Now that the government is back up and running, advocates of comprehensive immigration reform are ramping up their efforts, with Evangelical Christians taking center stage. The Evangelical Immigration Table has been particularly active, organizing a “Pray4Reform” campaign that (per the National Immigration Forum) has had more than 400 “prayer events and gatherings” in the last fortnight. And on October 21, the group sent a highly publicized letter to members of Congress praising them for their success thus far in moving toward reform and admonishing them to keep fighting the good fight.
So Evangelical Christians must have all gotten together and decided the Gang of 8’s bill is peachy keen, right? Not exactly. Evangelical Christians’ perspectives on immigration reform are of Byzantine complexity. But that in and of itself is an important fact to bear in mind as the debate heats up again over the coming weeks, and as various groups jostle for authority to speak for the movement. Given Evangelicals’ clout in the GOP, their perspective on the issue is, shall we say, just a little important. And that makes the complexity of their take especially noteworthy.
It also makes it extremely important to be familiar with who is speaking for Evangelicals. In June, Eric Metaxas, a prominent Evangelical leader and author, dissociated himself from the Evangelical Immigration Table. He tweeted: “Did you know George Soros was behind the Immigration thing I signed but then had my name taken off? Yikes.” That tweet also linked to this report from Breitbart about a new group called Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration that takes a very different stance. And a few hours later, Metaxas tweeted the following: “Anything Soros is behind is worth quitting. So glad I’ve had my name removed from this.”
The lesson of all of this should be that any sentence that says “Evangelicals believe [fill in the blank] regarding immigration [or just about any other political issue]” is seriously fraught. There are approximately 90 to 100 million Evangelical Christians in America (per Wheaton College’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals). That number is big, and one might expect a certain diversity. However, much of the media coverage of how Evangelical Christians approach immigration reform has focused on organizations that advocate so-called comprehensive reform. Less of the coverage has focused on the big picture within the movement concerning immigration and public policy. But that big picture is really interesting, so let’s take a look.
The letter that the EIT released on Monday reads, in part: “Through Bible reading, prayer, and public education campaigns we have mobilized a broad base of evangelical support for immigration reform. But while Congress debates reform proposals, immigrant families and workers continue to suffer under our broken system. Now it is time to finish the job. Please prioritize work to finalize immigration reform legislation this year.”
That same day, Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration — the group Breitbart reported on — also released a letter to members of Congress; same day, same issue, same demographic group, same target audience, very different timbre. Here’s an excerpt: “Please do not be misled by the National Immigration Forum (NIF) campaigns of so-called ‘conservatives’ and evangelicals promoting amnesty. Progressive, globalist billionaires including George Soros’s Open Society Institute and the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations heavily fund the NIF which funds many amnesty campaigns. . . . We ask you to prioritize those who respect America enough to have honored our laws and customs. In Scripture we see both welcome and walls. We do not find blanket amnesty and asylum, nor debt escalation. It is a book of wisdom, not of folly.” (Emphasis theirs.)
EBI had sent a letter to members of Congress earlier this summer that Metaxas signed on to (he tells National Review that he signed it after withdrawing his imprimatur from the Evangelical Immigration Table). It expresses the same ideas as this week’s letter, including that the Gang of 8 bill would be a mess and that there’s no Biblical basis for blanket amnesty.
In short, Evangelicals’ perspectives on immigration are much more varied than groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table might suggest. “Evangelicals defy easy categorization on immigration reform,” Ralph Reed tells National Review. “They do not support amnesty and are not as pro-immigration-reform as the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Nor are they unyielding restrictionists. They favor welcoming the alien and foreigner as a matter of Biblical principle, but also support securing the border and enforcing the rule of law.” Reed adds that the issue isn’t as much of a priority among Evangelicals as taxes, the deficit, the Affordable Care Act, gay marriage, and — of course — abortion.
It’s worth noting that few influential Evangelical leaders are willing to speak for the movement as a whole when it comes to immigration reform. That said, there’s no shortage of strong feelings on the subject.
Dan Patrick, for instance, is a Texas state senator and a prominent Evangelical in the state. He is also a former radio host, and is one of three primary challengers to Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.
“As a Christian, it bothers me that people die because of the politics,” Patrick says. “And as a state senator in Texas, it bothers me that because of politics we are having a large criminal element and potentially some terrorists come into our country. Washington is literally fiddling while Texas and our southern border burns.”
He describes the influx of illegal immigrants across the border as “an invasion,” and holds that the number of people who die trying to cross into the United States means that Christians have a responsibility to make that trek less appealing.
Metaxas tells National Review: “The Scriptures are very clear that God commands us to ‘care for the strangers and aliens among us.’ But to leap from that to enacting destructive immigration policies is exceedingly sloppy thinking and shallow theology, neither of which benefits anyone.” He adds that it’s lamentable that “the siren song of easy answers” has kept so many Evangelicals from “sound and rigorous thinking on how to responsibly and Biblically think about this tremendously important issue.”
But, as we have seen, not all Evangelicals have fallen under the spell of that siren song. According to polling data from Pulse Opinion Research (a derivative of Rasmussen that Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration cites), 78 percent of surveyed Evangelicals oppose “an influx of foreign labor,” and 82 percent “oppose work permits for illegal immigrant workers.” That’s hardly a bullish attitude toward the Gang of 8’s bill.
The Evangelical movement is huge and, for all that its members have in common, disparate and complex. No single advocacy group can effectively crystallize 90 million persons’ opinions on an issue as messy as immigration reform.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.