Despite President Obama's talk of dialing down the culture wars, including a pledge to provide a "common ground" approach to abortion, his administration has little to show for the effort. Abortion foes have spent months alleging that Democratic healthcare reform proposals include taxpayer-funded abortion coverage that undermines the president's vow to keep reform abortion neutral. "All the bills that have come through committee so far increase abortion coverage," says Galen Carey, chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals.
And yet, many prominent social conservatives say the administration can still find common ground with evangelicals and other conservative religious constituencies. Rather than revolving around abortion, however, the opportunity is on another thorny issue: immigration. Many of the same faith-based groups attacking Obama and the Democrats over healthcare reform's abortion provisions, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, are poised to become major players in the president's coming push for comprehensive immigration reform, which would include a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants. "There is a strong biblical teaching about showing hospitality to the stranger and the alien," says Carey.
One reason the president and his party have better odds at winning over religious conservatives on immigration than on abortion is that some influential evangelicals have changed their thinking on a path to citizenship for illegals. That includes some evangelical groups and figures who sat out President Bush's unsuccessful 2007 push for comprehensive reform or opposed the effort outright. "There has been a significant shift among evangelical leaders who view the immigration reform debate as an important measure of their [Christian] witness," says Michael Gerson, who was Bush's chief speechwriter and is a fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement (and a former U.S. News staffer). Indeed, the National Association of Evangelicals, the nation's largest evangelical group, representing 30 million Americans, avoided 2007's immigration debate because its members were divided on the issue. But recently, the NAE passed a unanimous resolution backing comprehensive immigration reform.
The shift follows an intensive effort by Latino evangelical leaders to lobby their white evangelical counterparts. "My stump speech is that this is not amnesty and that this is a biblical issue," says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "If you are a devout follower of Christ, you have to support immigration reform." In the years since the last national debate on immigration reform, Rodriguez has met with white evangelical opinion makers like NAE President Leith Anderson and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. "This is the same constituency Glenn Beck is appealing to," says Rodriguez.
White evangelical leaders have also been influenced by their increasingly Latino congregations. Though nearly 70 percent of Hispanics in the United States are Roman Catholic, Hispanic evangelicals and Pentecostals are among the nation's fastest-growing religious groups. And politically speaking, conservative evangelical activists see Hispanics, who are generally conservative on issues like abortion and gay marriage, as potential allies. "The only thing that can turn them against us is if they are made to feel unwelcome in social conservative circles," says Richard Land, the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy chief.
In an attempt to get Christian-right groups to back comprehensive immigration reform, Rodriguez is working with the dean of the Liberty University's Law School, founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, on an immigration summit for conservatives. "The conservative wing of the Republican Party has to understand that it's impossible to win a national election without Hispanics," says Rodriguez. "And it's impossible to win Hispanics without immigration reform."
But most evangelical leaders stress that a reform package must include a plan for stopping new illegal immigrants from entering the country and better enforcement of current immigration laws. And even with such stipulations, it's unclear if in-the-pews evangelicals are following the community's leaders over to the pro-immigration reform position. A 2006 Pew poll found that more than 60 percent of white evangelicals felt that immigrants threaten American values. More recent surveys on immigration haven't broken down responses by religion. But one reason the NAE adopted its pro-immigration reform resolution was to sway its own members on the issue.