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Polls suggest white evangelicals will still back Trump after family separation controversy

Forty-four percent of white evangelicals support laws banning refugees altogether.

Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border
Central American asylum seekers wait as US Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018, near McAllen, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images

White evangelical leaders did something remarkable earlier this month: They criticized President Donald Trump for his administration’s immigration policy.

From the words of Franklin Graham — a long-time Trump ally and son of iconic preacher Billy Graham — to the wider resolution passed by the Southern Baptist Convention at its annual meeting, white evangelicals have been more and more willing to challenge Trump on issues of immigration and family separation, departing from white evangelicalism’s historic association with Republican Party politics.

But recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that these denouncements were not part of a broader break between white evangelicals and Trump. Ultimately white evangelicals will still support Trump — and his wider immigration stance — despite their measured reservations about the policy of family separation.

The Public Religion Research Institute poll shows that support for the family separation policy among white evangelicals was low: Thirty-six percent of white evangelicals support the policy, while 51 percent are opposed to it. Given that white evangelicals are generally supportive of Trump’s policies more broadly, the relative lack of support for family separation is, at first glance, striking.

However, it’s important to recognize that white evangelical support for family separation is higher than those of any other religious group cited in the poll. Sixty percent of white mainline Protestants, 74 percent of Catholics, 82 percent of the religiously unaffiliated, and 87 percent of nonwhite Protestants are opposed to family separation.

Furthermore, when white evangelicals were polled about attitudes toward immigration policy more widely, they largely supported anti-immigrant policies that reflect Trump’s broader attitude to the issue. White evangelicals remain the religious group closest to majority support for a wider prohibition on bringing refugees to the United States: Forty-four percent say they would support such a ban, according to the Public Religion Research Institute poll.

White evangelicals’ relative discomfort with the idea family of separation, in other words, shouldn’t be taken as indicative that they’re moving more broadly away from Trump or his immigration policy overall.

As Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux wrote for FiveThirtyEight last week, white evangelicals are more uncomfortable than other religious demographics with immigrants. Citing earlier PRRI studies, Thomson-DeVeaux wrote: “White evangelical Protestants were the only religious group in which a majority (57 percent) said they’re bothered when they encounter immigrants who don’t speak English. They were also the likeliest to say that they have little or nothing in common with immigrants.”

They also tend to have a more “law and order” approach — seeing harsh penalties as the necessary result of illegal activity, and thus seeing measures like child separation as unfortunate, but ultimately morally justifiable to preserve the rule of law.

Ultimately, Thomson-DeVeaux concluded, “it seems unlikely that the controversy over the child separation policy will do much — if anything — to diminish Trump’s popularity among this key group.”