Days after several White House representatives told journalists that a particular Bible verse legitimized government authority to separate migrant children from their families, several prominent Christians are arguing that the administration’s actions are anything but. Over the weekend, dozens of notable Christian public figures from a variety of denominations have spoken out about the biblical call to care for immigrants, children, and refugees.
Some of them, like Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, are longtime critics of President Trump.
“Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and widow are wronged in you” (Ezek. 22:7).https://t.co/xIjeAKPfjh— Russell Moore (@drmoore) June 18, 2018
But other vocal opponents of the Trump administration’s policy are more surprising. Franklin Graham, the son of the late evangelical preacher Billy Graham and an outspoken supporter of the Trump administration, sharply criticized the administration’s actions, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network on Thursday, “It’s disgraceful, and it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit.”
Both the speaker and the venue are striking. In the past, Graham promoted “birther” rumors Trump spread about President Obama and told Christians to “pray for” Donald Trump because he is “under attack from the left.” Likewise, the Pat Robertson-founded Christian Broadcasting Network, home of the wildly popular evangelical TV show The 700 Club, has in recent years become a de facto mouthpiece for the Trump administration. Graham’s open dissent from the Trump administration’s position on migrant families, as well as his decision to do so on CBN, is a stunning reversal — one that might augur a wider shift in evangelical Christians’ support for the Trump administration.
Opposition to the separation of migrant families, and to the Trump administration’s position more generally, has been vocalized throughout Christian communities in recent weeks. At the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting last week — attended by Vice President Mike Pence, who was criticized for making an explicitly political speech — representatives overwhelmingly supported a resolution advocating for the inherent dignity of immigrants, as well as for immigrant reform more broadly. At that convention, it appeared that the longstanding alliance between GOP policy and (largely white) evangelical Christianity was, for some delegates, fraying. (While evangelical groups like the Southern Baptist Convention remain overwhelmingly white, the SBC — along with other evangelical groups — has been steadily growing more racially diverse in recent years.)
Likewise, at last week’s spring meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), members took a stand against Trump’s policy. In a statement read to journalists, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston said, “The United States is now openly before the world using children as pawns to enforce a hostile immigration policy. ... This strategy is morally unacceptable and denies the clear danger weighing upon those seeking our assistance.”
It is unclear to what extent the Trump administration’s position on immigration, or the opposition of major Christian leaders, will influence Christian voters on the ground. Trump’s current approval rating, around 45 percent, is tied with the previous high point in his presidency. But the fact that someone as high-profile — and historically pro-Trump — as Franklin Graham is willing to criticize the president on this issue shows a clear boundary has been crossed.
During the presidential campaign, Trump famously said he could “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” and his base would continue to support him. But as more and more influential Christian groups and leaders speak out against his policies, Christian voters may have to make a difficult choice. And it remains to be seen whether, having helped to create the force that is Donald Trump, Christian leaders will have any influence over the rank and file when it comes to stopping him.