Are Evangelical Leaders Misrepresenting Evangelicals on Immigration Reform?

Update on Aug. 5, 2013:  In a response to this article from Jonathan Merritt, he noted he spoke to someone at CBS about its poll showing that 75 percent of evangelicals support a conditional pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. CBS, it turns out, made the same mistake as Merritt and used "evangelicals" when they meant "white evangelicals." We believe, though, that this new information makes the point of this analysis even stronger. Since non-white evangelicals are at least as likely to support immigration reform as white evangelicals, then the Evangelical Immigration Table does indeed represent the views of a supermajority of evangelicals.

Evangelical support for immigration reform is a top-down, "grasstops," elite-led movement with little support among the "grassroots," or the evangelicals in the pews, Jonathan Merritt and Mark Tooley have recently argued. Their arguments, though, are based upon an assumption that the views of all evangelicals are represented by the views of white evangelicals.

"As it turns out, the evangelical movement on immigration has been mostly top-down and not bottom-up. It has failed to do the difficult work of convincing and mobilizing (or at least neutralizing) the millions of evangelical churchgoers and voters," Merritt, an evangelical author, wrote July 23 for Religion News Service.

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Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, agrees. Tooley cites Merritt in a Wednesday article for The American Spectator and warns evangelical leaders that they are in danger of following in the footsteps of mainline protestants.

In the 1960s, mainline Protestant leaders took liberal positions and became politically active on a range of issues. These "generals without armies," as one author described them, became increasingly irrelevant as lawmakers recognized that they were not representing the interests of the people they claimed to represent.

"Evangelical elites, when speaking politically for ecclesial bodies, should stick with issues to which Scripture and Christian tradition speak most directly. As representatives of mostly democratic polities, they should also strive to represent a consensus view within their churches. Otherwise they will create resentment among their members and are likely not to be taken seriously by policymakers or, ultimately, the media," Tooley wrote.

Merritt and Tooley are both, though, cherry-picking the data to make it seem as if evangelicals are more opposed to immigration reform than they actually are.

The evidence Merritt uses to support his view that evangelicals are opposed to immigration reform is a Public Religion Research Institute survey. Merritt claims the data shows that only 56 percent of evangelicals support a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants and 63 percent want to deport all illegal immigrants.

The data, though, does not actually show that. The numbers he cites is for white evangelicals, not all evangelicals. Tooley gets it right. When he paraphrases Merritt's argument, he uses the term "white evangelicals." The error may have simply been an oversight on Merritt's part, but the argument that both Merritt and Tooley make suggests a cultural bias.

Claiming that leaders who support immigration reform do not represent evangelicals, and then supporting that claim by looking at the views of only white evangelicals implies that the views of white evangelicals count more than the views of non-white evangelicals.

To know whether or not the evangelical leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelicals calling for reform of the immigration system, represent the views of evangelicals, should we not look at the views of all evangelicals, not just white evangelicals?

A recent CBS News poll showed that three out of four, 75 percent, of evangelicals support a conditional path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.

The question of whether evangelicals are following their leaders on immigration reform is still a good one, though. Even if the pro-immigration reform evangelical leaders are representing a majority of evangelicals, as appears to be the case, the fact that a strong minority disagree is an issue deserving of further scrutiny. The Christian Post has reported on this very question before (here and here).

Ruth Melkonian-Hoover, associate professor of political science at Gordon College, Wenham, Mass., has studied this question. She found that support for immigration reform and positive feelings about immigrants increase for evangelicals when they hear positive messages about immigrants from their pastors.

Melkonian-Hoover notes, though, that it is still too early to tell what impact the EIT is having. In a Wednesday email to The Christian Post, she explained that she is currently working on a project to better understand the views of evangelicals on immigration. Though the results will not be available any time soon, she did conduct a pilot study on one politically conservative evangelical denomination and found strong support for comprehensive immigration reform with certain qualifications and a guest worker program.

With the nation still in the middle of a debate over immigration reform, the group's efforts will continue. Indeed, August will be a key month as House members will be home in their districts listening to their constituents. For some of them, what they hear from evangelicals, white and non-white, could have an impact on how they vote on an immigration reform bill.

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