Immigrants May Be Best Way to Fill Churches' Empty Pews

David Swartz


Immigrants May Be Best Way to Fill Churches' Empty Pews | David Swartz, Evangelicals, Immigration, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Church Trends

In the 2010s, more than 600,000 Christian immigrants have been receiving green cards each year, Swartz writes.

Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said recently that Catholic priests only support undocumented immigrants because they need them to "fill the churches."

On the face of it, his comment seems dismissive, even cynical.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops responded with a statement asserting, "Our pro-immigration stance is based on fidelity to God's word and honors the American dream. For anyone to suggest that it is out of sordid motives of statistics or financial gain is outrageous and insulting."

But Bannon actually makes an important point - one that could be used to win Christian support for Dreamers, DACA and broader immigration reform.

Anti-immigration evangelicals should take a close look at the new Public Religion Research Institute data, released just as Bannon made his comment. Consider these statistics:

  • White Christians, 81 percent of the population in 1976, now account for less than half the public. Only 43 percent of Americans identify as white Christians. Even fewer (30 percent) identify as white Protestants.
  • About one in 10 white Catholics, evangelicals and mainline Protestants are under 30.
  • From 2006 to 2016, the number of evangelicals declined from 23 percent to 17 percent.

According to Robert P. Jones, author of "The End of White Christian America," these numbers explain why "fading white evangelicals have made a desperate end-of-life bargain with Trump."

Aggrieved evangelicals, on the losing end of a demographic contest, are ignoring the president's moral calamities in hopes that he can deliver the political goods.

But aren't evangelicals supposed to care more about the church than politics? If they do, their support of Trump - and their antipathy toward immigration - represents a profound miscalculation.

Because it is immigrants, not Trump, who give American evangelicalism its best chance for survival.

In the decades following the transformative Immigration Act of 1965, European immigration decreased and Asian, African and Latin American immigration increased.

By 2005, 38.4 million called the United States home, 90 percent of whom did not claim European heritage. Together with their American-born children, they now comprise more than 25 percent of the U.S. population. The Immigration Act of 1965 has remade the face of America.

It also is remaking the soul of America. As the white West secularizes, much of the East remains highly religious.

At the turn of the 20th century, less than 20 percent of Christians worldwide were nonwhite.

At the turn of the 21st century, more than 60 percent were outside the West. In fact, from 1970 to 2010, the evangelical population grew about six times faster in regions outside North America.

According to the most recent report from Gordon-Conwell's Center for the Study of Global Christianity, three out of every four evangelicals live in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

By 2050, only 20 percent will be white, according to Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Given these striking demographic numbers, the religious impact of immigration to the United States has been - and continues to be - monumental.

Immigrants to the United States come out of this devout population. According to scholar Jehu Hanciles, himself an immigrant from Sierra Leone, nearly two-thirds of immigrants are Christian.

In the 2010s, more than 600,000 Christian immigrants have been receiving green cards each year.

To be sure, non-Christian diversity also spiked in in the decades since 1965, but the new immigration, sociologist Stephen Warner says, is bringing about "not so much a new diversity among American religions as diversity within America's majority religion."

As the United States becomes less Christian by the attrition of Americans with European heritage, it becomes more Christian through non-white migration.

If evangelicals want to reinvigorate the Church, they need the vitality of World Christianity. Appealing to their Christian self-interest may be the most productive path forward.

David Swartz is associate professor of history at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of "Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism." A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where he blogs regularly, and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @davidrswartz.