Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Why evangelicals’ push for immigration reform isn’t working

Leaders from the "Evangelical Immigration Table" pray together at an event in Washington, DC. - Image courtesy of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (
Leaders from the "Evangelical Immigration Table" pray together at an event in Washington, DC. - Image courtesy of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (

Leaders from the “Evangelical Immigration Table” pray together at an event in Washington, DC. But the effort isn’t convincing some lawmakers – Image courtesy of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (

As evangelical leaders push for immigration reform, they prove yet again that politics makes strange bedfellows.

The typically conservative group is allying with President Obama and congressional Democrats through a broad coalition called the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT). Supporters of the EIT include Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, Matthew Staver of Liberty University, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and more than 100 heads of evangelical denominations, colleges, and organizations. Together, they have endorsed a statement calling for a bipartisan solution that, among other things, respects human dignity, protects the unity of families, secures our national borders, and establishes a pathway toward citizenship for those who desire it.

Many commentators believe this effort may create a tipping point on immigration. Evangelicals are able to speak about the issue in moral terms by using religious language, and as an important part of the conservative base, they can pressure Republican opposition in ways few other groups can.

As William McKenzie of “The Dallas Morning News” writes, “Evangelicals hold the key to re-creating our immigration system.”

Yet despite broad support from such an influential faction of American Christians, the road to immigration reform is still a long one. Though a reform bill passed in the Senate with 68 votes, passage in the House seems less than likely. GOP leaders have publicly criticized the bill, and Speaker Boehner says he won’t pass it without a majority of the Republican caucus. Additionally, he says they will write their own bill rather than accept the Senate’s. In short, it may be a while before an immigration bill becomes law.

So what gives?

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. As “The New York Times” reports, while “no prominent pastor has spoken out against the immigration (reform) effort … accord has been less broad among the faithful.”

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.”

Perhaps most telling, the PRRI poll reports that 63 percent of evangelicals believe the nation “should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries”—20 percent higher than the national average.

I can guarantee you that I am not the only one paying attention to these polls. Lawmakers are too. They know that the evangelical push for immigration reform has failed to penetrate into the core of the constituency. It’s mostly a grasstops movement of high-level leaders, many whom are unlikely to vote anything other than Republican in future elections regardless of whether Congress moves on immigration.

For years, evangelical organizations have enacted political strategies to gather leaders, affix their names to a statement, and lobby Congress for reform. But such efforts create momentum only insofar as those leaders represent the views of their constituencies.

A good example of this might be the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), a group of hundreds of prominent leaders calling for political action on global warming in 2006. Their statement was signed by notables such as mega-church pastor Rick Warren, Richard Stearns of World Vision, and the presidents of more than 40 evangelical colleges. Though the effort created a media frenzy, it failed to rally average, pew-sitting evangelicals. Polls showed that most evangelicals were not convinced that climate change was man-caused and did not support political action, so many lawmakers ignored the effort.

I support both the ECI and the EIT, but I also recognize their limitations. In a post-modern world where high-profile pastors and religious leaders don’t command the respect and trust they once did, efforts to induce change must animate the masses and not merely cobble together elites. And so it is with immigration.

Pro-reform religious leaders must find a way to educate and innervate the everyday faithful, not just lawmakers. They must convince their brothers and sisters of the connections between immigration reform and the Biblical commands to “welcome the stranger” and “care for the least of these.” If they refuse or fail to do so, these leaders who have worked so hard on such an important issue will find themselves sitting around the immigration table empty-handed.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • Jonathan, the kingdom of God moves when God moves his people. Your identification of the need to inform and animate people is important, but I think we also need to encourage that those who seek to carry out the mission also pray for God to raise up the workers. It’s not that I think they have neglected prayer, but that putting it at the top of the list of things to get done will help everyone to keep their focus on serving God as we serve those in need.

    A friend of mine was telling me last weekend about the immigration problems she and her family have faced, despite being legally present in the US and contributing quite productively to our society. She then posted on it yesterday. I think it’s worth reading about what happens when tiny American children have South African parents: I am the Immigrant.


  • Good analysis.

    I think religious elites simply do not have as much influence over mass-level views as most people assume. Look at Catholic priests & birth control, mainline pastors & liberal politics, and evangelicals & immigration (and also the environment).

    Evangelical elites realize that Latino immigrants represent the revival of the evangelical church. But most suburban and rural middle- and upper-middle class white pew sitters see what conservative GOP congressmen see: Latinos as potential competitors in the employment market and future Democratic Party voters.

