On Immigration Reform, Will Evangelicals Follow Their Leaders?

Evangelical leaders have been more supportive of immigration reform in recent years, but whether or not lay evangelicals will follow their leaders on this issue is still an open question, Dr. Ruth Melkonian-Hoover noted in a Wednesday presentation at the American Enterprise Institute.

Using data from Pew Research Center, Melkonian-Hoover, associate professor at Gordon College, Wenham, Mass., found that the amount of church attendance did not make a difference in perceptions of immigrants or support for immigration reform, but positive messages from pastors about immigrants did make a difference.

Among white evangelicals who say they have heard a positive message about immigrants from their pastor, 81.5 percent support a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants, compared to only 54 percent of all white evangelicals. Among regular churchgoing white evangelicals, the percentage of those who see immigrants as a threat to society or the economy drops from 50.7 percent to 26.1 percent when they hear a positive message about immigrants from their pastors.

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Melkonian-Hoover was presenting the results of her study at a conference called, "Is the Good Book good enough? Evangelical perspectives on public policy." She also contributed a chapter on immigration to a book of the same title, and has written a blog post on the topic for G92. Her research uses survey data and interviews with evangelical leaders.

White evangelicals who worship in a more racially and ethnically diverse congregation are more likely to hold positive feelings about immigrants, Melkonian-Hoover said, but they are not more or less likely to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

"On the whole, it does look like efforts from evangelical leaders in their congregations, are making some difference," Melkonian-Hoover added, "but there are a number of factors that keep white evangelicals where they are," which she will continue to research in the future.

Since 2007, the last time there was a push for immigration reform, a number of evangelical groups have become more supportive, and a number of new Latino evangelical groups have been created. This shift is exemplified by the Evangelical Immigration Table, created in 2012. Its signers include leaders of Focus on the Family, Prison Fellowship, The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Last month, the EIT began a 40 day prayer challenge in which they asked participants to read 40 Bible passages about immigration and pray about what they read.

A video of the AEI conference can be found on its website.

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