Why are evangelicals supporting immigration reform?

Americans believe there’s too much religion talk in the public sphere, and these days, it’s especially easy to be cynical. Scratch the surface of any passionately held faith-based position between April and November of an election year, and find a political agenda. That’s because issues like gay marriage and religious liberty motivate voters in the right and left base who might otherwise be lackadaisical or unmoved by their choice of candidates.

Too often politically motivated religious leaders say “souls” when they really mean “votes.”

What is one to make, then, of the “Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform,” a document signed last week by 150 prominent evangelical Christian leaders from across the conservative-liberal spectrum?

Often, these “bipartisan” religious efforts lack heft. They either take a position that no one can argue with — “civility,” for instance — or their self-proclaimed diversity looks to outsiders like homogeneity. Moderates from both parties can always find reasons to agree.

This statement, though, is a document of exceptional accord among groups that rarely find themselves on the same side of anything. The signatories are calling for comprehensive immigration reform that respects human dignity and the rule of law, protects family unity, is fair to taxpayers, and ensures both secure borders and a path to citizenship. Jim Wallis, founder of the left-leaning evangelical group Sojourners, signed it, of course. But so did Jim Daly, president of the socially conservative group Focus on the Family, as did the heads of many of the country’s most conservative Christian denominations: the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention and various Nazarene churches.

“I signed on to this statement because immigration reform is more than an ‘issue’ to families,” Daly said last week. “It profoundly affects their stability, structure and quality of life.

With their signatures, the aforementioned folks – most of whom are white – stand in direct opposition to the politicians who usually represent their interests in Congress. Many of those were elected in a wave of tea party fervor in 2010, when anti-immigrant sentiment was at a height.

The Statement of Principles, in other words, creates a fault line among white conservatives over immigration. “Individual legislators are going to have to decide whether they cater to the tea party, non-faith, non-evangelical activist and ignore the evangelical base or whether they’re going to compromise,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who helped broker the agreement.

The question is why? Why would white evangelicals, historically so coherent a voting bloc, splinter in this way?

A big part of the answer, in the bluntest terms, is religious market share. Hispanics go to church; non-Hispanic white people increasingly don’t. When Spanish-speaking immigrants arrive in America, they are, for the most part, Catholic. But in the second and third generations, as they prosper, they are drawn to evangelicalism. According to a 2007 Pew report, 15 percent of all Hispanics in the United States are evangelical, and among native-born Hispanics, the number is as high as 30 percent. White evangelicals, concerned about their institutional future in a country where religious affiliation is declining, see that Hispanics are sitting in their pews, taking communion and worrying about their families’ safety as anti-immigration laws like Arizona’s go into effect. (The Roman Catholic bishops also call for comprehensive immigration reform, but notice that in this case, Catholics and Evangelicals did not work together as they so often do on abortion and other social issues. That’s because competition for Hispanic souls in America is so fierce. “We call it strategic recruitment,” Rodriguez said.)

Rodriguez convinced Focus on the Family to sign the letter only after many years of meetings, he says. When he traveled to Colorado Springs to speak to the leadership there, “I spoke about the need. I talked about the possibility of deporting the very salvation of the evangelical community in the 21st century.”

Rodriguez didn’t talk about leftist priorities, like social justice. He spoke about religious self-interest. “We’re talking about the future of American Christianity.”

But make no mistake. On this issue, as on so many others, the fight for souls is also a fight for votes. But unlike abortion and gay marriage, this one is subtler.

Will Romney, who took a hard anti-immigrant stance in the primary, be able to convince Hispanics that he cares about them as much as Obama does? (He tried to Thursday — in a speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials — by appealing to their pocketbooks.)

The nation’s evangelicals are pointing the way: As America evolves into a majority-non-white country, Hispanic voters are becoming as important to electing a president as they are to filling American church pews.