Nativist Bedfellows: The Christian Right Embraces Anti-Immigrant Movement

A longer version of this article appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of The Public Eye, the quarterly of the progressive think tank Political Research Associates. Ramos is research director and Chamberlain is senior researcher at PRA. The full article can be accessed here.

Many on the Christian Right have become nearly as worked up about undocumented immigrants as about abortion and same-sex marriage. You could hear that in the speeches at last September's Values Voters Summit -- the annual beltway gathering of key Christian Right groups -- and on talk radio before and since. While nativism has long run deep with many conservative white Protestants, this open flirtation with anti-immigrant politics involves a recent, dangerous, shift among the Christian Right's leadership.

Since its resurgence as a social movement in the mid-1970s, Christian Right leaders largely sidestepped immigration -- even when the movement's base generally supported such measures as California's landmark 1994 anti-immigrant measure, Proposition 187. Leaders committed to racial reconciliation between their overwhelmingly white constituency and African American evangelicals understandably have avoided racially charged immigration debates. Another movement objective -- finding common cause with socially conservative Latinos -- is particularly vulnerable to anti-immigrant campaigns. Congressional Republicans' harsh stance on immigration cost their party significant Latino support during the 2006 midterm elections, dropping to 29 percent from 44 percent in just two years.

If the leadership of the Christian Right has attempted to keep the issue of unauthorized immigration at arm's length, their base, increasingly, has embraced anti-immigrant views. A 2006 Pew Research Center Survey revealed that 63 percent of conservative white evangelical Protestants-the base constituency of the Christian Right-view immigrants as a threat to "traditional American customs and values." In a survey of its own constituency, the FRC reported that 90 percent of "values voters" believe deportation of "illegal immigrants" to be consistent with "the requirements of Christian discipleship."

While the Christian Right's growing alignment with anti-immigrant forces began at the movement's base, it seems some of the movement's shepherds have taken to following their flock.

In January 2007 Manuel Miranda, a former aide to Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), announced the "Families First in Immigration" campaign. This "family values" initiative hewed closely to an immigration paper Miranda developed for the conservative Family Research Council, calling on the one hand for a path to citizenship for any unauthorized immigrant relatives of U.S. citizens and, on the other, for expunging birthright citizenship from the U.S. Constitution. This second provision, a longstanding goal of hard-line anti-immigrant groups, would require eliminating the 14th Amendment's guarantee of citizenship to children born on US soil to noncitizens. The campaign's "split the baby" approach on immigration drew initial support from such heavyweights as Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, Gary Bauer, and Donald Wildmon, but was quickly rejected as being too soft, as smacking of "amnesty."

Meanwhile, 2008 Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and others stretched for ways to connect immigration to the Christian Right's core issue: abortion. Here's how Huckabee made the link: "Sometimes we talk about why we're importing so many people in our workforce. It might be because for the last 35 years we have aborted more than a million people [each year] who would have been in our workforce had we not had the holocaust of liberalized abortion under a flawed Supreme Court ruling in 1973."

The cultural terrain of conservative Protestant evangelicals has long offered fertile ground for the cultivation of anti-immigrant hostility. A segment of the Christian Right believes the United States was founded as a Christian country, and views as a threat any people who challenge "American" (i.e. conservative Anglo-Protestant) cultural norms-including immigrants who are bringing in their own religious beliefs. And as occurred during the early 20th century backlash against Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants -- who were not considered to be either white or Christian -- white nationalists have joined ranks with Christian nationalists to oppose the menace to "American" culture posed by an influx of immigrants who are predominantly people of color.

That influx, of course, has been considerable. The foreign-born population has grown from a low of five percent in 1970 to 12.5 percent of the total U.S. population in 2000. No longer as concentrated in such gateway cities as New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago, immigrants in exurbia and small towns serve as easy scapegoats for social problems and those related to the current economic instability.

The "war on terror" has played a particularly significant role in mobilizing Christian Right resentment against immigrants by recasting immigration as a national security matter. The media success of the Minutemen ushered militant anti-immigrant politics from the margins into the mainstream during the spring and summer of 2005, stoking the flames of white nationalism within the Christian Right that had already been ignited by 9/11 and the "war on terror." In this way, sectors of the anti-immigrant movement opened political space for Christian nationalists at both base and leadership levels to express their anti-immigrant nativism, causing a shift in focus within the Christian Right.

The Christian Right has fervently supported "the war on terror" from the start, imagining a Christian West in global apocalyptic confrontation with radical Islam. As with all national security scares, this one requires an internal enemy. Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa, who received a 100 percent score from the Family Research Council, insists, "Apologists for illegal's refuse to acknowledge the connection between terrorism and our lax immigration policies" -- a perspective widely shared within the Christian Right.

There are potential fissures in the Christian Right's de facto alliance with the anti-immigrant movement. These include abortion (the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which runs a network of groups, which promotes population control - including sterilization and abortion - for immigrants of color) and anti-Roman Catholic sentiment, which could agitate the pro-life coalition (some grassroots nativists are explicit about their anti-Catholicism). There has already been fallout elsewhere, with some Latino evangelical leaders distancing themselves from their erstwhile allies on the Christian Right.

For the time being, some Christian Right groups seem prepared to pay the price. Last fall, Family Research Council senior fellow Christopher Gracek argued that anti-immigrant pundit and CNN anchor Lou Dobbs "may be the most important person in the 2008 presidential election aside from the candidates themselves" and that "winning the Lou Dobbs voter would greatly increase the chances of victory in November 2008." Since that time, immigration has been a relatively low-profile issue in the presidential race and the presumptive candidates of each major party seem content to keep it that way. So it's interesting to note that Dobbs is slated to speak at the upcoming Values Voters Summit in September, during the run-up to the presidential election. The move suggests that the Christian Right's current engagement with nativism may be more than a brief flirtation.

Tarso Luís Ramos is Research Director for PRA, which is a progressive think tank that tracks the religious and anti-immigrant Right. Pam Chamberlain is a Senior Researcher for Political Research Associates who studies and writes about opposition to reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights.

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