Matthew Soerens is the U.S. Director for Church Mobilization and Advocacy at World Relief. Today, we are thrilled to talk with him about a new study from Lifeway Research that reveals positive changes in evangelical views on immigration.
When Lifeway Research worked with World Relief to conduct a similar study back in 2015, just 12% of evangelicals said that the Bible was the primary influence on their views of immigration. Since then, the numbers have significantly shifted.
In almost every category, evangelicals polled moved closer to World Relief’s views on U.S. immigration, including 70% who say the U.S. has a moral responsibility to accept refugees and 78% who support a path to citizenship for immigrants who are currently in the country illegally.
We celebrate this news!
At World Relief, we believe God calls us to welcome the stranger and foreigner living among us. While we are encouraged by these numbers, we know there is still work to be done in discipling the church and advocating for those who are seeking a safe place to call home.
God invites each of us into a transformational relationship through Jesus. And though this transformation often starts at the individual level of the heart, it almost always ripples out in a wave of collective transformation that leaves us closer to the Shalom that God desires.
Listen to our conversation or read it below. Then join us as we use our voices to advocate in the halls of Congress and with the people in our everyday lives.
Can you start by telling us what this survey is about and how it was initiated?
At World Relief, our approach to immigrants in our community and to questions of U.S. immigration policy are guided by the Bible, not by public opinion.
But as we interact with churches in various parts of the United States, we’ve certainly observed an increase in eagerness from evangelical churches both to welcome refugees and other immigrants and to engage in immigration policy issues. We were eager to see if a rigorous research study would confirm our anecdotal observations.
We worked with Lifeway Research back in 2015 to do a similar study, so we reached out to them again to see if they could poll evangelical Christians, asking them a number of the questions that they asked then as well as a few new questions, to help us understand how American evangelicals are thinking about refugees, immigrants and immigration.
The study was conducted by Lifeway Research in partnership with World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Table. For those who may not know, what is the Evangelical Immigration Table?
The Evangelical Immigration Table is a broad coalition of national evangelical denominations and organizations. World Relief helped start the EIT more than a decade ago, and we lead it alongside partners such as the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities and several other partners.
Our collaborative efforts are focused on trying to encourage distinctly biblical thinking about issues of immigration — both in local churches and among the elected officials with the authority to set immigration policy.
Since the Evangelical Immigration Table launched in 2012, we’ve organized our efforts around a Statement of Principles rooted in biblical values. Specifically, we’ve called for immigration reform that:
- Respects the God-given dignity of every person
- Protects the unity of the immediate family
- Respects the Rule of Law
- Guarantees secure national borders
- Ensures fairness to taxpayers
- Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.
We were really encouraged to confirm that each of these six principles was affirmed by at least 78% of American evangelicals in this new study.
What were your reactions to the findings?
To be very honest, I was nervous to see what this study would find. I’ve devoted more than a decade to trying to challenge evangelical Christians to embrace a view of immigrants and immigration policy that, I believe, are rooted in the Bible. But there have certainly been moments in the last several years when it felt like we were actually losing, not gaining, ground. So, I was overjoyed to get these results, which showed that evangelicals have become more favorable to World Relief’s policy views on just about every count and, even more importantly to me, that a significantly higher share of evangelicals now say they understand what the Bible has to say on this topic — though, of course, there is still a lot of work to do.
What were the most significant findings in the survey?
The one finding that really startled me was that 70% of American evangelicals — including 68% of white evangelicals — believe that the U.S. has a moral responsibility to accept refugees, which U.S. law defines as individuals who have fled persecution due to specific factors such as their race, religion or political opinion.
At World Relief, of course, we’d love to see that be 100% — but it still represents a gobsmacking shift in perspective from 2018, when just 25% of white evangelicals told Pew Research Center that the U.S. had a responsibility to receive refugees. Of course, this study cannot definitively tell us why evangelicals’ views have changed so dramatically, but it’s just really remarkable to see such a dramatic pivot over just a few years.
What encouraged you most from the survey?
Anyone who has heard me preach or speak at a church in the past seven years has probably heard me lament the 2015 study’s finding that only 12% of evangelical Christians thought about immigration issues primarily from the perspective of the Bible.
