The Common Good

Religious Leaders' Near-Unanimous Support for Immigration Reform

One of the most meaningful things I get to do in my work as a Ph.D. student in political science is assist Jim Wallis with a course he teaches at Georgetown every fall titled "Faith, Social Justice, and Public Life." Jim is well known as the founder and leader of Sojourners and as a lifelong advocate for social justice. Through lectures, discussions, and guest speakers, our students learn about how and why clergy and lay people of various religious backgrounds advocate for public policies as expressions of their faith commitments. This fall, the push for comprehensive immigration reform was one of the case studies we examined with our students.

Courtesy Jacob Lupfer
With Rev. Jim Wallis and our Georgetown students outside the #fast4families tent on the National Mall. Courtesy Jacob Lupfer

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I'm no expert in immigration policy. But, as a political scientist, I can offer an informed assessment about when, why, and how the House of Representatives will pass the reform in 2014. This will be the subject of a future post. For now, though, I want to highlight some distinctive features of the debate that I have noticed as an observer of religion in American politics. I do have a layman's interest in the theological justifications being offered in support of (and, perhaps surprisingly, against) comprehensive immigration reform. But for now, I will focus mostly on the politics.

Near-Unanimous Support from Diverse Religious Groups

I am struck by religious groups' near-unanimous support of immigration reform. This does not happen on many issues. Mormons and Southern Baptists are not often political allies with Mainline and Black Protestants. Virtually every denomination of any significant size in the U.S. has spoken of the need for reform and has, to varying degrees, advocated for the bipartisan reform package that passed the Senate 68-32 in June and is now stalled in the House. Recognizing the human dignity and family cohesion issues at stake — and the vital importance of immigrants in American congregations — the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Mainline and Black Protestant denominations, Jews, Muslims, and evangelical organizations stand united with each other and with partners such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and law enforcement groups. Note that one ad hoc advocacy group is named Bibles, Badges & Business. Every issue is different, but immigration reform has brought together a broad and diverse coalition indeed.

It's rare that conservative evangelicals support anything that Republicans in Congress oppose. They are usually as predictably supportive of the GOP platform as Mainline and Black Protestants are of the Democrats. Yet, to their great credit, many conservative evangelical leaders have been strong immigration reform advocates for years.

I should especially commend the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for bucking certain elements of the Republican Party and joining the rest of the ecumenical Christian community on this issue. ERLC President Russell Moore (and his predecessor Richard Land) have been vital partners. Significantly, the ERLC's involvement signals that immigration reform is not just a liberal Democratic policy. What are churchgoing evangelicals hearing from the pulpit? Perhaps not much, at least in white churches. But most evangelical pastors are finding it indefensible to preach against immigration reform. Research by Ruth Melkonian-Hoover of Gordon College indicates that mass-level attitudes among white evangelicals can shift when they hear positive messages from their pastors.

Evangelical Activism: Grassroots or "Grasstops?"

There has been a debate about whether evangelicals' drive for immigration reform has arisen from the mass level or whether it has been waged by elites. Reform advocates, naturally, want to claim that theirs is a grassroots movement and that they are speaking for a vast constituency of biblically responsible evangelicals who desperately want justice for their immigrant neighbors. So far, it seems that the House GOP Conference does not think it's a grassroots movement, because members remain comfortable posturing against "amnesty" and rejecting calls to bring the measure up for a vote. But that is changing, and the Speaker's office will come around when the political benefits outweigh the costs.

Religion News Service blogger Jonathan Merritt had a smart analysis of the grassroots-vs.-grasstops question in July. Noting that white evangelicals' immigration attitudes are predictably conservative relative to other Americans, Merritt argued that "pro-reform religious leaders must find a way to educate and innervate the everyday faithful." For them, there is a spiritual dimension to this task, of course. But it's also basic interest group politics. You have to get your own people fired up. You're speaking for them, but you're also speaking to them. Reform advocates need to raise their voices, giving reluctant politicians cover to pass the bill over hysterical nativist rants about "amnesty" from constituents with crude attitudes about immigrants. In the end, Congress will pass the reform because the House GOP will decide that it's good politics, not because it cares anything about connecting biblical ethics to a contemporary issue.

Rather than debate whether evangelicals' immigration advocacy is grassroots or grasstops, it is and will continue to be more productive to focus on how religious leaders can speak honestly and prophetically to and for their constituents.

Strategy: Resolutions, Getting Arrested, Fasting. Hunger Strike!?

Each part of the broad religious coalition employed different strategies — sometimes together but usually separately — to raise awareness about and advocate for immigration reform. Southern Baptists passed resolutions at their annual conventions, which provide important cover for members of Congress from the South. Evangelicals wisely convened the Evangelical Immigration Table apart from Mainliners in order to differentiate themselves from the Mainliners' liberal politics. Mainline clergy and denominational leaders lined up to be arrested alongside Democratic members of Congress. This communique from the United Methodist Church's General Board of Church & Society is typical of Mainline agencies' activism. A group of progressive evangelicals — white, black, and Hispanic — held a fast on the National Mall. Conservative evangelicals who support reform did not line up to be arrested and some even derided the fast as a "hunger strike." (With friends like these ...) But generally, each tradition engaged in its usual forms of activism without getting in each other's way.

I'll say more later about how and why the reform will eventually be enacted. For now, it's enough to say that these advocates have done everything you're supposed to do to "win" in a democracy. They have spoken to and for their constituents. They have moved public opinion and aroused public sympathy. Elites have cooperated across sectarian lines and raised mass-level awareness, leading to activism and changes of heart. A broad coalition of disparate interests and a majority of Americans are now ready for reform.

Only politics stands in the way.

Jacob Lupfer is a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf.

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