Better Late Than Never: Evangelicals Push Republicans To Embrace Immigration Reform

Evangelicals, long ‘red state’ supporters, have suddenly embraced the cause of immigrants, raising the question, “Why now?”  Image @TheHuffingtonPost

Evangelicals, long ‘red state’ supporters, have suddenly embraced the cause of immigrants, raising the question, “Why now?” Image @TheHuffingtonPost

Evangelical leaders have seen the demographic handwriting on the wall. As a result–believe it or not–they are praying for GOP congressmen to back immigration reform. More than that, they’ve launched radio ads around the country designed to drum up support among other evangelicals. The timing is intentional: next week, the U.S. Senate begins debate on the immigration reform bill crafted by the chamber’s bipartisan Gang of Eight.

For those of us who are amazed by the about-face on such an emotionally charged, conservative issue, the cynical point of view is that evangelical churches know they will have fuller pews and fatter purses if they embrace immigrants. According to the Arizona Republic, 600,000 Latinos in this country convert from Catholicism to evangelical Protestantism every year. There are 2,000 Latino churches within the Southern Baptist denomination and 2,400 within the Assemblies of God. Pretty impressive–and persuasive–figures.

Congress, too, may be persuaded by the math. One-third of registered voters who are Republican or lean Republican are also evangelical Christians. That’s a percentage that makes politicians pay attention, whatever their own religious persuasion. While some of the evangelical radio ads will air nationally, many are specifically aimed at 13, mostly red, states whose congressmen must get on board if reform is to be successful: Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

An ad playing in Arizona features local megachurch pastor Don Wilson saying, “Christians should be known for their love” before switching to an enumeration of all the Christian values that are behind immigration reform. Then Wilson exhorts the faithful:

“Our Arizona elected officials need your prayers. They need to hear your voice.”

But just because the evangelical leadership sees the advantage of welcoming immigrants, that doesn’t mean the average congregant is going to fall in line behind that position. It might be a pretty hard sell. In March, a study by the Pew Research Group showed that white evangelical Christians are the least supportive of allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal status, when compared to white Catholics and white mainstream Protestants.

This big push actually began a couple of years ago and came from a group of leaders known as the Evangelical Immigration Table. The speculation about why it began is varied. Some say it’s based in theology, that Christians are called upon by the Bible to “welcome the stranger.” Some believe it’s driven by the possibility of converting large numbers of immigrants. Others say that watching the deportations among families within their congregations has put a human face on the issue.

Recently, Dr. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, told reporters in a conference call that:

“Evangelicals understand that our broken system is a moral issue; this isn’t just a legal issue, it isn’t a political issue or an economic issue only. It’s a moral issue and it’s been a stain on our country for too long. Now is the time for the country to come together for an immigration system that respects the God-given human dignity of every person.”

Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, in the same call with reporters, said:

“The pushback that we may have now is not what we had even a year ago or six months ago because people are sitting down, reading and reasoning. And [people] are in relationships with immigrants. They know they’re hardworking, they know they want to contribute to society in healthy ways.”

Rev. Dan Krause, Lead Pastor of the Chugach Covenant Church in Anchorage, Alaska said:

“As soon as we take them into the scripture and really show people, ‘Listen, God has spoken clearly about this issue,’ it’s fairly easy to convince somebody who has a high regard for scripture that God loves the stranger, the sojourner in our land and we need to be praying for reform.”

If evangelical leaders truly believe the issue is a moral one which the Bible addresses clearly, if they truly believe that preserving families is more important than endorsing deportations, if they truly believe the words of 70-year-old congregant, Stewart Hall, when he told the New York Times:

“It occurs to me that if Jesus was sitting next to me, he would not care whether they were illegal or legal.”

…then why did it take so long for the realization to dawn? Why has the fight against reform been so vehement and often vicious?

Cynicism about this enormous sea change of opinion comes not only from the left end of the political spectrum. One right-wing Christian blogger, Marjorie Jeffrey, is convinced the whole movement by evangelical leaders was bought and paid for by liberal philanthropist George Soros, whom she accuses of “exploiting” evangelicals.

In a situation that has been so turned on its head, I suppose anything is possible. One thing is crystal clear, though. The change of heart is a true blessing for our undocumented immigrants, who may get their best shot at reform through the intervention of evangelicals. Ironic, huh?