For a community that is supposed to be defined by our commitment to the authority of Scripture, that’s a scandal — and, I believe, the result of a deficit of discipleship. So what was most encouraging to me was to at least see some significant, positive momentum when compared to that 2015 survey. Among self-identified evangelicals, 21% now cite the Bible as the most important factor influencing their views; that’s still unacceptable, from my perspective, but a large jump over the past seven years.
That’s likely related to another shift: 31% of evangelicals now say they’ve heard a message from their church encouraging them to reach out to immigrants, compared to just 21% in 2015. I suspect that one reason only a minority of evangelicals have heard a biblically-informed message on this theme is that many pastors worry that speaking about immigration would upset some members of their congregation, but the study also finds that nearly four in five evangelicals now say they would value hearing a sermon applying biblical principles to immigration issues, which I hope gives more pastors the courage to preach God’s heart on this topic.
In nearly every category, those polled moved closer to World Relief’s views on immigration. What do you think prompted this shift?
The study doesn’t answer that question directly, so we can only speculate, but I would hope that as more evangelicals are engaging the Bible than were a few years back, they’ve come to the same conclusions as World Relief has, which is a position that affirms the value of immigrants and wants to see those who are undocumented have the chance to earn permanent legal status and eventual citizenship, while also affirming the need for secure borders.
I also think that the recent crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine have reminded many Americans of why we ought to be a country that welcomes refugees and others fleeing hardship. And the reality that the media coverage — whether from left- or right-leaning media outlets — has largely painted a sympathetic and factual picture of the plight of Afghans and Ukrainians has likely also helped and is a key difference from 2015, when many Americans were hearing things about Syrian refugees on television or the radio that, frankly, were untrue and elicited fear among some evangelicals.
To be clear, the Bible hasn’t changed, and World Relief’s position is to welcome Syrians, Afghans, Ukrainians, Venezuelans and whoever else is fleeing persecution — but the media narrative certainly does impact people’s views.
You spend a lot of time talking to people and speaking to churches about immigration reform and God’s heart for immigrants. Can you share a story of a time you’ve seen a tangible shift in the way someone has been thinking about immigration?
Honestly, this is my favorite part of my job, and it’s why I’m convinced that a significant share of evangelical Christians really are trying to follow Jesus and are open to aligning their hearts with God’s heart for refugees and other immigrants if they’re discipled well.
I get the privilege of speaking on this topic on a fairly regular basis, and I can usually pick out a few people in any given audience with arms crossed and a scowl whom I suspect are unhappy that their church is even having a conversation on immigration in church. But when I focus on the Bible, and the many ways that the Bible speaks rather directly to God’s love for the vulnerable foreigners, I watch as people’s posture relaxes and God’s Spirit does his work.
The author of Hebrews tells us that God’s Word, is “alive and active…sharper than any double-edged sword, [judging] the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), and I’ve often had the privilege of seeing people’s attitudes change when they’re confronted (gently, I hope) with a biblical message.
What’s the biggest area of resistance you encounter when it comes to immigration reform and welcoming immigrants to the U.S?
I think that a lot of Americans, including a lot of evangelicals, have been discipled by cable news, talk radio and social media to believe that they must choose one of two extreme positions on immigration: either be for open borders, with no regulation and no regard for immigration laws or to be for closed borders, restricting immigration dramatically if not entirely.
I’m not persuaded that either of those polar views is an option for a Christian whose authority is the bible, which both compels us to love and welcome immigrants, with a particular concern for those who are vulnerable but also instructs us to respect the law and the governing authorities. Frankly, there aren’t a lot of Democrats or Republicans in Congress advocating either of these extreme views — though some accuse their opponents of taking the opposite extreme position.
The most fierce resistance I encounter is from people who expect us to manipulate the biblical witness to fit one of these extreme policy perspectives, and I find most are disarmed when they realize that’s not our position at all.
President Biden recently set the refugee admissions ceiling for the Fiscal Year 2023 at 125,000 — the highest it’s been since fiscal year 1993. Do you see any correlation between the Lifeway Research Study and the refugee ceiling?
