menu

White evangelicals and immigration

White evangelicals and immigration June 4, 2013

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.


Browse Our Archives