Evangelicals and immigration: Crunching the numbers

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Debate erupts over where evangelicals are on immigration reform. Here's what the polling numbers indicate. - Image courtesy of MervC: http://bit.ly/1ct9JoD

Debate erupts over where evangelicals are on immigration reform. Here's what the polling numbers indicate. - Image courtesy of MervC: http://bit.ly/1ct9JoD

Debate erupts over evangelicals attitudes toward immigration reform. Here's what the polling numbers indicate. - Image courtesy of MervC: http://bit.ly/1ct9JoD

Debate erupts over evangelicals’ attitudes on immigration reform. Here’s what the polling numbers indicate. – Image courtesy of MervC: http://bit.ly/1ct9JoD

America is wrestling with whether or not to enact comprehensive immigration reform, and the debate has been lively to say the least. Just this afternoon, police arrested 40 of the 200 pro-immigrant protestors demonstrating outside of the U.S. Capitol. I suspect this won’t be the last we’ll hear from them.

Meanwhile, religious and political commentators are debating how effective the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), a group of Christian leaders who support reform, have been in convincing their politically influential community at the grassroots level. I’ve long supported immigration reform, even making a case for why I believe Christians should support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Yet, I’ve also said that I don’t believe that the EIT has been as effective as some assume at mobilizing the masses.

In support of my opinion, I cited research from March/April of this year conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in partnership with the Brookings Institution. As I said:

According to a recent poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution, only 56 percent of evangelicals believe that undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. should be allowed to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements. That percentage is essentially unchanged since 2006 when Pew reported that 54 percent of evangelicals favored “allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and the possibility of citizenship.”

Several Christian friends who support immigration reform like I do sent me some less-than-affirming. They weren’t happy that I “said discouraging things about the movement.” But I just call it like I see it. Their criticism intensified when a CBS poll reported earlier this week that 75% of evangelicals support a pathway to citizenship.

Napp Nazworth of The Christian Post says the problem is that the PRRI data was of “white” evangelicals while the CBS poll included all evangelicals. Unfortunately, Napp is wrong. After checking, the CBS poll reports on all evangelicals. Of course, any religion writer should know that when discussing the conservative evangelicals at the core of the Republican base, journalists are often speaking of white evangelicals even though they don’t specify. Religion writers often say that “white” is the “silent adjective” when it comes to talking about conservative evangelicals.

“It would be pretty odd to refer to all evangelicals (black, white, hispanic) as part of the GOP base,” Robert Jones of PRRI told me. “We always break out evangelicals by race and ethnicity, as do most social scientists.”

Dan Cox, Research Director for PRRI went further:

Typically, we do not report out on all evangelicals, because this category includes a significant number of black and Hispanic evangelicals and are politically quite distinct from white non-Hispanic evangelicals…. White evangelicals are an important part of the GOP base, but black and Hispanic evangelicals are not.

Even still, Napp’s general point is well taken. As evangelicals diversify, albeit slowly, religion writers like myself need to be more precise in our descriptions of evangelical ethnicity.

But we still have to address the discrepancy with the numbers here. Anyone with enough sense not to hold up an umbrella in a lightning storm should realize that something is amiss when two polls show a 23-point shift on an issue like this in a matter of months. So what gives?

The answer seems to lie in the questions themselves. PRRI’s March question was a three-part question: “Which statement comes closest to your view about how the immigration system should deal with immigrants who are currently living in the US (United States) illegally? The immigration system should allow them a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, allow them to become permanent legal residents, but not citizens, or identify and deport them?”

Sixty three percent said they wanted to allow them to become citizens if they met certain requirements. When the question was asked again in a two-part (favor/oppose) format in April, that number rose to 68%. Among evangelicals, the number was a little less (60%).

According to Robert Jones of PRRI, when you spell out the requirements in detail rather than just mentioning “meet certain requirements,” the number rises among conservatives and Republicans. (Those tweaks account for why there was 78% support in the CBS poll and 55% in the ABC/WashPost poll.)

Now there are some who have brushed aside PRRI’s numbers and instead report exclusively on the CBS poll. They are using the latter statistic, in the words of Andrew Lang, “as a drunken man uses lampposts–for support rather than for illumination.” The wide range in polling results–from 58% to 60% to 55% to 78%–seems to indicate a fickleness on the issue among many evangelicals rather than a solid consensus.

When I asked Jones, a man with a Talmudic devotion to following these sorts of trends, how much change in public opinion we’ve seen from April to July, he said, “Generally speaking, I don’t see a lot of shift in numbers over time since early this year. Most of the differences are due to question wording differences, especially whether the questions mentions meeting certain requirements or spells them out specifically. So I don’t think there is any great refutation going on here.”

In other words, as the evangelical elites have grown increasingly supportive of the issue, the evangelical masses continue to lag behind.

I’ve drawn a particular conclusion from the range of data we’ve seen, and my conclusions remain unchanged by the most recent poll. Many, if not most, white evangelicals who are politically conservative–like conservatives, in general–either oppose a pathway to citizenship or think that a lot should be required of undocumented immigrants in order to be granted it. Rule of law and personal responsibility tends to be emphasized. The large variations in polling numbers over a relatively short period of time and the way phrasing impacts them underscores that conservative evangelicals remain divided on this issue. Many, I believe, are still making up their minds. This could change in the coming months, but that is what I believe to be true now.

Statistician Nate Silver is right when he says, “Any one game in baseball doesn’t tell you that much, just as any one poll doesn’t tell you that much.” When we look at the range of data and consider what we know to be true about this group in general, we can conclude that when it comes to immigration, the ball is still very much in play. Even if some of the self-proclaimed referees are trying to call the game.

*Author’s Note: After speaking with sources about the CBS poll, I discovered that the number they reported was not of all evangelicals but rather of white evangelicals. This article has been updated to reflect that finding.*

  • Jonathan,

    You made good points in your previous column and in this one. I’m glad you clarified your interpretation of the data here. As a pastor, though I’m very much actively pro-reform, I found among the rank and file some of the attitudes against reform, mainly due to the consumption (sigh!) of talk radio and cable news.

    That having been said, I wonder if we are looking at the discussion from a wrong angle. The criticism is that leaders are being “top-down” in their approach and should instead listen to the people and let that inform their positions. But aren’t Christian leaders like pastors and other offices charged with teaching and changing minds with Scripture? When guys like Mark Tooley say that leaders are wrong to be out in front of their people on an issue like this, are they not advocating, at least in a small way, for leaders to abdicate their role of leadership?

    Maybe I’m reading too much into it. I’d love your thoughts.

  • Dan,

    I think that pastors should very much be leading their people through the murky waters of issues like this. But that is a different question, I think.