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Who Would Jesus Deport?

A grassroots movement is forming in which anti-immigrant rhetoric dovetails with the odes to God and country that have long constituted conservative evangelical boilerplate.
 
 
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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."

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.

Hard to starboard

Nativism has been a recurring obsession among religious Americans since the colonial era. As they assume battle positions in the 21st-century immigration debate, today's hard-line crusaders echo mid-19th century Know-Nothings who decried "ignorant and depraved foreigners" from Italy and Ireland. Ditto 20th-century nativists like FDR's Assistant Secretary of State, Breckinridge Long, who thought Jewish and Slavic immigrants were "entirely unfit to become citizens of this country. ... They are lawless, scheming, [and] defiant."

Such bald sentiments are not often heard in the larger religious-right groups, many of whose positions are informed by Biblical injunctions to mercy toward the "stranger," the groups' connections to the business wing of the Republican Party, and a desire to cultivate Latinos as religious and political allies in the culture war. But there is a clear trend-line running right among a segment of culturally conservative Christians, one that worries moderate evangelicals and Latinos alike. What remains to be seen is whether the larger Christian Right will drift into the arms of the hard-line anti-immigration camp, and how this will affect the movement.

"I don't think white evangelicals are racist," says Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "But the Latino community is starting to have some concerns that need to be addressed. We must start changing hearts and minds through dialogue. The risk of polarization is real."

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist currently based in Moscow.

 
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