, beaten and raped at will. That could only be accomplished through the creation of a new strain of evangelicalism — one that emphasized otherworldly salvation and elevated the authority of an “inerrant” (i.e., unchallengeable) Bible over the gurgling death cries of a strangled conscience.

But anyway, I hope Worthen is right when she says that this new wave of white evangelical support for immigration may signal a new openness to the once-reviled ideas of the Social Gospel:

There are signs that evangelicals’ softening on immigration reform reflects a changing theology of sin and Christian obligation: a growing appreciation of how unjust social and legal institutions and the brutality of global capitalism trap the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses. This may be particularly true of younger evangelicals who are disillusioned with their parents’ Christian right.

In 2011, when Carl Ruby was an administrator at the conservative Baptist Cedarville University, in Ohio, he helped students organize a conference on immigration — and he was struck by the change between his generation and the next. “I grew up at a time when stuff like this would have been called the Social Gospel, and we would have left it to mainline groups. Our emphasis was all on evangelism,” he told me. “To this generation, it’s not an either-or choice. They view work on issues of social justice as a form of evangelism.”

That’s all very encouraging.

But it’s a bit less encouraging if you know what happened to Carl Ruby after he “helped students organize a conference on immigration.”

Shortly after Thanksgiving, a group of trustees arrived on campus, met with Ruby, and addressed him in some form; members of the Bible department were reprimanded by provost John Gredy and academic vice president Tom Cornman earlier that same day, said the Bible department faculty member.

Ruby said, “I was asked not to comment on that meeting.” Scharnburg says the meeting never occurred.

Ruby announced his resignation on January 10. His final day in his student life position, which he had held for the past 12 years, was five days later.

The gatekeepers of the white evangelical tribe aren’t all on board with all this new talk of “social justice” and welcoming the stranger. It’s very similar to the current division in the rest of the Republican Party on this issue. Some — like Land and Daly — see support for immigration reform as a vital step toward rehabilitating the brand name. Others see maintaining a firm anti-immigrant stance as a vital step for reaffirming the purity of the brand.

Worthen turns to the despicable Mark Tooley, of the J.V. think-tank Institute for Religion & Democracy, for a summary of this opposing view:

Opponents of reform doubt that leaders who support the immigration bill speak for anyone other than themselves. Mark Tooley, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, has noticed a shift to the left among evangelical elites, and it worries him. “But it’s mostly limited, confined to those coming out of colleges and universities and working for relief groups, those who are more actively involved in advocacy issues and public policy issues, whereas the more typical evangelical living in the Midwest somewhere and working at Walmart, in a mainstream American situation, is not all that different from previous generations,” he said.

Tooley — who has lived in the Beltway bubble for decades and has never had a job in the for-profit private sector — nonetheless loves to express his contempt for Washington elites who don’t understand the real Amurkah of the heartland, where he imagines that good Christian people “living in the Midwest somewhere and working at Walmart” don’t want anything to do with embracing a bunch of swarthy foreigners.

And if tomorrow some Methodist or PCUSA clergyperson were to use the exact same phrase, describing typical white evangelicals as “living in the Midwest somewhere and working at Walmart,” then you can be sure Tooley would fire off a press release condemning their elitist snobbery.

It’s worth paying attention to what Mark Tooley has to say, though, because Mark Tooley, himself, has nothing to say unless someone is paying him to say it. The grant-driven IRD has never been run by its staff or its nominal executives, but always by the corporate foundations funding it. Some of those are the big sectarian foundations that keep the rest of the white evangelical subculture in line — the same handful of major donors who can snap their fingers and get a beloved vice president of student affairs unceremoniously fired at Cedarville. But some of IRD’s funders represent the simpler concerns of the non-sectarian corporate right. I’m curious to know which faction dictated IRD’s recent spasms of anti-immigrant fervor. Was that from the theocrats or from the oligarchs? Or was it from both?

Knowing that would give us a better idea as to whether the new wave of white evangelical support will endure or if it will be quietly pushed out the door like poor Carl Ruby was.

