“Who’s organizing the massive caravan on track to hit the US Border, just in time for the Election?”
That was just one headline last week on the website of the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Pat Robertson-founded evangelical media powerhouse that has become, in recent years, a de facto mouthpiece for the Trump administration.
Most national media outlets, including Vox, have reported on the caravan, an approximately 4,000-strong group of migrants, mostly from Honduras, who have chosen to collectively flee to the United States to escape gang violence and political instability. But CBN’s reporting — including the implication that “leftists,” including the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, were secretly funding the caravan in order to destabilize American democracy in time for the midterms — is not substantiated by reporting by any mainstream media outlet.
Yet CBN consistently stoked fears in several articles that “radical leftists” were behind the caravan, and that it was full of “felons” and “exotics” — one of its sources’ terms for migrants of Middle Eastern or African origin. Little attention, if any, was paid to migrants’ reasons for leaving their homes behind, or the social and political instability in Honduras that is attracting the travelers to the United States. (CBN has not responded to an emailed request for comment.)
The nativist rhetoric spouted by outlets like the Christian Broadcasting Network and plenty others has proved toxic. Elsewhere, intimations of Soros-related conspiracy theories have proven fatal. A Pittsburgh man is suspected of fatally shooting 11 people at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill on Saturday. He frequently posted nativist sentiments and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the caravan and other political issues on the far-right social networking site Gab. In one post, he apparently blamed Jews for aiding and abetting “invaders” — meaning the Honduras migrant caravan.
In the wake of that violence, it’s worth asking a wider point: How did white evangelicals come to so fully embrace the Trumpian rhetoric on immigration? How did a religious group whose foundational sacred text explicitly mandates care for the poor, the sick, and the stranger become a reliable anti-refugee, anti-immigrant voting bloc?
White evangelicals have consistently upheld Trump’s policies on immigration and refugees
In January, a Washington Post/ABC poll found that a staggering 75 percent of white evangelicals in the US described “the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants” as a positive thing, compared to just 46 percent of Americans overall. And according to a Pew Research Center poll in May, 68 percent of white evangelicals say that America has no responsibility to house refugees, a full 25 points over the national average.
White evangelicals are the only Christian group to express this level of hostility toward refugees. While just 25 percent of them say they think Americans should house refugees, white mainline Protestants, black Protestants, and Catholics all express support for refugees by between 43 and 65 points. Meanwhile, according to another July poll by the Public Religion Research Initiative (PRRI), more than half of white evangelicals report feeling concerned about America’s declining white population.
The Bible contains numerous passages that seem to straightforwardly exhort care for the poor, immigrants, and refugees. Isaiah 10, for example, sees God excoriating those who “turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right.” In Matthew 25 (which a Methodist pastor quoted to Jeff Sessions Monday while protesting his speech), Jesus warns his followers that those who withhold care from the poor or the refugee — “the least of these” — are seen as having done it to Jesus himself. Plenty of other verses — Leviticus 19:33–34, Jeremiah 7:5–7, Ezekiel 47:22, Zechariah 7:9–10 — express similar sentiments.
Generally speaking, white American evangelicals have, at least since the 1970s, been wary of counting nonwhites or non-Americans among this “least.” As historian Randall Balmer has frequently argued, the rise of the Moral Majority and the Reagan-era political evangelical religious right in America was due as much to objections to desegregation as to more obvious contentious issues like LGBTQ rights and abortion. For as long as white evangelicals have been a politically robust force, white American identity, GOP party politics, and evangelical theology have been all but inextricable.
That said, the age of Trump — and the Christian nationalism he has frequently evoked as a rhetorical campaign strategy — has seen white evangelical nativist rhetoric take on a more politicized role. As Messiah College professor and historian John Fea told Vox in September, white evangelical pastors — and thus their parishioners — are increasingly willing to take their sermon talking points and “marching orders” from an administration buoyed, in part, by its embrace of nativism.
Prominent evangelical leaders, including those who serve on Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory council, have openly cast doubt on what Christians owe to refugees. For example, in July, as debate over immigration raged in the aftermath of Trump’s controversial migrant family separation policy, Paula White — a longtime Trump adviser and well-known prosperity gospel preacher — used the Bible to defend Trump’s policies.
