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Love thy immigrant stranger as thyself 

Evangelicals take a strong stance on reform, but that may not be what the Republican party wants

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.

The Republican Party has "historically been pro-immigration," Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, said after the 2012 election. The conservative National Immigration Forum declares that America needs reform that "celebrates freedom and values hard work."

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 300 evangelicals who went to Washington in April 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. Land pointed to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as the face of this "new conservative coalition."

"Let the Democrats be the party of dependency and ever lower expectations," 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?"

Shifting perspectives

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.

Evangelicals' growing support for immigration reform suggests an important shift in how conservative Protestants — who policed the boundaries of our national identity for almost four centuries — think about what it means to be American. It may also point to the beginnings of real change in how evangelicals understand the problem of justice in a fallen world, and the challenge that Latino and other minority Christians pose to the assumptions of the culture wars.

From the anti-Catholic paranoia of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s to today's tea party tirades about immigrants' taking American jobs, each wave of nativist hysteria has had its own enthusiasms. But all have feared that newcomers would subvert democracy and sabotage citizens' claim to the American dream. Racism often inflamed this anxiety (Benjamin Franklin worried about the influx of Germans settling in Pennsylvania and doubted that they could ever "acquire our Complexion").

Yet the more basic fear — underlying warnings that Irish Catholics corrupted elections by voting in blocs or, more recently, that undocumented Mexicans and their "anchor babies" sponge off the welfare state — has always been this: These foreigners don't respect our values and, if we let them in, they will destroy us.

For much of U.S. 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."

A 'positive problem'

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," Focus' Daly 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 Evangelicos Nacionales (AMEN), in 1992. "We used the term 'evangelico' 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.

Most Latino evangelicals are recent converts to Protestantism with no stake in the battles between fundamentalists and modernists that divided white Protestants a hundred years ago, or in the more recent campaigns of the Christian right. They care more about education for their children than quarreling over the theory of evolution.

Soul-winning or social work

This difference is not just political, but also theological, and has consequences for the fate of illegal immigrants. 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.

The theologian Walter Rauschenbusch lamented in 1913 that "as long as a man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present order, he is still in a state of moral blindness." He urged Christians "to see through the fictions of capitalism."

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 U.S. 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 Barack Obama.

Compassionate progression

Americans' opinions on immigration have always been connected to their broader ideas about the role of government authority. The platform of 19th-century nativists contained more than racist invective. It also proposed strong states' rights, a smaller standing army and tight limits on government expenses — all to preserve the American ideal of the independent yeoman free to defend the homestead from crowned tyrants and foreign invaders.

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. This may be particularly true of younger evangelicals who are disillusioned with their parents' Christian right.

In 2011, when Carl Ruby was an administrator at the conservative Baptist Cedarville University in Ohio, he helped students organize a conference on immigration — and he was struck by the change between his generation and the next. "I grew up at a time when stuff like this would have been called the Social Gospel, and we would have left it to mainline groups. Our emphasis was all on evangelism," he told me. "To this generation, it's not an either-or choice. They view work on issues of social justice as a form of evangelism."

M. Daniel Carroll Rodas, a professor at Denver Seminary who has written about the Bible's call to "welcome the stranger," cited the growing popularity of courses focused on social justice at evangelical colleges and seminaries as proof of "growing awareness of structural and social sin."

Peter Cha, a theologian who will teach in Trinity Evangelical Divinity School's new program in "Compassion and Justice" this fall, hopes that the growing contingent of international students and students of color at his Chicago-area campus will encourage white students to rethink their political assumptions. "My Anglo evangelical students are more and more willing to hear their brothers and sisters who come from other racial backgrounds — they learn why they choose to vote in certain ways," he said. "Most international students are fairly conservative on issues of sexual ethics, but when it comes to socioeconomic issues and globalization they are quite progressive."

Elite force

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 Wal-Mart, 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," Land said. "But the gap is closing."

This debate is not just about immigration policy. For Latino evangelicals, making life better for immigrants requires investment in education and the social safety net as well as legal reform. If demographers are right, and America's political future lies in the hands of Latinos and other minorities, conservative evangelicals cannot resurrect the Republican Party without following their political campaign to its theological conclusion.

Theology is our gloss on God's word, always evolving alongside the revelations of real life. For evangelicals, immigration reform may well be the thin end of the Social Gospel wedge.

Molly Worthen is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her piece originally appeared in the New York Times.

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