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  • FearlessSon

    I’m not sure how Land would respond if it were suggested to him that he, as a white Southerner, was also “hard-wired” to support that agenda.

    Hard-wiring something is an aspect of sloppy design, without scalable scope or adaptation to other environments. It is the result of either a hack-job by a developer desperate to get the feature working, or something designed to only operate at peak efficiency in a very static environment with exactly known boundaries.

    Generally speaking, you want something which can adapt and more easily accept patching and legacy maintenance. You never know what features might be requested later, and having to rip the whole thing apart and re-develop it will take up more time, effort, and money in the long run. Much better to plan ahead for flexibility.

  • Lorehead

    Although the Jason Richwine affair shows that many white Evangelicals do, in fact, believe that Latin Americans are less intelligent than them and thus that their descendants will forever be on the dole.

  • FearlessSon

    Tooley — who has lived in the Beltway bubble for decades and has never had a job in the for-profit private sector — nonetheless loves to express his contempt for Washington elites who don’t understand the real Amurkah of the heartland, where he imagines that good Christian people “living in the Midwest somewhere and working at Walmart” don’t want anything to do with embracing a bunch of swarthy foreigners.

    That is unsurprising. Bashing the Beltway Bubble as being isolated and out of touch from the rest of the country is a big part of the culture of living inside the Beltway Bubble. It is how a politician gets in that Bubble and stays in that Bubble.

  • FearlessSon

    The recent wave of white evangelical support for immigration, Worthen argues, might indicate a newfound openness to the bigger picture and broader perspective of the Social Gospel.

    Worthen and Fred are taking the cautiously optimistic interpretation of this, as is usual. I think that the more cynical perspective is that this represents a potential passing of a desperation threshold among the religious right. They have more influence now than they have at any time since before George W. Bush, but they see the writing on the wall and they are frightened of losing that influence. They see their own children breaking away from not only their politics, but their religion as well (since it became so entangled with said politics) and they need to find replacements to cope with this attrition, and fast.

    They are Gondor, and they are calling for aid against the horde of the Liberal Lord Sauron.

  • stardreamer42

    They think they are Gondor; in point of fact, they’re more like the Southrons and Easterlings. Apart from this quibble, I agree with your analysis.

  • FearlessSon

    I meant that to be an implicit description of their self-view, seeing themselves as being the besieged heroes in an epic struggle between good and evil where those who are righteous are obviously so and those who are evil are obviously so.

    Sadly for them, the world is More Complicated Than That.

  • LL

    “Social justice” just sounds too close to “Socialism” for these people. Actually, I’m pretty sure that to most of them, the labels mean the same thing.

    Does some “business” group support the IRD? If so, I’d bet they have a problem with “social justice.” Give workers the idea that they’re entitled to justice and they might want, oh I dunno, safer working conditions, or overtime pay or sick leave or – gasp – more money per hour. You know, the anti-American, job-killing ideas that destroyed America in the early 20th century.

  • FearlessSon

    According to Glenn Beck, at any rate, who told his listeners to watch out for churches that stress “social justice”, saying it was a code word for liberal socialism, or somesuch, and that they should leave any such churches as soon as they could.

    I get the feeling any devout Catholic listeners he had were not exactly pleased by this.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    I suspect any devout catholics who watch Glenn Beck’s program regularly are pretty adept at sucking it up in favor of tax cuts and demonizing the Other.

  • arcseconds

    Is it just me, or is Tooley basically saying “people who know stuff and do things for other people (especially if they’re immigrants) and engage in their society — sure they end up caring about immigrants. But they’re not mainstream Americans — mainstream Americans are living in predominantly white communities, work in low paying jobs, and don’t know and don’t care. And they’re the people this country is all about!” ?

    there’s so much wrong with this I don’t even know where to begin.

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Must be that “aspiration and opportunity” Land was talking about.

