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The 2020 Census, Immigration, and Evangelical Politics

The 2020 Census, Immigration, and Evangelical Politics December 15, 2021

There are many reasons, some of them mentioned in the first two parts of my series on the religious implications of the 2020 Census, to think that immigrants could be the future ground troops of right-wing American politics. Many global Protestants want to make the Bible—and their conservative interpretations of it—the official law of the land. Some support Trump-like strongmen like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Vladimir Putin in Russia. According to Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, immigrants are “social conservatives, hard-wired to be pro-family, religious and entrepreneurial.” Stumping in the early 2010s for Marco Rubio, Land described the young senator from Florida as the face of a “new conservative coalition.” He continued, “Let the Democrats be the party of dependency and ever lower expectations. The Republicans will be the party of aspiration and opportunity—and who better to lead the way than the son of Cuban immigrants?” As their own spiritual practices intensify in strange and hedonistic land that is not yet fully their own, immigrants sometimes subscribe to a nostalgic history of a Christian America now become a “New Rome.” Like the American religious right, they mourn an apparent loss of national Christian devotion.

Boston’s skyline. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Most evangelicals of color, however, take issue with at least some planks of the religious right’s platform. Al Padilla, who was the director of Gordon-Conwell’s CUME, says that the migrant workers and poor laborers who fill immigrant churches “are very concerned about how the church should act in the public square, and they are progressive in social and urban issues.” Immigrants, after all, often occupy a similarly marginalized space as American racial minorities. After episodes of police brutality in the 2010s, one church leader in Miami contended that he could “no longer afford to stand by while Africans are murdered and assaulted by police.” African immigrants, writes scholar Jacob Olupona, have no choice but to “engage in discourse about ethnicity and racism” because “these issues impinge upon their daily lives.” Immigrants may hold to the conservative theology of many evangelical churches, but they are nonetheless subjected to the whiteness embedded in American social and economic arrangements. According to sociologist Janelle Wong, this helps explain why only 25 percent of Latino evangelicals voted for Trump and Republican House members in 2016.

Immigrants who criticize libertarian arrangements often frame their activism in terms of “the least of these.” While many articulate belief in the American ideal of self-sufficiency and hard work, they also question whether the free market is an economic panacea. According to researchers with the polling agency Latino Decisions, “Minority citizens prefer a more energetic government, by large and statistically significant margins.” Even Latinos in the Assemblies of God, a denomination whose North American adherents largely hold to a right-wing politics, support health care reform, back increasing the minimum wage, and tend to vote Democratic. Eighty percent of global evangelicals—compared to 56 percent of their American counterparts—say that the government has a responsibility to help the very poor who cannot take care of themselves. Those include inmates on death row. In the mid-2010s church-going Latinos helped overturn the death penalty in Nebraska. Comprising about ten percent of the state’s population (but likely to reach 25 percent by 2030), they lobbied legislators to override the governor’s veto of the abolition bill. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition assisted their efforts, declaring that capital punishment was “systemically flawed.” Founder Gabriel Salguero explained, “All life is precious. We’re pro-life: womb to the tomb.” On issues ranging from capital punishment to welfare, immigrant religion holds the potential to reinvigorate an evangelical left that has languished since the 1970s.

Christian immigrants are most likely to move the dial on immigration reform. Political scientist Amy Black notes that whites who worship with immigrants are much less likely to view immigrants “as a threat.” One study in California demonstrated that conservative Christians who tutored undocumented immigrants began to think of illegal aliens as not “so alien.” Immigration reform became less of an abstract issue and more of an opportunity to keep families together. In the mid-2010s some white evangelicals joined with immigrants to mobilize against Arizona’s SB 2017, one of the most restrictive immigration bills in the country, as well as Trump’s announced plan to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This resistance surfaced with the most vigor in cities such as Boston and Phoenix, and some began to use strategies of nonviolent civil disobedience. They participated in prayer vigils, fasting campaigns, marches, boycotts, and other actions that drew from Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders. As one politico in Boston put it, “The Latino vote is a beast waiting to be unleashed.” Boston pastor Roberto Miranda describes the ten million Latino Protestants in the United States as “a sleeping giant.”

