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Crossing Paths: Bible Belts and Migrant Trails

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

One of our directors wrote this blog post for a college political science class on public opinion and voter behavior. The target audience is somewhat politically-informed readers who have some experience with statistical analysis.

Political unrest. Corrupt and unfair government. A chance to escape. A large community of people walk for weeks, months, years, in search of the promised land. Prayers are whispered from the mouths of mothers and children along the trail. Though not quite the Israelites wandering for 40 years in the Old Testament, caravan-based migrants to the United States from Latin America dream of safety and promise in a distant land, much like their Biblical counterparts.

At the same time, migrants are coming under increasing fire, with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), raiding towns, separating families, and detaining legal citizens based on their race in hopes of ensuring the security of the United States border. With ICE’s actions often denounced and decried in the public sphere, support for conservative immigration policies might not be everywhere it seems to be.

When discussing conservatism in the United States, the role of Christianity and religion is nearly always brought to attention. Political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue in 2010 that the social connections people make at church often influence their political opinions. Though few churches publicly advocate for certain political parties or beliefs, congregations often vote overwhelmingly for one party or another, creating a political biosphere within church walls.

In particular, Evangelical Christians present a particular contrast between policy opinions and political behavior. Polling data from Pew Research in 2018 reports that 75 percent of white Evangelical Christians believe Trump’s immigration policies to be good for the country, compared to only 46 percent of the general population. At the same time, many Evangelical preachers have spoken out - not against the Trump administration, but against ICE’s practices, arguing in favor of restitution-based solutions for illegal migrants living in the United States. Another highly-religious group, Latter-Day Saints (or Mormons), despite being consistently Republican, have recently released support for refugees living in the United States, arguing for compassion and serving migrant communities.

Does loving thy neighbor apply to our neighbors to the South?

A survey of 60,000 US adults finds that it does, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into voting behavior.

The 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, curated by researchers from colleges including Harvard and Tufts University, asks American adults a series of questions asked about policies like immigration, abortion, and taxation, each with a more and less conservative response. By comparing the responses to questions about immigration with the demographic background of respondents, we find that religiosity has a complicated relationship with immigration policy and behaves differently for different people.

Based on the data, women hold generally less-conservative views about immigration than men. At the same time, Evangelical Christians are more likely to have conservative views about immigration than non-Evangelicals. While Evangelical women are likely to agree with conservative immigration policies around 7 percent more than non-Evangelical women, they tend to have 9 percent more liberal-leaning views than Evangelical men. Even when taking age and political party identification into account, this relationship exists. As religion becomes more important to an individual, being an Evangelical Christian has a larger effect upon the conservatism of immigration preferences. This relationship, however, does not exist for non-white respondents of either gender or religious affiliation.

The average Republican responded with 72 percent support for conservative policies. This number is similar to Pew Research’s reported level of support for Trump’s policies among Evangelicals, so it makes sense that white Evangelical Christians vote Republican, right? In reality, white Evangelical respondents averaged a 63 percent support for conservative immigration policies. The average score among Evangelical white women was 56 percent, and 70 percent for men. Though white Evangelical men are close to the average Republican score, women are close to equally distant between the Republican and Independent average score, despite voting primarily for Donald Trump.

In comparison, white Latter-Day Saint respondents also hold relatively-conservative beliefs about immigration. Across the survey, as religious importance increases, conservative views of immigration generally also increase. However, both male and female Latter-Day Saint participants who responded that religion was “very important” to them reported lower support of conservative immigration policies than those who said religion was “somewhat important.” Among this same group, 53 percent percent voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Despite having the most liberal positions on immigration among the very religious, 49 percent of these women voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Both women and men expressed policy preferences more consistent with the level of conservativeness found in Independents than Republicans, with women having immigration views slightly more liberal than the average Independent, who supported about 42 percent of conservative policies.

Though Evangelicals and Latter-Day Saints hold immigration policy preferences typically in the middle-right part of the political spectrum, many voted for Trump, whose migration policy is far more conservative than theirs’. What is causing these groups to vote for President Trump? If all policy preferences are influenced by religion, than perhaps more religious preferences align with conservative policies, leading Evangelicals and Latter-Day Saints to vote for Republican candidates despite their beliefs about immigration. Nolan McCarty, political scientist from Princeton University, however, finds evidence for people increasingly sorting into political parties based on group identity, not ideology. Rosalee Clawson and Zoe Oxley, professors of political science, reinforce this theory, finding that Americans tend to have low levels of knowledge about politics or ideology. In this respect, people may not be aware of how liberal or conservative their policy preferences are and vote with the party that their fellow parishioners do.

More likely, though, immigration is not a salient issue for these voters, regardless of whether they are aware of the liberalness of their views or not. Even when controlling for living in the South, which would presumably give voters more personal stake in immigration from Latin America, white Evangelicals and Latter-Day Saints show similar immigration preferences and voting behavior for Trump. The data used in analysis doesn’t contain information on what topics matter to respondents, meaning other issues could matter more. McCarty writes that, when individuals do sort themselves into parties based on policy preferences (and not the other way around), they organize preferences by social welfare, racial, and cultural issues. For highly religious people, cultural issues, including abortion policy, LGBTQ+ rights, and drug legalization, are often more important than immigration policy, so they vote more often with Republicans than not.

Leading up to the 2020 Presidential election, liberal groups will have to work to convince religious women that immigration policy is significant to garner their support, and conservative groups may be best leaving it out of public discourse. Will the remaining two years of border wall, family separation, and ICE raids lead these groups of women to shift their partisanship or to remediate policy differences within the Republican party? Should it? Only time will tell.

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