The Public Policy

Wallis Goes on Racism Attack

Impugning evangelicals on illegal immigration.

By 11.19.13


House Speaker John Boehner has announced the House will not go to conference with the U.S. Senate over the latter’s immigration legalization proposal, likely forestalling any immigration legislation this year. It’s not for lack of trying by many religious advocates of immigration “reform,” with special exertions by many evangelical elites. A tent has arisen on Capitol Hill to shelter evangelical immigration prayers for immigration legislation. One prominent Hispanic evangelical has announced he will fast until legalization is approved. And on November 13 President Obama met with a delegation of evangelical officials, plus a Catholic bishop, telling them predictably that Republicans are the problem.

Long-time liberal religious activist Jim Wallis was in the White House meeting. Unlike the others, he represents no church, but ostensibly a movement of faith-based social justice advocates. Perhaps frustrated that all the religious, especially evangelical, lobbying has failed to persuade House Republicans portrayed as anxious to heed evangelical voters, Wallis in his blog identified the possible obstacle: racism.

“Given the obvious benefits of, and broad public support for, immigration reform, why are many arch-conservatives in the House of Representatives refusing to address the issue in a serious way?” Wallis rhetorically asked. “The answer may point to an issue that we still hesitate to talk about directly: race.” Confessing he is himself a “white man and an evangelical Christian,” he explains: “By mid-century white Americans will be in the minority, and many white Americans are not ready for that profound demographic change to their country.”

Wallis insists that legalization of illegals will “grow our economy and reduce the deficit,” provide needed workers for employers, unify immigrant families, rescue illegals from exploitation, and give illegals not “amnesty” but a “rigorous pathway toward earned citizenship” only after other applicants. So what other explanation is there but racism?

Of course, all of Wallis’s claims about the benefits of legalization are disputed by skeptics who doubt immigration “reform” is the panacea its proponents claim. (Even many supporters of ultimate legalization are dubious of the Senate’s plan, which legalizes first while promising increased security later, and dramatically increases legal immigration.) Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson offers a more thoughtful analysis, admitting that “of the major religious groups white evangelicals are the most skeptical about immigration.”

Gerson is troubled that evangelical views on immigration “are less a function of their religious beliefs than of their group identity,” with white evangelicals differing with Hispanic evangelicals. He opines: “A regular exposure to the teachings of Jesus — assuming that is what actually happens in churches — would tend to diminish a focus on national or group identity and encourage a broader notion of neighborliness.” And he admits: “This does not dictate the details of immigration policy, but it necessarily entails a conception of illegal immigrants as persons, and a resistance to the division of their families.”

Although less incendiary than Wallis, Gerson also seems to imply that skepticism about mass legalization may entail viewing immigrants as less than “persons.” The religious advocates for legalization perhaps have not been more successful because they have not treated their opponents’ views more seriously. There are an estimated 21 million unemployed or underemployed American workers, with workplace participation at a 35-year low. Advocates for legalization insist immigrants largely take jobs Americans refuse. If true, the welfare/entitlement state is doubtless a factor, as are the low wages that increased immigration facilitates.

Many evangelical officials are operating through the Evangelical Immigration Table and the affiliated Bibles, Badges & Business for Immigration Reform, advertising close partnership with and funding by large corporations. Those firms of course benefit from additional low wages workers. Most American consumers who are not themselves wage workers also directly benefit from cheaper products. But tens of millions of U.S. laborers or would be laborers of all races are directly affected by low wages. Their concerns are not illegitimate, much less necessarily racist.

Evangelical elites who push for immigration legalization doubtless are sincere in wanting to help illegal immigrants. But they also tend to be educated suburban whites, many of them rooted in prosperous megachurches, and perhaps not so well attuned to other more economically threatened demographics who lack their noblesse oblige.

To what extent should Christian “neighborliness” expressed through public policy emphasize helping the non-citizen versus the citizen? And can Americans, or members of any nation, nurture a special regard for members of their own community without guilt of bigotry? These questions are complicated and largely unaddressed by religious advocates for sweeping immigration legislation.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.