Why Evangelicals Back Obama on Immigration (and Why They Should Agree on Guns and Climate Change, Too)

Pragmatic mega-church leaders are savvy about demographic shifts.

National Journal

The most important milestone on immigration reform this weekend was not "The Full Marco" "“ Sen. Marco Rubio's seven-show Sunday blitz. It was a story in The New York Times documenting a shift by evangelical Christians toward easing immigration laws.

Julia Preston reported:

"The shift among evangelical Christians could have a powerful effect on the fight in Washington, as Republican lawmakers, including many who have opposed any amnesty for illegal immigrants, look to see how much they can support measures to bring those immigrants into the legal system without alienating conservative voters."

"Evangelical leaders, seeing the opportunity to expand their influence on a social issue beyond abortion and same-sex marriage, have broadly united this year behind a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. They are conducting an ambitious push to sway Congress, including ad campaigns on Christian radio stations in five states, meetings with lawmakers, and a challenge to churchgoers to pray every day for 40 days using Bible passages that speak of welcoming the stranger."

Many Republicans in Congress oppose immigration reform, denouncing it as "amnesty." Preston's story reflects a significant split in the GOP coalition, given the party's strong reliance on evangelical mega-churches to disseminate messages, target voters, and organize voters on Election Day.

It's not a new schism. Preston herself reported in July 2010 that a group of influential evangelical Christian leaders were backing Obama's effort to revive immigration reform.

What I find interesting about mega-churches is their pragmatism. While researching a book I coauthored in 2005 about the shared attributes of successful political, business, and religious leaders, I learned that mega-church pastors scientifically poll and target prospective churchgoers to determine how to grow their congregations.

In The Purpose Driven Church, his 1995 book geared toward ambitious evangelical church leaders, Rick Warren wrote an entire chapter about targeting (geographic and psychographic) and marketing, with an emphasis on heeding broad demographic trends. "Because human beings are so different, no single church can possibly reach everyone," Warren wrote. "That's why we need all kinds of churches."

So it shouldn't be a surprise that some evangelical leaders — like certain GOP leaders — have "seen the light" on immigration. They want to be viewed as inclusive to the fast-growing Hispanic population.

There is also a less-than-cynical view that the devout are finding tolerance in a deeper reading of their Bibles. Wrote Preston:

"Many pastors in largely white churches have been spurred to action on immigration by preachers in Hispanic and immigrant churches, who have seen rapid growth in their congregations and have ministered to many followers who spoke of living in fear because they lacked legal papers."

Not long ago, there was a similar evangelical movement in favor of curbing climate change. The argument was simple: It's our moral obligation to protect the Earth God created. One might wonder why there is not more momentum today behind a "pro-Earth" movement. Or why more evangelicals don't extend the "pro-life" cause to lives lost at the point of a gun.