Evangelicals and immigration: Real data, real voices

Evangelicals and immigration: Real data, real voices April 11, 2013

A quick review before I get to the point of this post:

• Back in January, I complained that CNN failed to provide any hard data to back up a breathless, one-sided report of “many” evangelicals warming to the need for immigration reform.

• In February, I complained that a similarly vague Tampa Bay Times story — splashed across the front page — presented Scriptural references as if the Bible has a single, simple-to-understand position on the U.S. immigration debate.

• That same month, I complained that a front-page Dallas Morning News story — using the same conservative-Christians-changing-their-position template as CNN and the Florida newspaper — backed up its storyline by citing “a recent survey.” Believe it or not, that’s as specific as the attribution got!

• In a twist, I also complained about a story from the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City newspaper, that took the opposite tact and reported that rank-and-file evangelicals largely oppose immigration reform. Once again, my concern was purely journalistic. My question: according to whom?

So, in other words, I’ve complained a little — OK, a lot — about media coverage of evangelicals and immigration reform.

But this week, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story on the issue that I mostly liked. (If you click my direct link, a pay wall may come up. If that happens, do a Google search for “Evangelicals Push Immigration Path”  and see if a link comes up for the full story. It worked for me.)

The top of the story:

IRVINE, Calif. — Senior pastor Kenton Beshore said the first sermons on the plight of illegal immigrants didn’t go over well with many members of his evangelical church, which sits on a 50-acre campus in Orange County and has a 3,400-seat sanctuary, sports facilities, restaurant and a man-made lake.

“We took a hit on it,” said Mr. Beshore. “We had people who walked out and whose giving went away.” It was part of the reason the church ended 2012 with a $500,000 budget shortfall, he said.

But much has changed in the two years since—both at Mr. Beshore’s 14,000-member Mariners Church and at conservative evangelical congregations around the U.S.

After decades of sitting on the sidelines of the debate, evangelical Christians are prodding Republican lawmakers to support a path to U.S. citizenship for the nation’s illegal immigrants, based on their reading of Bible teachings. Evangelical pastors from pulpits across the U.S. cite Scriptures about welcoming strangers. Some compare illegal immigrants with modern-day lepers, who should be treated with compassion by Christians.

An estimated 300 evangelical leaders, including Mr. Beshore, plan to convene in Washington next week to lobby lawmakers of both parties for an immigration policy overhaul, an issue that has divided voters, lawmakers and church congregations.

Yes, it’s the same basic angle that other media have covered.

But here’s what I like about the WSJ report: It actually quotes evangelicals on opposite sides of the issue. It actually broaches the possibility of the Bible being interpreted different ways on immigration reform. It actually cites historical survey data to gauge how evangelical attitudes have changed.

For example, there’s this bit of balance:

U.S. Rep Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who has opposed legalization, said people should be careful about citing Scriptures in the debate.

“The Bible contains numerous passages that do not necessarily support amnesty and instead support the rule of law,” he said. “The Scriptures clearly indicate that God charges civil authorities with preserving order, protecting citizens and punishing wrongdoers.”

And there’s this relevant data:

A Pew survey last month found that 55% of white evangelical Christians believed immigrants were a burden on the U.S., compared with 66% who held that view in 2010. Overall, 41% of Americans believe the newcomers are a burden, polls said, down from 50% three years ago.

Rather than simply make a blanket statement that evangelicals have changed their views, the Journal quotes actual church members who have done so:

Some Mariner church members said their attitudes changed after performing hands-on Christian service. The church has long offered free after-school tutoring and English classes in Orange County neighborhoods of Southeast Asian refugees and recent Latino immigrants.

John Hornburg, a wealthy real-estate developer and self-described conservative, is one of the volunteers who teaches English to immigrants at a Mariners center. “As I learned their stories,” he said, “I started to look at these folks through a prism of humanity and my heart just opened up.”

Many Mariner congregants live in Newport Beach, where per capita income is $81,000. The church runs volunteer programs in nearby Santa Ana, where per capita income is $16,600. Stephen Hueber, 30 years old, said tutoring in Santa Ana “put a whole new face on the immigration issue.”

But the story doesn’t ignore evangelicals who remain firm in their opposition:

During a question-and-answer session, one person said illegal immigrants were stealing work from Americans. Mr. Beshore later got emails from members who said the discussion was insulting, one-sided and anti-patriotic. “I lost enthusiasm” for the church, said Mark McCracken, a member of 20 years.

It’s amazing what a difference actual reporting — and a willingness to tell the full story — makes.

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