  • phantomreader42

    So, according to Tooley, “mainstream Americans” are stupid, lazy, underpaid and uncaring.
    And somehow the people he’s insulting can’t see anything wrong with that statement. I, for one, am glad I’m not one of those “mainstream Americans”.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    This is simply the same pattern that happened with Irish immigrants and Italian immigrants.

    the more typical evangelical living in the Midwest somewhere and working
    at Walmart, in a mainstream American situation, is not all that
    different from previous generations

    That is the stupidest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

  • FearlessSon

    As usual, Jon Stewart nails it.

    “Yes, as America’s demographics have always been changing, and the old establishment always giving way to (and resenting) a new establishment, Mister O’Reilly and Mister Goldberg.”

  • Cathy W

    I was touched by Stephen Colbert’s segment on Faces of America, which traced the genealogy of a dozen celebrities of wildly different backgrounds. Henry Louis Gates shared stories of the times and places their ancestors came from. Stephen Colbert, as it turns out, had an ancestor come from Germany to Philadelphia in the late 1700’s, and read an editorial from a newspaper of the time about how the Germans talked funny, smelled funny, had too many kids, ate weird food, and went to the wrong churches. And he had another ancestor come from Ireland to New York in the 1860’s – what do you know, the editorials of the day were all about how the Irish talked funny, smelled funny, had too many kids, ate weird food, and went to the wrong churches…. “And we’re doomed unless we build a wall along the border with Mexico” was Stephen’s reply to both editorials.
    History doesn’t repeat, but it sure rhymes.

  • Mark Z.

    My father worked at Walmart, my grandfather worked at Walmart, my great-grandfather worked at Walmart, and so on, all the way back to the Revolution, when Sam Walton’s supply chain management was essential to bringing cheap Chinese-made hardtack and black powder to the Continental Army.

  • EllieMurasaki


  • MaryKaye

    The Walmart comment is very strange, given that it’s widely understood that working at Walmart probably requires you to be accepting government assistance in order to feed your family. *Not* a constituency the Republicans have been happy to own.

    While most people seem to classify me as a Boomer (I was born in 1963) I think of myself as a child of the ’60’s and I remember it as a time when young people hoped for, and advocated for, better things. I think a lot of us feel that we collectively sold out. I hope the young people who are currently leading the way in the struggle against anti-gay bias, against racism, against plutocracy–I hope they can hang on to their ideals and run with them. They’re our best hope.

  • FearlessSon

    The Walmart comment is very strange, given that it’s widely understood that working at Walmart probably requires you to be accepting government assistance in order to feed your family. *Not* a constituency the Republicans have been happy to own.

    Only if that is the primary income source for your family. Among say, primarily stay-at-home church-going mothers who work a few sifts on the side for some pin money, I doubt that the cultural conservatives would feel comfortable including them.

    The problem with Walmart is, it puts a lot of the other employment in the local area out of business, so some people are forced to use it as their primary employment anyway, assuming that they can even get a job there given how they seem to prefer to be understaffed if at all possible.

    I hope the young people who are currently leading the way in the struggle against anti-gay bias, against racism, against plutocracy–I hope they can hang on to their ideals and run with them. They’re our best hope.

    Salon.com had an interesting article on this written by someone from that generation, which I hope gives a little perspective.

  • banancat

    I think it’s easy for many poor white conservatives to work at Wal-mart while relying on welfare, while still looking down their noses at those other people who work at Wal-mart and rely on welfare, especially if those others are of a different race, religion, political affiliation, or geographical area.

    It’s the fundamental attribution error and the poor white conservatives believe that they’re working really really hard and will someday be rewarded for that hard work, while all the others are clearly just lazy and shiftless and undeserving of anything better. Republicans have really done quite a feat of psychological manipulation to make poor people believe that they will be rich soon, just right around this next corner, really truly they will make it next year because they’re so great and deserving unlike all the rest. And so Republicans have convinced many poor people to vote against their own interests by stoking racist fears.

  • FearlessSon

    I think another way of looking at it is through the lens of very narrow self-interest. I think that for a lot of the poor whites, they see things like Affirmative Action and think that means that now they are at a disadvantage compared to poor people of color. They think that a party which goes big-tent on racial issues necessarily excludes those in the white majority who are otherwise disadvantaged.

