What is Religious Influence? Perspectives on the legacy of the Evangelical Immigration Table

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University

When I saw the #NeverTrump hashtag appear earlier in the spring/summer of 2016, I was reminded of the role of evangelical elites in the immigration debate. In 2013, when the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) formed, I thought that something big was going to happen. Here were nearly 150 big name evangelicals representing a multitude of organizations and pulpits and soapboxes around the nation coming together to advocate for reasonably progressive immigration reform. They were following in the footsteps of reformer “new evangelicals” from just under a decade earlier (2004) at the National Association of Evangelicals who put a brave foot forward to advocate for, among other issues, action on climate change. I knew from previous research that such action could change at least a few minds and expected the same for the EIT.

In the end, immigration reform sailed over the bar in the Senate (68-32) but House Republicans sat on it and it died. Of importance to academics, though, the campaign was high profile, millions were spent, and religious arguments were engaged. It was a perfect opportunity to study religious influence since evangelical elites were taking novel positions and offering new arguments in order to change minds. We do not get these opportunities often when issues are often long standing and connections between religious values and political positions have attained the status of a tradition. Has anyone said anything new about abortion lately? Patrikios (2013) claims that evangelical and Republican identities have become “fused.” This is same reason why the #NeverTrump people are so interesting – arguing against the Republican Party is not common among evangelicals.

Fortunately, the scholarly community acted, taking two steps that I know of to assess the effects of the EIT. In one, Michele Margolis (U Penn, Political Science) got access to incredible quality panel data throughout this time and space that could capture the effects of the EIT intervention. We know where the EIT’s radio ads were aired and they were not in all states. She also ran an experiment with EIT language on a national sample. In the paper that is forthcoming at Journal of Politics, she finds that:

…the EIT’s religious message influenced attitudes; the source of immigration message matters to evangelical voters; and evangelical Republicans’ immigration attitudes diverged from other Republicans over time, with evangelical Republicans becoming more supportive of immigration reform while non-evangelical Republicans became less so.

This is a big deal in several ways. For one, it documents causal attitudinal change, rather than just statistical associations in cross-sections. Moreover, her work tackles several concrete mechanisms to explain that change. This differs from what has been typical practice in R&P work where researchers find associations between variables like church attendance and an attitude and then infer the untested causal mechanism. As I and Brian Calfano (2013) argue in God Talk, we instead need to carefully document the nature of exposure to political and religious arguments (where is the source of change coming from?) and then assess the processes of adoption of those messages. And this combination is where Margolis’s paper excels.

The second approach followed a small, but well-worn path. The orthodox model of religious influence involves a two-step flow, where clergy who are highly attentive to public affairs communicate considered views to people in the pews who adopt them because of the clergy’s credibility. This approach checked the first part of this chain. The EIT seemed to me to receive a good amount of press coverage, so I figured that of all people who might at least know about it, clergy would and especially those in states where the EIT was active.

I had the chance to find out in survey data from five denominations [note 1] conducted at the beginning of 2014 when the immigration bill was dying in the House and there was still an active campaign for its passage. Brian Calfano and I asked nearly 400 clergy whether they had heard of the EIT, supported it, wanted to learn more about it, and a broad range of other questions about immigration politics and political activism. Several of these questions were moot since, as the figure below shows, incredibly few had heard of the EIT – on average, 5.5 percent. Even in states where the EIT was active airing ads, the mean did not vary. Only those highly active on immigration policy (2+ activities) showed some glimmer of recognition, but it was still only 11 percent. I will not venture to say that there was no intermingling with congregations, but if evangelical opinion on immigration budged most of it was not due to EIT arguments mediated through clergy and congregations in an intentional way. Or, put another way, this appears to be a case where I cannot say that effects of national elites (like the EIT) are actually a function of congregational mechanisms.

Figure 1 – Proportions of clergy who had heard of the EIT in early 2014

heard-of-eit

This is not to say that clergy were not active on immigration – over thirty percent participated in at least one political activity on behalf of immigration reform. And many clergy in the sample reported using religious arguments about immigration in public that paralleled those used by the EIT (apparently without coordination). I do not have individual-level data tied to these clergy reports, unfortunately, so I cannot say more.

This is to say that it is often unjustified to make simple assumptions about how religion might influence public opinion in the US. There are multiple levels of organization and argument that do not aggregate in clean ways, which demand that we continue to need to wrestle with careful documentation of exposure to arguments and close inspection of what influences their adoption.

Paul A. Djupe is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the former editor of Politics & Religion, and the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple). Further information about him can be found at his website here.


Notes

1. The survey included United Methodist, Southern Baptist Convention, Reformed Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and Greek Orthodox clergy. In February 2014, we emailed 16,740 survey invitations. Given missing data, we received somewhere between 375 and 411 valid responses depending on the question. For more on the sample and other interesting matters, please see our recent article in Representation.

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