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Can Religious Leaders Sway Parishioners on Immigration? Research Says Yes

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President Obama recently met with more than a dozen representatives from some of the country's largest religious organizations to talk about his push for comprehensive immigration reform. The president asked for their input and spoke about their important role in shaping attitudes of their parishioners on the issue. This high-profile meeting between President Obama and some of the nation's top religious leaders puts focus on the question of how much influence religious leaders can really have on the political views of their followers. When it comes to the topic of immigration, political science research suggests that religious leaders can certainly influence the immigration views of those in their congregations.

In 2009 I published an article entitled "And Who is My Neighbor? Religion and Immigration Policy Attitudes." This study analyzed data collected from the 2006 Pew Immigration Survey and revealed that regardless of a person's partisanship, political ideology, or demographic status, those who attend religious services more frequently are more likely to support more liberal immigration policies. More specifically, frequent church attenders were five to ten percent more likely to favor immigrant legalization or guest-worker policies over immediate deportation than those who never attend religious services. (Interestingly, this is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Jennifer Fitzgerald has recently found that more frequent religious attendance is associated with more immigrant-friendly views among German citizens as well.)

Why would more time in the pews lead to more liberal immigration views? I theorized that since the leaders of most major American religious denominations had made explicit public statements endorsing more immigrant-friendly policies since at least the early 2000s, those who attended church more frequently would be more likely to be exposed to, and internalize, the preferences of their religious leaders on the subject who often appealed to religious texts such as the Biblical injunction to "treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you" (Leviticus 19:34).

While these findings certainly supported the idea that religious leaders could influence the views of their parishioners on the topic of immigration, I was not able to directly test this hypothesis with the data that was available. In 2012, however, Tatishe Nteta and Kevin Wallsten published the results of an empirical study that examined the results from the 2004 National Politics Study. Nteta and Wallsten provided solid evidence that church-goers were, in fact, hearing messages from their clergy on the immigration issue and that those who were exposed to these messages more often were more likely to favor increased immigration levels and to allow immigrants who serve in the military to gain citizenship.

It is also interesting to note that comprehensive immigration reform currently enjoys broad support from religious leaders and communities across the political spectrum. A recent PRRI/Brookings survey showed that a majority of all major American religious denominations, even those whose members tend to identify predominantly as Republicans, favor a plan that would allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens after certain conditions are met.

One quick example is especially noteworthy. Republicans currently enjoy a 74% to 17% advantage over Democrats among Latter-day Saints in America and Mormons voted for Mitt Romney by nearly a 4-1 margin in last year's presidential election. Notwithstanding the lopsided political preferences of the LDS community, Dieter Uchtdorf, who currently serves as the Second Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, attended the recent immigration meeting with President Obama and reported that Obama's immigration plan was "totally in line with [LDS] values." It is said that politics sometimes makes for strange bedfellows, and in this case immigration stands out as an issue where religiosity and conservative politics do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.

Ultimately, these studies indicate that to one degree or another, American congregants of all political stripes tend to follow the lead of their religious leaders when it comes to immigration. President Obama was smart to enlist their support as he works with Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul this year.