Consistent with this Lifeway Research study that finds that refugee resettlement is now broadly supported by U.S. evangelicals, a recent Pew Research Center survey finds that most Americans in general — of every major religious tradition and partisan affiliation — also now think that resettling refugees should be a “very” or “somewhat” important part of U.S. immigration policy. That level of popular support is likely one factor that President Biden has considered in setting such a relatively high refugee ceiling.
But, as we’ve highlighted at World Relief, setting this ceiling does not necessarily mean that 125,000 refugees will be admitted to the U.S. in the coming year.
In the fiscal year that just ended, the United States actually did resettle far more than 125,000 individuals who fled persecution — proving our nation has the capacity and will to do so, but most of those resettled were Afghans and Ukrainians who were brought to the U.S. through legal channels other than the formal refugee resettlement program, precisely because the governmental infrastructure for refugee admissions had been decimated over the past five years and progress toward rebuilding has been slow.
While we are grateful that the U.S. found ways to support Afghans and Ukrainians, using these legal workarounds has created other problems. Many of the Afghans who came to the U.S. last year only have temporary legal protections and work authorizations. This Is why we’re now desperately pleading with Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act so that Afghans can have the peace of mind that comes with knowing they will not be sent back and this is now their permanent home.
I hope and pray that both the Biden administration and Congress will take these poll results as confirmation that they have the support of the American people, including large majorities of evangelical Christians, to rebuild a robust refugee resettlement program that not only allows us to admit future Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, but also resumes resettlement of refugees who fled conflicts years ago and have been stuck in camps or other inadequate settings with little global public attention, and allows us to nimbly respond to the next unforeseen refugee crisis.
What would you say to someone who wants to build off of this momentum to advocate for immigrants in the U.S. and even in their hometowns?
One finding of this study is that four in five American evangelicals say that they want Republicans and Democrats to work together to pass reforms that include a path to citizenship for “Dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, many of whom have benefited from the DACA program — in addition to reforms to ensure an adequate, legal agricultural labor force and strengthened border security. That’s really a pretty remarkable figure: it’s hard to get 80% of U.S. evangelicals to agree on anything.
U.S. evangelicals feel urgency around these concerns, with more than 7 in 10 saying they want Congress to act this year.
There’ve been bipartisan bills introduced in Congress to address each of these challenges, including the Dream Act, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act, but it’s far from clear that they will get a vote.
Though 65% of evangelicals say they’d be more likely to support a candidate who supported policies addressing these three policy concerns, it’s far from clear that Congress will act any time soon on these priorities.
If we want to see change that lasts in the halls of Congress and in our communities, we need the church to be active stewards of the influence to which God has entrusted us by speaking up with vulnerable immigrants for more just policies. That might start with sending a quick email message or making a phone call (I know it’s intimidating for millennials like me to call someone on the phone, but our partners at the Evangelical Immigration Table have a tool that makes it so: they’ll call you to connect you to your Senators’ office, and there’s even a sample script).
And then, we can ask ourselves: who else could I get to make a phone call? What misconceptions could I gently correct that are held by those within my own family or church community — pointing to the Scriptures and to the relationships that I have with people directly affected — to get them to the point where they’re ready to make a phone call as well?
We hope this interview and the findings from Lifeway Research have left you feeling encouraged and inspired. If you’re interested in learning more or taking the next step, you can visit worldrelief.org/advocate or check out evangelicalimmigrationtable.com/advocacy for more opportunities. Thank you for joining World Relief as we create change that lasts!
Matthew Soerens is the US Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief, where he helps evangelical churches to understand the realities of refugees and immigration and to respond in ways guided by biblical values. He also serves as the National Coordinator for the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition that advocates for immigration reforms consistent with biblical values. Matthew previously served as a Department of Justice-accredited legal counselor at World Relief’s local office in Wheaton, Illinois and, before that, with World Relief’s partner organization in Managua, Nicaragua. He’s also the co-author of Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis (Moody Publishers, 2016), Welcoming the Stranger (InterVarsity Press, 2018) and Inalienable (InterVarsity Press, 2022).