Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
As the Senate is poised to take on the task of reforming an immigration system most Americans agree is broken, a broad coalition of evangelical organizations, churches, leaders and universities have partnered to launch a $250,000 national ad campaign to push members of Congress to pass the bipartisan bill, which would strengthen border security, allow unauthorized immigrants to apply for citizenship and revamp the legal immigration system. As we noted earlier this year, the Evangelical Immigration Table coalition casts a wide net through the evangelical community. Its backers include the National Association of Evangelicals, several dozen heads of evangelical denominations and leaders of evangelical organizations, and influential evangelical figures such as Richard Land, Joel Hunter, Jim Wallis, Samuel Rodriguez and Gabriel Salguero.
The group says its media blitz targets 13 key states in order to address the nationwide “moral, economic and political crisis” caused by current immigration laws.
Evangelical leaders involved in the coalition note that their increased involvement this year is at least in part attributable to the growing number of immigrant families in their pews. They also, however, say they are motivated by the biblical teaching to “welcome the stranger,” a message the Evangelical Immigration Table hopes will spread through its 92-day Pray for Reform campaign. The number refers to the 92 times “ger,” the Hebrew word for immigrant, appears in the Old Testament.
With such a diverse group of leaders backing the high-profile charge, it would appear evangelicals are united for immigration reform. Although some groups opposed to immigration reform have argued that these evangelical leaders are out of touch with evangelicals in the pews, the PRRI/Brookings Religion, Values, and Immigration Survey—the largest survey conducted to date on immigration reform—found solid support among white evangelical Protestants for a path to citizenship for immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally, provided they meet certain requirements.
When asked how the immigration system should deal with immigrants currently living in the United States illegally, 56 percent of evangelicals say it should allow them a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements. In comparison, 30 percent say illegal immigrants should be identified and deported, and 11 percent say they should be allowed to become permanent legal residents, but not citizens. While evangelicals hold more reservations than most other religious groups about the negative impact of immigrants on American society and culture, and this support for a path to citizenship is lower than the general population (63 percent), it remains the preferred policy option of most evangelicals. A majority (54%) of evangelicals also reject Mitt Romney’s policy of so-called “self-deportation,” making conditions so difficult for immigrants in the country illegally that they return home on their own.
More important, this support for a path to citizenship is rooted in religious values. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of white evangelicals say following the biblical example to welcome the stranger — the central message of the Evangelical Immigration Table — is extremely or very important, and an additional 26 percent say it is somewhat important. Eight-four percent say that keeping families together, another core value for evangelicals, is an extremely or very important moral guide for immigration reform policy.
As the full Senate takes up legislation this month and the House prepares to consider the issue later this summer, the evangelical push for reform will be put to the test. Has the effort changed hearts and minds? Right now, it’s anyone’s guess.