  • Jonathan,

    I think you’re right on the money. I’ve been a vocal support of reform as are many pastors I know. I see two other reasons for the GOP’s lack of action:

    1) The loud talk show hosts and pundits (Hannity, Colter, Rush) carry more weight with both GOP lawmakers and some active evangelicals. It’s really sad, but Christians tend to listen more to their favorite politico than to their pastor and often fail to weigh their views with Scripture.

    2) I think there is a distinct lack of missional and Great Commission attitudes among Christians. Though we’re to send the gospel to all nations, when all nations come here, we don’t like it and complain about them “taking over our neighborhoods.” There is a bit of fear of the “other” and a willingness to believe myths about immigrants that just aren’t true.

    I’m hopeful though. I think we’re close. I think the work that Matthew Soerens and others has done is going to bear fruit.

  • As we saw with the gun control debate earlier this year, polls matter much less than constituent and special-interest pressure. I would measure the Evangelical Immigration Table’s success or failure in calls, letters, visits and emails to Congressional offices; town hall attendance; letters to the editor; social media advocacy; and other metrics of that nature. Those things swing much more quickly than does public opinion among 60,000,000+ people, and EIT is working on generating them. Hopefully it works!

  • Jonathan,
    Perhaps part of this is the failure to garner enough support among the masses of white evangelicals, who skew conservative politically, is that there is no piety issue here that animates conservative evangelicals. Also Latino/a evangelicals, depending on generation, either follow conservative politics of white evangelicals or profile much more like Latino Catholics of second and third generations.

  • Jonathan,

    This is an excellent article and illustrates a curious divide between the evangelical leaders and the average evangelical. Certainly I have heard very little on immigration reform in my evangelical circles despite its high profile in the general media. I certainly hope the EIT is the sort of act that will prove to ignite and animate the discussion among evangelicals and provide it a moral color.

    As for pastors and evangelical organizational leaders not having the clout to move the masses, as it were- there remains a streak of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical culture and I wonder if this could, particularly when the EIT cuts against the grain of mainstream conservative opinion and media, account for some of the resistance typical evangelicals have to following in line with their leaders.

    I am particularly curious about one thing- you link post-modernism with a drop in confidence in religious leaders. How have you seen this play out and what aspects of the post-modern turn to you find most responsible?

  • J.W.,

    Thanks for the comment. I mention post-modernism within the context of this article because of 1) skepticism of authority and somewhat 2) emphasis on personal experience. These elements underscore the need for a grassroots arm.


  • Religious affiliation is voluntary–and in the US there’s a lot of choosing and switching. People do not go to church to learn from their leaders (why should they?) They select churches that promote the views they already hold. If church leaders preach something different they simply ignore them or leave.

    Evangelical ‘pastors’ may want to appeal to immigrants to get more warm bodies in. But it’s not in the interest of their largely white working class constituency, who are not only bigoted but have an economic interest in keeping immigrants out. Evangelicals are proportionately less educated than the population and immigrants compete with them for jobs at the low end of the labor market.

  • Pastors have no business preaching political agendas of any flavor. Judea was riven with political factions in the first century — Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Romans, Zealots, Samaritans, and so on. Jesus stood aloof from all their agendas yet ministered to them all at the same time. Even his own disciples, after his resurrection, tried to pigeonhole him into a political box, and he properly rebuked them for it (Acts 1:6-7).

    Amnesty for illegal aliens, and massive, unsustainable levels of legal immigration, have had bad consequences for most Americans over the last half-century (remember, we had an amnesty in 1986 with all the same rhetoric and false promises that we hear today). Pastors who claim that God Hath Spoken such that Christians must support the Senate immigration legislation are cheapening the gospel of Christ with their hijinks and embarassing the Bride of Christ with their ignorance and failures of logic.

    If laymen are not kowtowing to their pastors demands on a political issue, it is because the former recognize when the latter have overstepped their bounds and forgotten to know their place.

    There can be no Protestantism without protest, Reverend.

