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

'Before immigration came along, we were building an alliance. We had agreement on traditional marriage, partial birth abortion -- so many threads were being woven together. Immigration threatens to become the definitive divide.'
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (Getty Images)

Meeting of the Minds
The Secure Borders Coalition is where the religious right meets and meshes with the extreme end of anti-immigrant politics. An alliance of Christian Right groups, hard-right organizations like Accuracy in Media and the Swift Boat Veterans, and strident but secular anti-immigration outfits such as the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, the coalition in June issued a strong statement opposing all amnesty and guest worker proposals. It vowed to oppose any candidate, regardless of his or her stance on other issues, who does not toe the line on immigration. Remarkably, it also calls for a near-freeze in legal immigration.

"We favor a policy of attrition of the illegal population through strong enforcement of our nation's immigration laws, which includes, first and foremost, the securing of our borders," reads the coalition statement. "[W]e dedicate ourselves to defeating any 2008 presidential candidate who [disagrees]… . We pledge to do so regardless of political party and in both the primaries and the general election."

The list of religious-right figures signing the coalition statement is long and varied. It includes Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, Lou Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, Howard Phillips' Conservative Caucus and Bishop Harry R. Jackson of Hope Christian Ministries. The signatories concerned primarily with immigration include English First, the American Council for Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies, Pro-English, and the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.

One possible future for this nexus can be glimpsed in the budding relationship between two Secure Border Coalition members -- a relationship that links religious-right political muscle to the literal muscle of the vigilante border-patrol movement. Last spring, Chris Simcox put his Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC) under the wing of Alan Keyes' Declaration Alliance, a group dedicated to overturning Roe v. Wade that also believes in a "founding mandate to freely and publicly acknowledge the authority of the Creator God." Along with imbuing the Simcox group with a touch of the divine, the MCDC/Keyes arrangement saw Simcox's mailing lists handed over to Response Unlimited, a Keyes-connected Christian mailing and telemarketing firm that now sells lists of MCDC donors for $120 per thousand names.

Another, similar relationship is developing between the Eagle Forum (founded in 1972 and one of the oldest religious right groups) and the Minuteman Project of Jim Gilchrist, Simcox's former organizational partner (Gilchrist did not join the Secure Borders Coalition). The Eagle Forum's Schlafly, a long-time gay-basher, believes that guest-worker programs and amnesty are "immoral." The Christian thing to do, argued Schlafly in her newsletter last January, is to "erect a fence and double our border agents in order to stop the drugs, the smuggling racket, the diseases, and the crimes." Gilchrist, who holds a similar view, was a featured guest at the 35th annual Eagle Forum Conference in September.

Other religious right groups may not be officially aligned with the border-vigilante movement, but hold views indicating sympathy or approval.

"As the United States Senate continues debate on an immigration reform bill, the American people are backed up by the Bible in their demands that America's national boundaries are to be respected," writes Roberta Combs, national president of the Christian Coalition. "The left wing in this nation is thoroughly wrong when they argue that 'because Christ showed compassion to all of God's children, Christians should ignore violations of the law by aliens.'"

'Culture,' Christianity and Race
The kind of first-principle absolutism found in the Secure Borders Coalition statement, once reserved for the so-called culture war, indicates that immigration has touched a central nerve on the religious right. But it is not simply a national-security or law-and-order nerve, as no other national security issue generates so much heat within the movement.

So what's going on? In the words of FRC's Tony Perkins, what's at stake is not so much guarding America's security as protecting its "cultural fabric."

Gary Bauer, president of American Values and an icon of the religious right, has said as much. In June, Bauer wrote an op-ed for USA Today that decried the failure of Latino immigrants to integrate into American society. "Hyphenated Americans put other countries and affiliations first, and they drive a wedge into the heart of 'one nation'," he wrote.

In choosing to highlight the "cultural" dimension of Latino immigration, Bauer echoed the nativist argument offered by Patrick Buchanan in his bestselling anti-immigrant screed, State of Emergency. Bauer also lifted a lid on the motivations of many anti-immigration voices on the Christian Right -- motivations more commonly cloaked in the rhetoric of law and order. Bauer admits as much, calling culture the "unmentioned undercurrent" in the immigration debate.

Some, farther out on the intellectual fringes of the movement, are more blunt. Thomas Fleming, president of the Christian-flavored Rockford Institute and, like Buchanan, a Catholic, says "culture" sits at the heart of his anti-immigration position. At a September institute-sponsored conference in Washington where Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) delivered the keynote address, Fleming said that "the cultural ambience aspect of [the immigration debate] is the only one that interests me." Writing in the Rockford Institute magazine Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Fleming was plainer about what he means when he says "culture," admitting, "Whatever we may say in public, most of us do not much like Mexicans, whom we regard as too irrational, too violent, too passionate."

"Some American Catholics think we should welcome the hordes of pro-life Catholics swarming across our southern border," continued Fleming. "But this is a mistake. Mexicans quickly become acclimated to America's culture of consumerism and infanticide. What they do not appear to relinquish is their own traditional style of violence."

Nor has the contentious question of culture completely escaped the notice of James Dobson's much larger and more mainstream Focus on the Family, which maintains a Spanish-language website and has been cautious on the issue. Last summer, the group's website chose to run a shining review of Victor Davis Hanson's Mexifornia, a lament for the defunct white-majority California of Hanson's youth.

"Jobs do indeed have a lot to do with the issue [of immigration]," the Focus reviewer wrote. "But not as much as culture -- and that's what should really concern Americans most."

The issue of immigration, it seems, not only threatens the success of the religious right's larger culture war by alienating conservative Latinos. Immigration is also a growing component of that culture war.