Sounding simultaneously right-wing and progressive, Christian immigrant populations do not fit America’s rigid two-party system. “We’re the quintessential swing voter,” said Salguero in 2016. “We’re religious, so people assume we’re conservative and Republican. But we’re Latino, so people assume we’re liberal and Democrat.” In fact, the electoral history of Latino evangélicos swings back and forth. In 1976 most voted for Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. In the 1980s the Republican Ronald Reagan made inroads with Latino voters by introducing an amnesty bill. In 1988 and 1992 George H.W. Bush and in 1996 Bob Dole did little courting of Latinos. Consequently, they helped Democrat Bill Clinton win both elections by fairly wide margins. George W. Bush, showcasing Latinas in his own family, did much better in 2000 and 2004. In 2008 Latinos voted for Obama, though political vacillation persisted through his presidency. After dozens of face-to-face meetings with Samuel Rodriguez, Jesse Miranda, and Noel Castellenos, Obama often followed their advice on public policy issues such as immigration, health care, and job creation. They grew disenchanted with the president, however, because of his failure to pass immigration reform and to support traditional marriage. They too questioned the religious right’s commitment to the death penalty, a laissez-faire capitalism that leaves the poor vulnerable, superpatriotic interventionism, and a xenophobic, build-a-wall mentality. “It is a wound I carry,” says Roberto Miranda about his collaborations with conservative whites who are anti-immigration.

Defying Republican and Democratic orthodoxies, Majority World immigrants offer new approaches. In an era of entrenched polarization, the many white evangelicals who disliked both Trump and Biden may find idiosyncratic political views from abroad more appealing. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s Peter Cha contends, “My Anglo evangelical students are more and more willing to hear their brothers and sisters who come from other racial backgrounds—they learn why they choose to vote in certain ways.” Indeed, the future of evangelical politics depends on new strategies. In the 2010s, aggrieved and embattled white evangelical Protestants, whose median age is 55, declined from 23 percent to seventeen percent of Americans. More broadly, white Christians now comprise less than half of the population. By contrast, religious people of color are on the rise. Sixty percent of the world’s Christians now live outside the North Atlantic region, and the United States continues to be transformed by the Immigration Act of 1965. These demographic shifts are not yet reflected in the electorate, but fifty years from now historians may judge the religious right, in its tight coupling of theological, social, and political conservatism, to be the outlier.

Obstacles remain. The rise of Trump—and his popularity among anti-immigration evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, and James Dobson—suggested the limits of the new multiculturalism. Many whites do not interact with immigrants and consequently are less shaped by their supernaturalism, progressive social stances, and passion for immigration reform. Moreover, those who do attempt cross-cultural relationships are hampered by stark cultural differences. To the frustration of immigrant pastors, white visitors to their churches seem endlessly fascinated by African accents but “struggle to grasp the substance of the preaching.” For their part, many African immigrants avoid using African-American cultural markers because they fear that assimilation will result in racism against them. Moreover, immigrants who do join multicultural congregations often labor to establish an identity unless they speak in the voice of the white majority. Such congregations typically succeed, note sociologists Gerardo Marti and Michael Emerson, when they maintain a code of silence about race, which is seen as a disruptive subject. When such conversations do occur, multiculturalism must be framed in terms of mission work, of creating a community together, or of a “miracle motif” in which relationships are transformed through individual conversion.

Nor has the rise of non-white populations yet translated to political clout on a national level. Though most Latino and Asian-American evangelicals are less conservative on almost every issue besides abortion, writes sociologist Janelle Wong, they are “concentrated outside of swing states, have lower levels of political participation than white evangelicals, and are less likely to be targeted by political campaigns.” The future of multiculturalism may be bright, but at present Majority World Christianity, still constrained by white culture and organizing principles, is hardly driving religious and political life in America.

And yet their numbers are large and growing. The recent religious story of Boston, which I described in my first post in this series, is instructive nonetheless. In the face of xenophobia, cultural differences, and power differentials, religious immigrants offer different narratives to a postmodern West mired in a spiritual malaise, yet still haunted by a desire for transcendence. Park Street’s steeple still stands, but it looks much less imposing now. It is dwarfed physically by secular commercial towers—and eclipsed ecclesiastically by hundreds of immigrant churches. Spiritual and civic renewal have not materialized in the way that Billy Graham imagined during his 1950 revival when over 50,000 people packed Boston Common. In the 1950s, immigrants were a geographically distant curiosity. Now, Africans and Asians and Latin Americans, writes Jehu Hanciles, are “a distinct, sizable presence within and impinging on the same social space.” Increasingly, this is an intentionally aggressive move. The Cornerstone Miracle Center, located on the corner of Shawmut and Lenox in the South End, was “assembled in Nigeria and exported to the world,” says Enoch Adeboye. Lion of Judah, just blocks away, ministers to hundreds of Boston’s homeless, and it is courted by powerful local politicians. Though still limited, the influence of multiethnic American evangelicalism has grown remarkably since 1965.

Despite sobering sociological data on the decline of organized religion, Boston’s immigrants predict more growth. Roberto Miranda, impatient with the notion of a “quiet” revival, goes even further. Amidst forecasts that the United States will become a majority-minority nation by 2045, he wants something louder, bigger, more spontaneous, and more visibly led by the Holy Spirit and Latinos. White evangelicals in 1950–or 1965–could not have imagined such a colorful future. Some still can’t.

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