  • While I agree with many of the post, what is left out from the discourse is the distinction in immigration. Most evangelical churches and membership are very active in working with legal immigration organizations such as World Relief, Lutheran Charities, etc… However, those same folks including myself do not see the same issues when discussing mass immigration issues with our friends from Mexico and Central America. This immigration issue which stems from political corruption, economics, and an open border is much different from religious and political persecution immigration issues. We can not ignore the violence and lawlessness that has effected our border states. While the Irish immigration movement was the first large economic movement in immigration, it was still fairly controlled and documented. I would guess that most evangelical Christians are very supportive of immigration and immigrants (after all, we all came from somewhere other than native Americans). But what we balk at is the abandonment of what has contributed to the greatness of America, cultural assimilation, Judeo Christian ethics,and law and order. I would submit that if both political sides would really address their root reasons for their positions on this issue, a resolution could be reached. A sensible visa program and strong borders would accomplish both of these goals. Demanding democratic reforms in many of those economically challenged countries would go a long way as well. Finally, the American people must ask themselves why we have hundreds of thousands of immigrants (legal and illegal) who within a very short while can become educated, obtain meaningful employments, work hard and build businesses in this country while millions of our own citizens continue to look for Washington handouts and solutions.

  • IMHO, you are exactly correct. Were the elites to experience the same economic and social disruptions, e.g., more competition for a declining number of low skilled jobs, wage stagnation, overcrowding in schools and other public services, as the majority of the American working and middle classes experience now and will experience even more if this amnesty is passed, then the elites, too would be agains this bill. This is all about “do as I say, not as I do,”

  • I appreciate this post, Jonathan, and am very grateful for your support for the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform. I certainly agree that evangelical leaders have been ahead of evangelicals as a whole on this topic–which is to say that leaders have led. But I don’t think it is accurate to suggest that the Table’s efforts have not worked, or that evangelicals leaders are out of touch with those at the “pew level” on this issue. I have observed a pretty significant shift over the past few years, and I wanted to make you aware of the extensive efforts at the local church level to challenge evangelical Christians to think about immigration from a distinctly biblical perspective. The work of the Evangelical Immigration Table goes far beyond the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform that you and many others have affirmed. World Relief (where I work) and other organizational members of the Evangelical Immigration Table have staff and very committed volunteers at work all over the country leading Adult Education classes and small groups, encouraging pastors to discuss the topic from the pulpit, and highlighting discipleship resources such as the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge, which is basically a bookmark listing forty Scripture passages related to immigration that we’re challenging folks to read, one verse per day. We’ve had requests for more than 120,000 bookmarks nationally. As someone who began doing this work in 2006, the shift that has occurred in reactions to our message on immigration from both pastors and lay people really is dramatic (and, I believe, the work of the Holy Spirit).

    I’d also be quick to note that we’re not arguing that Scripture directs us toward one specific immigration policy, but we do believe that there are principles in Scripture that should inform how we–as individuals, as churches, and as a society–should respond to the presence of immigrants within our communities. When it comes to a governmental response, we think that those principles should include both a respect for the rule of law, on one hand, and a commitment to unified families and caring for those who are uniquely vulnerable, on the other. We advocate neither amnesty (a blanket pardon of the offense of unlawful entry or overstaying a visa) nor mass deportation, but think that an earned process by which undocumented immigrants could pay a fine to get right with the law and then, eventually, be allowed to embrace the responsibilities of citizenship if they show that they are willing to earn that opportunity through a multi-year process. Along with enhancements to border security and interior enforcement, instituting a mandatory workplace authorization verification system, and dramatic reforms to our archaic visa system, that conditional legalization and citizenship process is essentially what the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill would do.

    That Pew finds evangelicals tend to view immigrants as a threat, as you note, is a significant concern: most of my work is focused on trying to change that attitude, because I’m convinced that too many Christians have accepted a politically-motivated view of immigrants as a threat and, as a result, miss out on the missional opportunity that many missiologists believe immigration presents for the North American Church. But the same Pew poll that finds a slight majority of white evangelicals view immigrants as a threat also finds that 56% of white evangelicals support a conditional path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which is precisely the policy advocated by national leaders the Evangelical Immigration Table. The implication of your statement that “only 56% of evangelicals” support this policy seems to miss the reality that most white evangelicals support the same position as the Evangelical Immigration Table. Leaders are simply advocating the policy preferred by a majority of people within their institutions (albeit not as large a majority as I would like to see).

