Love Thy Stranger as Thyself

Molly Worthen, New York Times, May 11, 2013

Immigration reform is not a liberal idea. It is good, old-fashioned conservative policy—at least that’s what its supporters want the Republican faithful to believe.


Some of the most enthusiastic endorsements of the new immigration bill have come from traditional evangelicals, who insist that reform “respects the God-given dignity of every person.” Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader who was among the 300 evangelicals who went to Washington last month for “a day of prayer and action for immigration reform,” said that once Republicans toned down their anti-immigrant rhetoric, Latino voters would follow.

“They’re social conservatives, hard-wired to be pro-family, religious and entrepreneurial,” he told me. Mr. Land pointed to Senator Marco Rubio as the face of this “new conservative coalition.”

“Let the Democrats be the party of dependency and ever lower expectations,” Mr. Land added. “The Republicans will be the party of aspiration and opportunity—and who better to lead the way than the son of Cuban immigrants?”

The Christian right may be too optimistic about any change in the political sympathies of Latinos. Increasing numbers tell pollsters they favor same-sex marriage, for example. But the real surprise is that evangelicals may be wrong about the unyielding conservatism of their own movement.


For much of American history, most white Protestants shared in the belief that immigrants were vectors of anti-democratic viruses like Catholicism, anarchism and Bolshevism. Although by the 1950s liberal mainline Protestants had come around to the idea of relaxing immigration restrictions, the conservative National Association of Evangelicals opposed the liberalizing reform act of 1965, fearing “infiltration by influences subversive of the American way of life.”

Today, the culture wars and the constant skirmishes over the size and scope of the welfare state have convinced conservatives that the country’s direst enemies are not “subversive” foreigners, but homegrown liberals.

International experience has connected more American evangelicals to Christians living in immigrant-sending countries, and they now view them as ideological allies. Organizations ranging from Focus on the Family to Anglican splinter churches have been building relationships in the global south for decades. They have come to see Latin Americans and Africans as defenders of traditional gender roles and Christian civilization.

“We have a very positive ‘immigration problem’ in this country, in that the Latino community coming in, both legally and illegally, generally possesses a value system that is compatible with America’s value system,” Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, told me.

It’s true that Latino Americans tend to be religious (according to Gallup, 54 percent are Catholic and 28 percent are Protestant). However, even those at the forefront of collaboration with white evangelicals stress that important differences remain. Jesse Miranda is a Pentecostal who founded a national organization for Latino Protestants, Alianza de Ministerios Evangélicos Nacionales (AMEN), in 1992. “We used the term ‘evangélico’ when I founded AMEN, and said we won’t use the word ‘evangelical’ so the media won’t identify us with our white brethren,” he said.


{snip} For a Christian, the question of whether an undocumented immigrant is a criminal or a victim trapped in an unjust system depends on how one thinks about sin and human responsibility.

A century ago, preachers of the “Social Gospel” argued that sin was not only a matter of personal depravity: it was also a social problem. Our society, built by flawed human beings, is full of institutionalized sin, of greed and cruelty cemented in the structures that govern our lives.


Conservative evangelicals decried Social Gospelers as liberals who replaced soul-winning with social work—or worse, socialism. They stressed personal responsibility and argued that genuine social change could come only through converting one sinner at a time to Christ.

Latino Protestants may share the core doctrines of white evangelicals, but not the fusion of Christianity and libertarianism that has come to pervade the right, perhaps in part because they have intimate experience with the inequalities ingrained in American institutions.

They have left their forefathers’ faith, but they tend to retain the common Catholic conviction that being “pro-life” requires combating social injustice and reining in capitalism when necessary. In 2011 the polling organization Latino Decisions found that although Latinos are committed to the American ideal of self-sufficiency and hard work, most don’t believe the free market can solve all problems. “Minority citizens prefer a more energetic government, by large and statistically significant margins,” wrote the organization’s researchers Gary Segura and Shaun Bowler. In 2012, 71 percent of Latinos voted for President Obama.


White evangelical leaders are loudly rejecting the xenophobia of their ancestors, though most still cherish that old libertarian creed. It is the political counterpart to an evangelical faith that reacted against the Social Gospelers by becoming even more radically individualistic, centering on a person’s private relationship with Jesus.

There are signs that evangelicals’ softening on immigration reform reflects a changing theology of sin and Christian obligation: a growing appreciation of how unjust social and legal institutions and the brutality of global capitalism trap the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses. {snip}


Opponents of reform doubt that leaders who support the immigration bill speak for anyone other than themselves. Mark Tooley, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, has noticed a shift to the left among evangelical elites, and it worries him. “But it’s mostly limited, confined to those coming out of colleges and universities and working for relief groups, those who are more actively involved in advocacy issues and public policy issues, whereas the more typical evangelical living in the Midwest somewhere and working at Walmart, in a mainstream American situation, is not all that different from previous generations,” he said.

Indeed, evangelical elites have a rosier view of immigrants than do the Republican rank and file. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 55 percent of Republicans view immigrants as a “burden because they take jobs, housing, and health care.”

“Leaders are usually ahead of the laity—that’s called leadership,” Richard Land said. “But the gap is closing.”


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