Immigrant populations are a big growth area for Christianity, said Alan Wisdom, former vice president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians that seek to contribute to the renewal of democracy by strengthening churches' social witness.
"Churches look to those communities as a source of new members and vitality," he said. "They're hesitant to do something that would offend them and they have a great amount of sympathy for them."
According to a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the adult population of the Roman Catholic Church has been able to remain at a fairly steady 25 percent of the overall population. The most significant factor that accounts for this stability is a "disproportionately high number of Catholics among immigrants to the U.S." which has off-set the roughly 10 percent of the overall population that was raised Catholic, but left the church in adulthood.
Evangelicals' opinions about immigration may also be increasingly influenced by greater dependence on undocumented residents for numbers and better exposure to their plight. Exposure makes people more likely to lean toward policies that emphasize compassion, said Richard Land, former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of TIME Magazine's "Most Influential Evangelicals in America."
"It puts a human face on the issue," he says. "Many of these illegal immigrants have been evangelized by Evangelicals, and now they're connected."
Marching in rock step
Lyons and other pastors organized "Immigration 101" meetings hoping to humanize the issue of illegal immigration.
"If you just call someone an illegal, they remain nameless," he said. "My greatest hope is to inspire people to see undocumented immigrants as human beings and people we are called to see as our brothers and sisters."
Lyons recognizes, though, he won't be able to win everyone over. If nothing else, he said, he hopes by getting people to talk about HB 56 in a religious setting, he can encourage them to think about how their faith relates to immigration policy.
"It's helpful for people to ask, 'You're Christian, how does your faith influence the way you look at this issue?'" he said. "I tell them, 'Let's not look at immigration from a political or economic view point. Let's look at it from a faith standpoint.'"
The vast majority of church-going Christians don't use their faith to frame their opinions on immigration. While 50 percent of the people Pew surveyed indicated religion influenced their views on immigration, only 7 percent said their beliefs were the biggest influence. That's a significantly lower response than was found for issues like gay marriage (35 percent), abortion (26 percent) and the death penalty (19 percent). More people said personal experiences, media or education were the biggest factor in determining their opinions on the topic.
"What you hear depends on where you're attending religious services," said Greg Smith, Senior Researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "White Evangelical Protestants, for instance, are much less likely than Catholics or mainline Protestants to say immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents."
Data also shows that across a variety of issues, "people don't always march in rock step with their religious leaders in terms of thinking about social and political issues," Smith said.
Among Catholics, 64 percent support ramping up enforcement efforts to encourage illegal immigrants to go home, while just 23 percent support conditional legalization, according to a recent Zogby poll of religious communities. Sixty-four percent of mainline Protestants and 76 percent of born-again Protestants favor enforcement over legalization.
Wisdom said he thinks many Christians prioritize one Biblical value over another in forming their personal views on immigration, but said the wide array of attitudes also has a lot to do with differing senses of the relationship between church and state, an influence many might not attribute directly to religion.
"The two have distinctly different obligations as far as the Bible is concerned," he said. "The role of the church is to love neighbors without respect to origin. The state's role is justice — to protect citizens and advance their wellbeing above those of other countries. That's not to say they can't be reconciled, but different traditions balance those out differently."
There are also different readings of the facts on the ground. Scholars come to different conclusions about the economic effects of immigration, and there are many different interpretations of its history. Without the directness many Christians find in the Bible on other issues, for many, those contradictions are especially weighty.
Despite the Bible's apparent lack of clarity, though, clergy insist scripture is relevant to the immigration discussion. Buttram uses its verses to justify voting for HB 56. Laney and Lyons turn to its pages to justify their decisions to rebel against HB 56.
"The bible has as much to say about immigration as it does about any other issue," said Land, who was influential in crafting a recent Southern Baptist Convention resolution titled, "On Immigration and the Gospel." "It's just a matter of whether or not people are paying attention."
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