Family Research Council Poll Shows Many Conservative Christians Hardlined Against Illegal Immigration

When Joan Maruskin took the podium last April at a Family Research Council (FRC) immigration conference in Washington, D.C., it was hard not to think of Daniel in the lion's den: The liberal director of the Church World Service Immigration Program was addressing an audience convened by a major force on the Christian religious right. It was not her crowd.

It turned out that the Book of Daniel was among the few books of the Bible that Maruskin didn't quote. While making the Christian case for amnesty, she demonstrated that the Old and New Testaments are chock-full of soundbyte-ready advocacy for the "stranger." All told, she counts more than 300 scriptural admonishments to mercy toward immigrants.

"The Bible is an immigration handbook," Maruskin told the FRC audience. "'Cursed be the person who oppresses the alien.' Can we forget that Christ himself was a migrant and a refugee, born in a stable? Under our laws, Mary, Joseph and Jesus would be sent to three different prisons."

A powerful image, but Maruskin's position is far from dominant on the religious right. In a FRC member poll conducted last spring, 90% of respondents chose forced deportation as the appropriate fate for America's estimated 11 million-12 million undocumented immigrants. This response aligns the FRC base with fire-breathing hard-liners like U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), the evangelical co-sponsor of an immigration reform bill notable for its criminalization of those who "aid and abet" illegal immigrants, something many religious leaders and laymen see as a Christian duty.

So it wasn't surprising that Maruskin's social-gospel message received a tepid response from the FRC audience. Heartier applause greeted the conservative Catholic journalist John O'Sullivan, who followed Maruskin to the podium and scoffed at her liberal "proof-texting" of Scripture. Arguing that such selective quotation did not "contribute to the debate," he tried to debunk the argument for amnesty and dismissed Maruskin and her ilk as "moral bullies."

"The fact is," said O'Sullivan, "most Christians are more hard-line when it comes to immigration than their Church leaders. Are all of these people going to hell?"

A better question might be: When did immigration assume a place next to abortion and traditional marriage as a "family" issue for the religious right? And is this new and highly charged issue a threat to that movement's much-vaunted "culture war"? Or is it a legitimate part of it?

The 'Definitive Divide'?
The ascendance of immigration as a burning issue on the religious right has been swift. Conservative commentators and politicians have both fueled and responded to a grassroots movement in which anti-immigrant rhetoric dovetails with the odes to God and country that have long constituted conservative evangelical boilerplate. Hard-right evangelical politicians like Tancredo have built national constituencies by blending anti-immigrant rhetoric into broadsides against secular liberals and Islamist radicals.

After languishing for years in smaller Christian nationalist groups like Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, the immigration issue has now landed squarely on the agenda of larger religious right groups with political clout. Tony Perkins, president of the influential FRC, signaled this shift while opening last April's immigration conference. "At question today is, do we have an immigration policy that is serving to strengthen the cultural fabric of our nation, which has a great influence on the family?" he asked. "The answer is no. We must get this right."

Getting it right will not and has not been easy for the religious right, any more than it has been for the country as a whole. Unlike abortion, the immigration issue has sharply divided the movement's leaders and political allies. Fierce "pro-family" culture warriors stand on both sides of the debate, with religious right advocates in Washington backing two radically different visions of immigration reform as symbolized by the House and Senate immigration bills unveiled last winter.

A unified evangelical position could do much to determine the shape of immigration reform, which was to be taken up again by Congress after the midterm elections in November. How the religious right tilts or fractures over the issue also holds stakes for the movement itself. A deep rift or further right turns could jeopardize the religious right's political coherence as well as its potentially natural alliance with America's growing and culturally conservative Latino and predominantly Catholic population.

Already, there are signs of a split. According to the Pew Research Center, 63% of white evangelicals view immigrants as a "threat to U.S. customs and values," compared to 48% of the population as a whole. (Only 39% of secular respondents held negative views of immigrants.) Though the two most influential Christian Right groups -- James Dobson's Focus on the Family and its spawn the Family Research Council -- have avoided taking an official position on the issue, their mostly white flock has already tacked hard right.

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, says the Latino community is aware of rising anti-immigrant sentiment on the religious right and is "very concerned" about attitudes such as those reflected in the FRC poll.

"Before immigration came along, we were building an alliance," says Rodriguez. "We had agreement on traditional marriage, partial birth abortion -- so many threads were being woven together. Immigration threatens to become the definitive divide."