On Immigration Reform, Evangelical Leaders Have Work Ahead to Convince Followers

While many evangelical pastors and leaders have been active in promoting immigration reform through the Evangelical Immigration Table, recent polls suggest that white evangelicals fall behind the rest of the nation in their support of immigrants and immigration reform.

A recent poll conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and The Brookings Institution, and a recent poll conducted by Pew Research Center, both show that white evangelicals are the least supportive, among the combined religious and race/ethnic groups studied, of creating a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.

In the PRRI survey, 56 percent of white evangelicals favored a path to citizenship, compared to 63 percent of all Americans. In the Pew survey, 62 percent of white evangelicals said unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to stay legally (compared to 71 percent for all Americans), with 20 percent saying they should be able to apply for permanent residency and 40 percent saying they should be able to apply for citizenship.

White evangelicals also had some of the most negative attitudes toward immigrants. In the Pew survey, white evangelicals were the only group in which a majority, 55 percent, said immigrants were a burden, rather than strengthened the country. They were also the only group in which a majority, 58 percent, said the growing number of newcomers threatens their values, rather than strengthens society.

Since race and ethnic attitudes are difficult to measure, PRRI used a survey experiment to uncover those attitudes. With that tool, the survey found that 50 percent of white evangelicals agreed with the statement, "The idea of America where most people are not white bothers me," compared to 31 percent of whites overall.

In a blog post for PRRI, Paul Djupe, associate professor of political science at Denison University and a PRRI affiliated scholar, wrote that in the immigration debate white evangelicals are more likely to believe that enforcing the law is extremely important, 41 percent, than believe that welcoming the stranger is extremely important, 25 percent. Plus, only 14 percent believe that welcoming the stranger is more important than enforcing the law.

Djupe also informed The Christian Post that there was little difference between white evangelicals who attended church services often and those who did not, but those who attended often were slightly less supportive of immigration reform.

"So here's the rub: this set of values probably leaves evangelicals resistant to opposing the current law and, thus opposed to immigration reform," Djupe concludes.

The Christian Post asked some pastors affiliated with the Evangelical Immigration Table about these results during a Tuesday press call announcing Christian radio ad buys promoting immigration reform.

All of those pastors said they have seen hearts and minds changed as they have talked more about immigration, studied what the Bible has to say on the topic and been in fellowship with immigrants in their communities and their church.

"When Christians in our church learn about God's heart for the immigrant and what the Bible has to say, their hearts are opened because we are a people of faith and our desire is to live out that faith in our world," said Dr. David Uth, senior pastor at First Baptist Orlando.

Uth also believes it is important for pastors to continue to lead on the issue in order to change those poll results.

"Regardless of what the polls show, the principle is simple – leaders lead, they don't follow," Uth said. "And the reason I got involved in this is not because I read the polls; the reason I got involved is because I read the Scripture and just saw what was happening. So my goal is to take what is, and maybe the polls reflect that accurately, and try to change what is. So hopefully, as more of us see this, more of us get involved, we'll see a change in those polls."

Dr. David Fleming, senior pastor at Champion Forest Baptist Church in Houston, believes that white evangelicals have been listening to "extreme" voices on the immigration issue for too long, and that is reflected in the polls.

"For the last five years," Fleming said, "white evangelicals have been listening to the voices on the extreme, so a lot of this is just perpetuating the same information over and over. That's all we've heard, that's all we've understood. But as more and more of these pastors and Christian leaders begin to speak out on the issue, ... [white evangelicals] are changing their minds on this issue. We see it happening constantly. ... People are moving in that direction."

Dr. Richard Land, outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and executive editor for The Christian Post, noted that in 2011 the Southern Baptist Convention voted 80 to 20 percent in favor of a resolution calling for immigration reform that included a pathway to legal status, and the delegates to that convention were all elected by their local congregations.

Land also pointed out that Southern Baptist churches now include several hundred thousand Hispanics as a result of their evangelization efforts. A Hispanic pastor told Land that he estimates that as many as 40 percent of those Southern Baptist Hispanics could be without legal status to be in the country.

"Southern Baptists have gotten to know [immigrants] as ... brothers and sisters in Christ, it has put a human face on this," Land said.

Land also believes that favoring the rule of law should also favor reforming the immigration system.

"Southern Baptists are offended when government doesn't enforce the law," Land said as he referenced Romans chapter 13's admonition to obey governing authorities. "They're also offended when the government doesn't enforce the law for 20 years and then enforces it retroactively. There needs to be a balanced approach."