More vague evangelicals jump on immigration bandwagon

Last week, I complained about a front-page Tampa Bay Times story filled with broad generalizations about vague evangelicals advocating immigration reform. This, of course, wasn't the first time I raised concerns about media treatment of this subject.

Unfortunately, The Dallas Morning News did not get my memo.

The Texas newspaper — duplicating the sketchy Florida report in a way that only Xerox could top — splashed this main headline and kicker across the top of Page 1A on Thursday:

Applying Bible to U.S. borders

Evangelical Christians calling for path citizenship

Once again, we have a major newspaper story making sweeping statements about a largely undefined group of Christians who — at least according to those pushing the story — suddenly have changed their position on immigration reform.

Let's start from the top of the Dallas Morning News story:

AUSTIN — After years of silence and even hostility to modifying immigration laws, conservative evangelical Christians have become unlikely allies in pressing for a path to citizenship for those here illegally because, they say, the Bible told them so.

A coalition of religious leaders in Texas and elsewhere, many with strong credentials as social conservatives, is engaging congregations in a coordinated call for Congress and the White House to deal with 11 million illegal immigrants.

“Circumstances culturally and politically have thrown evangelicals back on their biblical authority to ask, ‘What does the Bible really say about this?’” said George Mason, senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. “There may be lots of political positions that differ on how we accomplish it, but they want to be on the side of God in their minds.”

While moderate and liberal religious groups have long been a part of the immigration debate, the increasingly active involvement of conservative evangelicals marks what Mason called “a sea change” by an important group that could help move Washington toward political consensus.

By now, GetReligion readers should be familiar with that storyline (did I already mention this post and this one?).

The vagueness in the Dallas story extends to the hard data (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) used to back up the thesis:

White evangelical Protestants have been among the least supportive religious groups on a comprehensive immigration approach. A Pew Research poll conducted six years ago found a majority of white evangelicals believe immigration to be a threat to American culture and a burden on the economy.

But a recent survey found considerable evangelical support for keeping families together and following the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger — two themes in a campaign by a national network of diverse religious leaders, the Evangelical Immigration Table.

A recent survey? Um, care to elaborate on this Generic Survey and even link to it online?

Considerable evangelical support? Wow, talk about precise newsgathering! I am ambiguously impressed.

Once again, we fail to hear from any of those previously silent and hostile Christians who — according to the story — have changed their position. Once again, we fail to hear from any theologians who might weigh in on the notion that the Bible can be interpreted only one way concerning immigration. Once again, we fail to hear from any evangelicals who might remain steadfast in their opposition to clearing a path to citizenship.

Once again, we have one side's press release masquerading as a news story.

Although, to be fair, the Dallas Morning News report does skirt closer to quoting an actual naysayer:

“Dedicated Christians may disagree on what the solution is, but everybody acknowledges there must be a solution,” said the Rev. Rick Scarborough, an East Texas evangelist and head of the politically conservative Vision America.

Scarborough said he has been “conflicted” on the issue as both a socially conservative Republican and a Christian pastor. But he said if a solution couples border security and a requirement that illegal immigrants seeking naturalization go to the back of the line, “the majority of evangelicals will sign on.”

Please don’t misunderstand my point. I have no doubt that there’s a newsworthy story here. But so far, the reports we’ve critiqued have failed to present a full, accurate picture.

Here's what I'd like to see: a reporter take the coalition's talking points and go interview ordinary evangelical Christians. My suspicion is that a little legwork would generate a variety of interesting viewpoints — not all of them in lockstep with the easy storyline.

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