    It’s also important to note that those surveys are of white evangelicals, an incredibly important qualifier that your article does not mention, and non-white evangelicals are a significant and quickly-growing segment of American evangelicals. Hispanic and black evangelicals support an earned path to citizenship at rates much higher than white evangelicals. Denominational executives and other leaders of organizations and institutions with multi-ethnic constituencies are certainly conscious of these shifting demographics. The Assemblies of God, for example, is about 40% non-white within the U.S. The Southern Baptist Convention’s fastest growth–actually, its only net growth–is among other-than-white congregations, particularly Latino and African-American.

    Finally, the data cited is already a bit out of date, given the extensive efforts at the “pew level” to encourage more distinctly biblical views of immigration and the significant media attention given to this issue in Christian press in recent weeks. The CBS News poll released a few days ago finds fully 75% of evangelical Christians support a conditional path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

    Finally, regardless of what evangelical Christians as a whole actually believe, it just is not accurate to describe the effort as “not working.” A lot of Members of Congress seem to be significantly influenced by the statements and advocacy of evangelical leaders. In Washington, D.C. last Wednesday, more than 300 pastors and other evangelicals from 27 states met with more than 100 different congressional offices, and we heard over and over again from Republican Members of Congress and staffers that the support of evangelical Christians–which they’re hearing from their constituents, as well as from their representatives in D.C.–was making a huge difference in the immigration debate this time around as compared to the last significant congressional debate on this topic, in 2007. Case in point (though evangelicals are only one part of this shift; Latino voters in the November 2012 presidential elections and the courageous activism of undocumented young people, in particular, probably deserve more credit): listen to last week’s House Immigration Subcommittee’s hearing on undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and compare the rhetoric of most of the Republican elected officials (Rep. Steve King of Iowa excepted) with the rhetoric used during the floor debate over the DREAM Act in December 2010. Something certainly has changed, and I think the vocal advocacy of evangelical Christians–both leaders and lay people–is a part of that shift.

  • Thanks for offering your view here, Matthew. You know how much respect I have for you and your work.

    I still maintain that the evangelical community is divided over this issue. In fact, the polls often yield different results based on how the question is answered. As you noted, the CBS poll number was CONDITIONAL. Some say they support it IF immigrants pay hefty fines. Others ONLY once the borders are “secure.” I don’t support any of these pre-conditions to reform, but those sorts of numbers include those folks. And it’s important to point that out in order to understand what is going on.

    Additionally, when I say “not working” I don’t mean that there has been no movement. Rather, that we haven’t seen the deep, penetrating sea change consensus at the core that we have seen by the so-called elites. Part of this is a result of what you point out–that many evangelicals lead with their (conservative) politics rather than their theology.

    This week I plan to publish an op-Ed here laying out why I support a pathway to citizenship. I hope you’ll come back and weigh in on that as well.

    Again, I appreciate your leadership on this.

  • The claim that the Bible doesn’t mandate any specific policies with regard to the immigrants is partially mistaken. The Torah enjoins us to “love the stranger” and to have “one law for you and for the stranger that resides within your midst” (so whatever legal benefits we have must be given to the stranger as well).
    I believe that this country needs a political force that takes these injunctions seriously and insists that the Biblical values of love, generosity, kindness, caring for each other and for the earth be the central criteria in determining economic and political policies. Taking those values seriously requires us to create a very different kind of economy–for those of us who have not forgotten the Sabbatical Year with its injunction to forgive all debts, the Jubilee with its call for radical redistribution of property every fifty years back to the roughly equal original distribution, and the injunction against loaning money for interest. Curiously, many of my brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) who are Biblical literalists on issues of appropriate sexual behavior seem ignorant or outright rebellious against these parts of the Biblical tradition. So we need a new kind of political movement.
    I invite you to read my book The Left Hand of God, read the Spiritual Covenant with America that you’ll find at, and then write to me if you are interested in working with me to create a political voice of compassion and love that is not limited by the religiophobia of many on the Left nor by the ethical and Scriptural obtuseness of many on the Right.
    Rabbi Michael Lerner
    Editor, Tikkun Magazine
    Chair, The network of spiritual progressives
    Author of 11 books including The Politics of Meaning, Spirit Matters, Jewish Renewal, The Left Hand of God, and Embracing Israel/Palestine.
    [email protected]

