President Obama looks on as Pope Francis signs a Papal encyclical in the Oval Office during ceremonies welcoming the pontiff to the White House on Wednesday. (Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters)

During his visit last week to the United States, Pope Francis kept emphasizing compassion toward the downtrodden, especially immigrants. He reminded migrants that their lives were important and urged members of Congress to recall religious beliefs like the Golden Rule and to think of immigrants as people instead of as numbers. And in the White House, Francis used his own popularity, stressing that immigrants are not all that different, mentioning that he too was “the son of an immigrant family.”

But will the pope’s religious rhetoric work to dampen American voters’ anti-immigration sentiments? To put it more broadly, does being reminded of religious convictions make you more tolerant of immigrants?

That was our question in a recently published piece in the American Political Science Review. The answer: Yes, but only if they’re the right kind of immigrants.

We explored this question with American Catholics, Turkish Muslims and Israeli Jews using a survey experiment. More specifically, we divided respondents into different groups. One of the groups received a survey that started with several questions about their religious beliefs. For instance, we asked, “Do you believe that right and wrong should be based on God’s laws?”

This was followed by  questions about their attitudes toward immigration involving people who were similar to them and people who were not. We allowed the respondent to think of whomever they wanted. We used similar wordings across all three settings only changing the name of the country. For example, the Turkish version read as, “Do you think that the number of immigrants of a different race or ethnic group from most Turkish people who are permitted to come and live in Turkey should be increased or decreased?”

The “control” group got the same survey questions about immigrants without first having been asked about their religious beliefs.

The results are striking, as you can see below. The graph shows the relationship between the average level of support for anti-immigration policies for both people who were prompted to think about their religious beliefs and people who were not. It also shows how the average level of support for each group changes, depending on whether the immigrants are perceived as similar or different.


When people are reminded of their religious beliefs, they are more likely to find some kinds of immigration acceptable — but only immigration involving people they consider to be like them. In this experiment, religion didn’t help people feel more welcoming of “the other.” More simply put, religious beliefs seem to make people more compassionate toward immigrants who look like their fellow citizens, but they don’t seem to increase compassion towards those who seem different.

Our findings suggest that the pope’s pleas for benevolence, or those of any religious or political leader invoking religious convictions for that matter, may fall on deaf ears if people perceive immigrants to be unlike them. And since many Americans are either ethnically or religiously different from incoming immigrants, these leaders face an uphill battle in galvanizing support for immigrants.

Pazit Ben-Nun Bloom is senior lecturer at the department of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Gizem Arikan is associate professor at the department of international relations at Yasar University, Izmir, Turkey. Marie Courtemanche is assistant professor in the political science department at Thiel College, Greenville, Pa.