FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 03/14/2013

Strangers and Evangelicals: Forging a Path for America’s Immigrants

March 12, 2013             Volume 6, Issue 5


Faith + Ideas = an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College

By Ruth Melkonian-Hoover


It’s an old story, the immigrant story. A biblical one, in fact. Consider Abraham, Moses, even Joseph and Mary, all of whom spent a good part of their lives displaced from their home countries, immigrants, if you will, in search of a promise fulfilled or a promised land. 

Why, then, have those who today identify with the Bible’s narrative, those who call themselves ‘evangelical Christians,’ found the topic of immigration in the U.S. such an explosive one?

Until recently, I think the problem in part has been one of leadership. Pastors of largely white evangelical churches have either avoided the issue because of its political hot buttons, or hadn’t explored all of the theological or demographic implications of what it might mean to “welcome the stranger.”

But with congressional discussions of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) making daily headlines, key leaders within the evangelical community have begun to shift their stance. And in recent years, they’ve been instrumental in the support of versions of CIR that attempt to balance moral imperatives of justice and mercy. They have been involved at the political level, issuing formal policy statements and lobbying, as well as at the congregational level, educating and mobilizing faith communities.

Changing demographics are part of the story, but not enough to explain the gradual, principled shift of evangelical leadership taking place over the last decade. The trend toward support of reform has come about for a variety of reasons, including (1) many congregations have grown more multi-ethnic; (2) agendas have broadened to include more than the traditional “two” evangelical issues (life and marriage); and (3) new Christian leaders (including Hispanic evangelicals) have assumed key positions in American evangelicalism, resulting in evangelical social and political engagement becoming more diverse.  

In recent years evangelical leadership on immigration has become so extensive that the Obama administration now considers top evangelical leaders a “go to” religious group on the question of reform. When President Obama pushed for more discussion of immigration two years ago, he asked for support and input from what one reporter called his “evangelical cabinet on immigration reform.” This past Friday (March 8, 2013), evangelicals were a key part of a team of faith leaders with whom Obama met to review his newly prioritized efforts on immigration.

Still, enthusiasm for CIR appears to be greater among national leaders than among evangelicals “in the pews.” Many parishioners have been hostile to immigration reform, angry due to what they see as border breaches and economic impositions, and therefore haven’t yet heeded the calls from national-level leaders to blend justice with mercy in immigration policy. For instance, a recent national survey (the Pew Research Center’s July/August 2010 Religion and Public Life Survey) asked whether immigrants threatened or strengthened American society and the economy, and what priorities should drive immigration policy (i.e., border security, law enforcement, and/or a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants). Fifty percent of white evangelicals said they see immigrants as a threat. Only 21 percent said they believe immigrants strengthen both the economy and the society.

But what if church attendance, diverse congregations, and positive sermons change opinions toward immigrants? As I compared responses around these questions with the national data, I discovered that attending services alone did not affect perceptions.  Positive messages did. Of regular churchgoing white evangelicals who said they have heard a positive message from their pastor, the percentage of those who perceive immigrants as a threat dropped significantly from 50.7 percent to 26.1 percent.

Leadership matters. At the same time, however , if evangelical leaders are going to help educate not only their congregations but move the issue along legislatively, they’d do well to understand and address the concerns of the evangelical laity—a population that is not necessarily hostile to undocumented immigrants as people or unsympathetic to their situation, but is nonetheless very skeptical of reforms to immigration policy that provide “amnesty” or anything close to it.  Reform that addresses security and the rule of law is more likely to gain traction among evangelicals than reform that avoids such components. For instance, to garner broader based support, a reform package could include not only a path to citizenship with qualifications, but also options short of citizenship, including a temporary legal status/guest worker.

Through such discussions and priorities, I believe evangelicals may best be able to contribute a distinctive “third way” perspective—one that in very practical ways includes both justice and mercy. They can provide key political support to bipartisan compromise on a very complex and legislatively intimidating issue. After all, the biblical story—with its ample examples of strangers and aliens—can certainly equip them for such a time as this.

Ruth Melkonian-Hoover is chair and associate professor of political science and international affairs at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. The daughter of Armenian and Danish immigrants, she lives in Hamilton, MA, with her husband and two children.


Ruth Melkonian-Hoover