This statement, though, is a document of exceptional accord among groups that rarely find themselves on the same side of anything. The signatories are calling for comprehensive immigration reform that respects human dignity and the rule of law, protects family unity, is fair to taxpayers, and ensures both secure borders and a path to citizenship. Jim Wallis, founder of the left-leaning evangelical group Sojourners, signed it, of course. But so did Jim Daly, president of the socially conservative group Focus on the Family, as did the heads of many of the country’s most conservative Christian denominations: the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention and various Nazarene churches.
“I signed on to this statement because immigration reform is more than an ‘issue’ to families,” Daly said last week. “It profoundly affects their stability, structure and quality of life.
With their signatures, the aforementioned folks – most of whom are white – stand in direct opposition to the politicians who usually represent their interests in Congress. Many of those were elected in a wave of tea party fervor in 2010, when anti-immigrant sentiment was at a height.
The Statement of Principles, in other words, creates a fault line among white conservatives over immigration. “Individual legislators are going to have to decide whether they cater to the tea party, non-faith, non-evangelical activist and ignore the evangelical base or whether they’re going to compromise,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who helped broker the agreement.
The question is why? Why would white evangelicals, historically so coherent a voting bloc, splinter in this way?
A big part of the answer, in the bluntest terms, is religious market share. Hispanics go to church; non-Hispanic white people increasingly don’t. When Spanish-speaking immigrants arrive in America, they are, for the most part, Catholic. But in the second and third generations, as they prosper, they are drawn to evangelicalism. According to a 2007 Pew report, 15 percent of all Hispanics in the United States are evangelical, and among native-born Hispanics, the number is as high as 30 percent. White evangelicals, concerned about their institutional future in a country where religious affiliation is declining, see that Hispanics are sitting in their pews, taking communion and worrying about their families’ safety as anti-immigration laws like Arizona’s go into effect. (The Roman Catholic bishops also call for comprehensive immigration reform, but notice that in this case, Catholics and Evangelicals did not work together as they so often do on abortion and other social issues. That’s because competition for Hispanic souls in America is so fierce. “We call it strategic recruitment,” Rodriguez said.)