President Obama with the Rev. Bill Hybels, an evangelical pastor from Illinois, before a recent immigration speech in Washington.
Normally on the opposite side of political issues backed by the Obama White House, these leaders are aligning with the president to support an overhaul that would include some path to legalization for illegal immigrants already here. They are preaching from pulpits, conducting conference calls with pastors and testifying in Washington - as they did last Wednesday.
"I am a Christian and I am a conservative and I am a Republican, in that order," said Matthew D. Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a conservative religious law firm. "There is very little I agree with regarding President Barack Obama
. On the other hand, I'm not going to let politicized rhetoric or party affiliation trump my values, and if he's right on this issue, I will support him on this issue."
When President Obama gave a major address pushing immigration overhaul this month, he was introduced by a prominent evangelical, the Rev. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. Three other evangelical pastors were in the audience, front and center.
Their presence was a testament, in part, to the work of politically active Hispanic evangelical pastors, who have forged friendships with non-Hispanic pastors in recent years while working in coalitions to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage
. The Hispanics made a concerted effort to convince their brethren that immigration reform should be a moral and practical priority.
Hispanic storefront churches are popping up in strip malls, and Spanish-speaking congregations are renting space in other churches. Some pastors, like Mr. Hybels, lead churches that include growing numbers of Hispanics. Several evangelical leaders said they were convinced that Hispanics are the key to growth not only for the evangelical movement, but also for the social conservative movement.
"Hispanics are religious, family-oriented, pro-life, entrepreneurial," said the Rev. Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention
's public policy arm. "They are hard-wired social conservatives, unless they're driven away.
"I've had some older conservative leaders say: ‘Richard, stop this. You're going to split the conservative coalition,' " Dr. Land continued. "I say it might split the old conservative coalition, but it won't split the new one. And if the new one is going to be a governing coalition, it's going to have to have a lot of Hispanics in it. And you don't get a lot of Hispanics in your coalition by engaging in anti-Hispanic anti-immigration rhetoric."
Congress is unlikely to pass an immigration law this year. Republicans and Democrats who face re-election in November are skittish about the issue, given the broad public support for Arizona's new law aiming to crack down on illegal immigration.
The support of evangelical leaders is not yet enough to change the equation. But they could mobilize a potentially large constituency of religious conservatives, an important part of the Republican base better known for lobbying against abortion and same-sex marriage. They already threaten the party's near unity on immigration.
"These cross-cutting clusters are just splinter groups, so far," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Support for the Arizona law is so strong within the G.O.P.
that it will be difficult for the comprehensive-immigration-reform evangelicals to have much short-term impact."
But some evangelical leaders said their latest strategy was to push a handful of lame-duck Republicans to join Democrats - probably after the midterms - to pass an immigration bill on the ground that it is morally right.
Although other religious leaders have long favored immigration overhaul - including Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews and Muslims - the evangelicals are crucial because they have the relationships and the pull with Republicans.
"My message to Republican leaders," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the evangelical National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and one of the leaders who engaged his non-Hispanic peers, "is if you're anti-immigration reform, you're anti-Latino, and if you're anti-Latino, you are anti-Christian church in America, and you are anti-evangelical."
About 70 percent of Hispanics in the United States are Catholic, but some 15 percent are evangelicals, and they are far more likely than the Catholics to identify themselves as conservative and Republican.
Evangelicals at the grass-roots level are divided on immigration, just as the nation is. But among the leaders, recent interviews suggest that those in favor of an immigration overhaul are far more vocal and more organized than those who oppose it.
Each side draws on Scripture for support. Those who oppose comprehensive immigration overhaul cite Romans 13, which says to submit to the government's laws. Supporters cite Leviticus 19: treat the stranger as you would yourself.
Both sides agree that security at the nation's borders needs to be strengthened. The biggest point of contention is what to do about the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Advocates of a comprehensive new immigration law want to establish a path to citizenship that would allow illegal immigrants to register with the government, pay a fine, undergo a background check, prove they can speak English and only then get in line to apply for permanent legal residency. Those not interested in permanent residency could become legal temporary workers.
Opponents call this approach amnesty. "I think there's a need to reform the system, but I don't support amnesty," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative public interest law firm that plans to file an amicus brief in support of Arizona's immigration law.
Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the American Family Association, a national conservative Christian organization in Tupelo, Miss., said, "What my evangelical friends are arguing is that illegal aliens should essentially be rewarded for breaking the law.
"I think it's extremely problematic from a Judeo-Christian standpoint to grant citizenship to people whose first act on American soil was to break an American law," said Mr. Fischer, who hosts a daily radio show on which immigration is a frequent topic.
Taking the lead for immigration overhaul is the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group that represents more than 40 denominations. Last year the association passed a resolution calling for comprehensive immigration overhaul, and this year reform is one of its top three policy priorities, along with reducing abortions and studying the impact of climate change on the poor. The association's president, the Rev. Leith Anderson, was in the front row for Mr. Obama's address, along with Dr. Land and Mr. Rodriguez.
One of the more recent converts to overhaul is Mr. Staver. He said that deporting illegal immigrants violated the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger. "We're going to break up families," Mr. Staver said, "and I don't see how you could claim to be pro-family and condone the separation of families."
(To which Mr. Fischer responded, "We don't want to break up families, so let's help them all return to their country of origin.")
Mr. Staver was one of six evangelical leaders, including two prominent black evangelicals, who issued a statement last month advocating a comprehensive new law. One, J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican candidate for Ohio governor in 2006 and now a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, said he expected more evangelical leaders to come on board.
But Mr. Blackwell said the whole effort could implode if the final legislation extended family reunification provisions to same-sex couples where one spouse did not have legal status. For evangelicals, he said, "That would be a deal-breaker."