  • Thanks, Jonathan… I certainly agree that the evangelical community is not unified on this (or, frankly, on almost anything), and I don’t have the ability to measure exactly how the divide breaks (4 to 1? 2 to 1? 1 to 1?). Most of my work is to push those numbers in a more favorable direction; I’d love for support to be at 100% so I could go work on something else (maybe I’ll join you on creation care?), but we’re clearly not there. My anecdotal experience would put support for immigration reforms including an earned path to citizenship at about 2 to 1 among those who, by their own admission, have never thought about how their biblical faith might inform their views, but closer to 4 or 5 to 1 among those who have heard a sermon or taken the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge or sat through a Sunday School class on this topic. There are absolutely stark geographic variations, too. Ruth Melkonian-Hoover at Gordon College has done some interesting research ( (and is doing more) on how exposure to biblical teaching on immigration as well as exposure to immigrants themselves impacts evangelical views. I’m eager to see her updated results, though that may not happen till after everything is done, one way or the other, in Congress.

    We do know now what the pollsters find: PRRI (in the most recent poll that you cited) and CBS actually asked very similar questions about support for citizenship for “illegal immigrants” who meet certain requirements: PRRI found 56% support among white evangelicals; CBS found 75% support among all evangelicals. Part of the discrepancy may be how “evangelical” is defined: self-identification, affirmation of particular doctrines, affiliation with an evangelical denomination, etc. Sample size is also likely a factor. But the biggest factor is likely that Pew polled “white evangelicals,” who (while mostly supportive) are less supportive overall than black and Hispanic evangelicals (I would guess that Asian evangelicals would be higher in support than whites as well, but I haven’t seen data on that). I would guess that both figures are about right: about three quarters of all evangelicals would affirm support for citizenship for undocumented immigrants if certain specified requirements are met, including about six in ten white evangelicals.

    You’re also right that CBS asked about a conditional path to citizenship, but they did not do so generically: they asked (according to “Would you favor or oppose providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S.
    if they met certain requirements including a waiting period, paying fines and back taxes, passing criminal background checks, and learning English?” Those conditions are consistent with the language of the bill passed by the U.S. Senate and with what most leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table have advocated, not a condition-less give-away of citizenship, but an earned process. While the Senate bill does have certain border security triggers before any undocumented immigrant would be given permanent legal status, and while many leaders affiliated with the Evangelical Immigration Table support such preconditions (“Guaranteeing secure national borders” is one of the principles of the Table’s statement), the CBS poll did not ask about citizenship being conditioned upon entirely secure borders. If they’d done so, I expect they’d have gotten an even higher level of support among white evangelicals, for whom border security consistently ranks as a strong concern. By asking a somewhat manipulated question, PRRI (the source of your 56% figure) has found support as high as 90% among white evangelicals for citizenship for the undocumented in the past (

    All that said, I think this dialogue is really helpful. You’re absolutely right that evangelical leaders often view issues in more nuanced ways than the evangelical populace–in part, perhaps, because it’s their job to get all the information, and in part perhaps because they’re generally theologically educated–and this is certainly an issue where evangelical leaders have been ahead of their congregations. (The same would be true of views on the environment, as you note). Where I’d disagree would be the idea that, on immigration, most lay people are not following: they may be a few steps behind, but I think there has been a pretty remarkable shift in evangelical public opinion on this issue. Most evangelicals are in the same place as the “elites” and I believe support is growing. (And, in all honesty: I think that part of that shift–I’m not able to measure how much–has more to do with the shift among conservative radio hosts and Fox News talking heads in their rhetoric than it does with what they’re reading in Scripture or hearing from their pastors, even though a lot more pastors are talking about this now than five years ago; I hope that’s just a small part of the change, because Scripture, not Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, should be our primary guide, but it’s hard to measure).

  • Dr. Sanchez Walsh is correct in pointing out the profile distinctions between White Evangelicals and Hispanic Evangelicals. Both tend to represent a politically conservative Republican base which has been no friend to the immigrant community. However, Hispanic Evangelicals, as interested stakeholders, have served to positively influence White and Black Evangelicals in the direction of supporting comprehensive immigration reform as a biblical mandate “to welcome the stranger.” This is no small feat and much larger than liberal pundits may be capable of appreciating. On the other hand, the reticence of Hispanic Evangelicals to speak out publicly against the Republican-inspired government shutdown may effect their credibility with other pro-reform leaders, including the Hispanic Caucus. The loss of their voice could be a tragic setback for comprehensive immigration reform.

  • The top people can make their statements about supporting people who will vote Democrat when they get their citizenship and elect candidates who will restrict religious liberty. The membership can also use this as an excuse to reduce their contribution.