From Attorney General Jeff Sessions citing Scripture to justify the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, to former Focus on the Family vice president Kelly Rosati disagreeing with him via Twitter, most media attention has focused on the religious and political beliefs of white evangelicals in the past week’s debate over the controversial Trump administration policy.
After all, conservative white Christians have had an enormous influence in American politics for nearly four decades and were instrumental in electing Donald Trump to the White House. Although some joined the chorus of criticism that prompted President Trump to end the practice of separating children from their parents who enter the country illegally, they generally give Trump high marks.
But how will the rapid growth of evangelicals who are people of color — and some immigrants themselves — affect political debates in the future?
“While their influence might not be immediate, there is no doubt that within the next 15 years, evangelicals of color will become a more powerful force in the evangelical community as a whole,” says Janelle Wong, American Studies professor at the University of Maryland.
Evangelicals — Christians who focus heavily on salvation through Jesus Christ and the global acceptance of the gospel — are predominantly white and Republican.
About 34 percent of self-identified evangelicals are black, Asian or Latino — and the latter groups are quickly growing, Wong says. She attributes the growth not only to the rising numbers of people of color in the U.S. population overall but also to the “demographic decline” among white evangelicals and the departure of young people from their ranks.
“There is simply no other source of growth in evangelical communities,” Wong said, “and with the small but extremely dedicated group that make up progressive white evangelicals, the ‘evangelical vote’ will no doubt change.”
According to new research presented in Wong’s book “Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change,” evangelicals of all races lean conservative on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. But evangelicals of color begin to diverge from their white counterparts on social issues that deal with race and government support.
Nonwhite evangelicals are less than half as likely to agree with the statement “immigrants hurt the economy” than white evangelicals. These views provide additional context to the January Washington Post-ABC poll that found that 75 percent of white evangelicals viewed the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants as positive, compared with 25 percent of nonwhite Christians. Nonwhite evangelicals also differ from white evangelicals on the need for a U.S. apology for slavery and disapproval of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Race matters as much, or more than religion in describing the evangelical vote today,” Wong says.
But despite their growing numbers, nonwhite believers are unlikely to drastically change overall evangelical politics anytime soon, particularly on the intensifying issue of border control.
White believers still have a stronghold on the evangelical vote, and they remain the most conservative religious group when it comes to immigration, Wong says. While there have been a few defectors in recent days, notably leaders like Franklin Graham and organizations like the Southern Baptist Convention, “the rank and file are going to keep quiet.”
White evangelicals “never moved on DACA and ‘dreamers,’ or a path on citizenship, even when some leaders did,” Wong says. “I don’t think they will move on [the zero-tolerance border strategy], either.”
The silence by white leaders and congregants has led to a growing frustration among evangelicals of color whose faith is informed by their experiences as racial minorities.
In research for her book, Wong interviewed evangelical leaders like Marco Witt, a pastor who led Hispanic ministry at the megachurch Lakewood Church in Houston for 10 years.
“It’s been unfortunate to see the white evangelical community completely miss the point on immigration,” said Witt, as quoted in Wong’s book. “It doesn’t have to do with breaking the law or not. There is a moral law. There’s a greater humanity law at stake here.”
Witt’s comments address a longtime tactic by religious conservatives, such as Sessions, who say laws must be followed because they have been authorized by God. It’s a tack that has received mixed reviews, by both white and nonwhite believers.
“I think about how this country was founded, and it was under God, and the laws are there for us to uphold,” said one Latina woman quoted in Wong’s book, whose views seem to align with Session’s. “The illegals have come over here illegally and think that they have a right to stay here just because they want a piece of the dream. . . . But to me, that’s not right. If they want to come to the U.S., they need to do it legally, not illegally.”
Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, says his faith tells him something different. “Overwhelmingly Scripture causes us to defend families,” Salguero told The Washington Post. “The Bible calls us to be pro-family, and I personally find it deeply lamentable that we are separating children from their parents at the border or anywhere.”
In her analysis of more than 10,000 voters, Wong found that for evangelicals of color, religious identity trumped racial identity as the most critical factor influencing day-to-day priorities and political orientations. Even so, she found that many evangelicals of color are expressing their faith through the lens of social justice. Their growing interest in identity and diversity may present an opportunity for Democrats, who have long been shunned by evangelicals at large for their support of abortion and LGBTQ rights.
“If Democrats could engage in a long-term voter mobilization strategy on issues like immigration, universal health care, economic redistribution and the environment, they could catalyze the votes of evangelicals of color in ways that will amplify this group’s influence,” Wong says.
But nonwhite evangelicals are not entirely homogeneous. Black, Latinos and Asian Americans exhibit different levels of progressiveness influenced by in-group embattlement, cultural norms based on recent immigration and more.
So while change in evangelical politics is certain, Wong says it will be slow and marked by uneven political victories and representation.
“These groups are potentially important in American politics and could really change the dynamic, but that really depends on the degree to which they are mobilized and which issues are salient over the next 10 years,” Wong says. “As we can see from the current political movement, we really don’t know what comes next in American politics, and this group is still very much in play.”