Immigrant-Bashing, Indifference, and the Evangelical Vote

Two prominent evangelicals penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week, asserting that “candidates who actually have a shot at winning the presidency should understand: Immigrant-bashing offends not only Hispanic people, but also their Anglo, African-American and Asian-American fellow Christians.” They were speaking, of course, of Donald Trump.

The authors, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, claimed they didn’t know a single evangelical who supports Trump.

In addition to Trump’s racist comments about Mexican immigrants, Moore and Rodriguez cited “many factors, including his revolving-door marriages and past support for abortion” as reasons evangelicals reject Trump. Undoubtedly his flip comments about communion and the nature of forgiveness might also be anathema to anyone who takes their Christian faith seriously.

But consider this: today’s Washington Post poll—mostly taken before Trump’s disparagement of John McCain on Saturday, but well after his June 16 announcement speech in which he claimed Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”—20 percent of white evangelicals said he was their preferred candidate in the GOP primary, just four points fewer than Republicans and Republican leaners overall. Forty-five percent of white evangelicals identified Trump’s views on the issues as “just about right.” Thirty one percent of white evangelicals said his views “reflect the core values of the Republican Party,” although a majority (54 percent) of white evangelicals said his views did not reflect the core values of the GOP. Still, these numbers make it difficult to claim Trump has no evangelical support.

What happened to the evangelical litmus tests on abortion, religious liberty, or marriage? Trump is hardly a standard-bearer there, as Moore and Rodriguez note. But more central to Moore and Rodriguez’s point: what do white evangelical voters really think about immigrants and immigration reform, and how the GOP candidates should talk about it?

While there are polls showing a majority of white evangelicals (and even larger majorities of non-white evangelicals) favoring immigration reform with a path to citizenship, they remain divided on the issue. Republican officeholders and candidates are more motivated to oppose immigration reform than support it, despite the poll numbers, largely because the GOP hasn’t historically lost evangelical voters owing to its anti-immigration position. (It’s clear that leaders like Moore and Rodriguez are trying to sound alarm bells about demographic changes resulting in more non-white evangelicals, but that’s apparently falling on deaf ears.)

Trump’s closest rival in that poll, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, long thought to be a shoe-in evangelical favorite because of the effortless way he speaks their language, is, stylistically speaking, the anti-Trump. No bombast, just boring. As Benjy Sarlin reports at MSNBC, as Walker campaigns in Iowa, he has “made the case that his quiet demeanor, frequently mocked as boring, belied a willingness to ram through conservative priorities like declawing unions, restricting abortion, expanding access to guns, and making it harder to vote.”

But if Walker is running as the boring candidate (i.e., the one who won’t bash immigrants, although he didn’t criticize Trump for doing so), he seems oblivious to evangelical efforts to paint immigration as a humanitarian issue rooted in biblical imperatives of welcoming the stranger. As Sarlin reports, when it came to meeting actual immigrants, Walker’s reaction was at best indifferent:

Walker offered a demonstration of his philosophy in action moments later as he walked over to talk with Jose Flores, an undocumented immigrant. Flores drove to Plainfield from Waukesha, Wisconsin with his young son and daughter and a small group of activists to ask Walker, their governor, why he opposed President Obama’s efforts to protect them from deportation via executive action.

It was a tense scene. Tears ran down thirteen-year old Leslie Flores’ face as she told Walker to explain why their family should be broken up. Walker took his time, repeating the same talking points he delivered to conservative audiences in Iowa, never getting flustered even in the face of two young American citizens weeping over the prospect of losing their parents.

“In America nobody’s above the law,” Walker told the young girl. “The president can’t just make the law.”

The headline on Moore and Rodriguez’s piece was “Immigrant Bashers Will Lose the Evangelical Vote.” But what about the candidates who address immigrants with hearts of stone?