    I think that is a very short-sighted way of looking at it, but I think it is the the perspective they have. As long as they stay disadvantaged, it becomes easier to keep them sold on that idea. And thus do they self-sabotage.

  • Fanraeth

    I’ve worked at Walmart the entirety of my time in college and I can attest to this. Some of the most rabid anti-Obama comments I’ve heard have come from my (white) co-workers who are barely keeping themselves afloat.

  • Baby_Raptor

    My roommate, most of his friends, and his half-sister all work at Wal-Mart. It’s (probably, I can’t say for 100% certain) one of the big employers in my little two town area. There are 4 of them along a 20 minute drive up the freeway, and then the one Roomie works at slightly off to a side.

    I can say for certain that Wal-Mart treats their employees like shit. Roomie rarely comes home in a good mood, and he very often has some new story about a jerkwad manager. They do everything they can to keep him at 38 hours, even though he has the most seniority in his area and to his face they’ll say that he’s the most knowledgeable and reliable. There have been two separate times during his employment that a manager called him in last minute, his hours would go over 40, and then he would get yelled at until he *proved* that he was called in. (which never made sense to me; a computer does the scheduling. It’s not like he just shows up and clocks in whenever he feels like dealing with people with broken phones. But whatever.)

    And the paycheck? Barely worth discussing. I’ll just say that between my check and his (I have a slightly better paying tech support job,) his father still makes more off Social Security and his retirement payments. We would definitely be unable to keep the bills paid without the money his dad (unwillingly, and with much complaining about “abuse”) chips in.

    Granted, we’re paying bills on a house; if it were an apartment we might be able to manage it. But I know that he couldn’t make the payments on his own.

  • Carstonio

    Land’s rhetoric is an elaborate version of “Some of my best friends are X.” This new version of the old dodge isn’t about revitalizing the GOP, but about using fake inclusiveness to camouflage the usual pandering to white resentment. His accolades for Latino culture (or at least his caricature of it) are phrased almost entirely in Southern Strategy euphemisms. The message is, “Latinos are much better than those other dark-skinned folks,” like the old practice of describing black celebrities as “well-spoken.” I have difficulty imagining that Land’s approach will attract many Latino voters, but I can imagine plenty of Land’s fellow party members telling each other that this proves they’re not racist.

  • Tom

    I thought “Don’t commit adultery” was one of the 10 Commandments. We need to repeal the 1965 Immigration Act and go back to National Origins Immigration policies. It’s time the “Awww Shucks aren’t I a wonderful ‘Holier than Thou'” so-called Christians give it a rest with trying to pollute this country with third-worlders.

  • Katie

    yeah, everything went downhill once we let our country get flooded with Polish and Italians and, worst of all The Irish.

  • Baby_Raptor

    If my grandfather is a reliable source of family history, then my family line started when his parents came over on a boat from Italy to escape the Mafia. They changed their last name and everything.

    Not pertinent, but being able to say that my family is apparently wanted by the Italian Mafia is always fun.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    Fuck off, you racist asshole.

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    I had to read that three times before I understood it.

    Not only are you a racist asshole: you’re a racist asshole who can’t write.


  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    “So-called Christians”. Yeah, because there’s nothing Christian about being hospitable to the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    IN CAPITALIST MURICA — *Chest thumps* Poor, outcast and downtrodden are hospitable to good Christians!

    (Translation: Apparently, our Christian friends in the GOP have decided that our impoverished and overburdened fulfill a useful purpose — as servants, slaves, cash cows and scapegoats.)

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    the more typical evangelical living in the Midwest somewhere and working at Walmart,

    Walmart is not the monolith of white native-born USians that Tooley imagines it to be.

    A large number of my coworkers, including at least one manager, at my Walmart are foreign-born. Off the top of my head, I can come up with about 20 people from at least seven different countries on four different continents (I can’t think of any employees from South America, Australia, or Antarctica off the top of my head). It’s possible that my Walmart is the only one in the country that has such a diverse body of employees, but I somehow doubt it.