She told CBN that those Christians who argued that Jesus was a “refugee” were wrong. “Yes,” she said, “[Jesus] did live in Egypt for three and a half years. But it was not illegal. If He had broken the law, then He would have been sinful and He would not have been our Messiah.”
Another prominent evangelical adviser for Trump, Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, also defended Trump’s migrant family separation policy this summer, telling the Dallas Observer, “Any American who commits a crime is going to be separated from his or her child. You don’t send children to jail with their parents in America, so I’m not sure why the only criminals who would get a pass on that policy would be illegal immigrants.”
In addition, members of the Trump administration have used biblical arguments to support family separation and immigration restriction more broadly. This summer, both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders appeared to use Romans 13 — a verse in which the Apostle Paul cautions an early Christian group against rising up against the Roman Empire — to argue that the Trump administration has the biblical authority to make its own rules, and that Christians have a duty to submit to them.
Some white evangelicals have lobbied to move the community away from Trumpism.
Last year, for example, 100 evangelical leaders wrote an open letter urging Trump to rescind one of his controversial “Muslim ban” executive orders limiting the entrance of nationals of certain Muslim countries into the United States.
For example, Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, has frequently spoken out against Trump’s approach to and rhetoric about immigration. Last year, as Trump’s various “Muslim bans” were tested throughout the year, 100 evangelical leaders from 50 states wrote an open letter to Trump urging him to revoke his executive order upholding the ban.
And in June, delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual conference voted unanimously in favor of a resolution that affirmed the dignity of immigrants. The resolution argued that “God commands His people to treat immigrants with the same respect and dignity as those native born.”
Evangelicals’ increasing wariness of immigration reveals how close the interests of the GOP and white evangelicals have become
Still, by and large, rank-and-file evangelicals remain dubious on immigration.
How should we account for this seeming discrepancy between biblical theology — with its frequent exhortations to care for the poor and marginalized?
Diana Butler Bass, an American church historian and scholar who focuses on the history of the American church, told Vox via phone that the answer is twofold. “The easy answer would be that it really shows how secularized the [white evangelical] community has become, and how it functions as an arm of the Republican Party ... taking talking points and marching orders from the people who have the loudest voices in the Republican Party.”
But, she, said, such an answer would elide the complexity of how exactly that happened. Increasingly, she said, white evangelicals are motivated by a willingness to read the Bible non-literally when it comes to passages about, say, caring for the poor.
Over the past few years, she’s noticed what she called “a very slow theological turn within the evangelical community to redefine what seemed like very basic ... verses about the care of the poor and caring for the outcast. On one hand, they might say, ‘Oh, you know, Jesus was born of a literal virgin’ ... but when it comes to these verses about the poor and about refugees, in particular, all of a sudden, literalism disappears.”
Suddenly, she said, she noticed a “new sort of interpretation that’s floating around in evangelical circles about [verses in the Bible where Jesus exhorts care for the poor]. And the interpretation is Jesus does not mean everybody. That Jesus only means that you’re supposed to take care of the ‘least of these’ who are in the Christian community.”
This willingness to define seemingly straightforward passages in the Bible along politicized terms — reimagining what it means to be someone’s “neighbor” — speaks to a wider issue within white evangelicalism. The degree to which white evangelical identity is increasingly predicated on politicized whiteness — and on an insular and isolationist vision of community — reveals the extent to which white evangelicalism has become synonymous with Christian nationalism under the Trump administration. And, increasingly, white evangelicals are willing to selectively reinterpret the Bible to justify this.
“We’re seeing literal verses with long histories of interpretation, that favor the poor, that favor outcasts ... redeployed in ways that fit now,” Bass said. “They’re inventing a new interpretation, whole hog, to fit the age of Trump.”
One of the most famous verses in the Bible is Galatians 3:28, which highlights how Christianity is supposed to transcend barriers of race, class, wealth, and nationality. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It’s unclear how white evangelicals will reinterpret that verse now.
But as it becomes increasingly apparent that words are leading, inextricably, to political violence and — in the Pittsburgh shooting suspect’s case — apparent domestic terrorism, interpretation is more important now than ever.