On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. This result came as a surprise to many because polls confidently predicted a Hillary Clinton win. But one thing was not a surprise: The majority of evangelicals voted Republican. Even after a divided and contentious primary season within the GOP, most churchgoing evangelicals did what they have done in the past and voted in line with the party platform.
What seems different this time is that many evangelical leaders are far more vocal in speaking against a candidate many of their constituencies supported.
And in the case of Trump’s executive order banning refugees from entering the United States, many evangelical leaders are also speaking contrary to what polls say their grassroots believe.
World Relief, an evangelical organization that helps resettle refugees in the US, published a letter to President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the Washington Post in February, signed by 100 evangelical leaders from all 50 states.
“As Christian pastors and leaders, we are deeply concerned by the recently announced moratorium on refugee resettlement,” the letter read. “We have a historic call expressed over two thousand years, to serve the suffering. We cannot abandon this call now.”
I was glad to be among the drafters and signers, and have my name counted and my voice heard, along with many of my friends.
Sure, this letter was intended for the president. However, it was also written in the hope of reaching evangelicals in the grassroots, many of whom who may agree with Trump.
What evangelicals believe
I am an evangelical. I’ve pastored evangelical churches, have four graduate degrees from evangelical schools, was a researcher for an evangelical denomination, am currently a professor at evangelical Wheaton College, and serve on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals.
To understand evangelicals, most scholars use a rubric called the Bebbington Quadrilateral to explain what we evangelicals believe, including:
- Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus
- Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
- Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
- Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity
Understanding what evangelicals believe is important to understanding why so many evangelical leaders signed the letter to the Trump administration.
After President Trump released the immigration executive order on January 27, churches working with the National Association of Evangelicals through World Relief found themselves greatly concerned. World Relief has long worked to help the church be the hands and feet of Jesus to those who are most vulnerable around the globe. Now that work has been suspended.
World Relief has closed five local offices and laid off more than 140 faithful workers. These teams that have helped resettle more than 25,000 refugees over the past 40 years now find themselves with no one to serve because the doors have been closed. Christians are left to look themselves in the mirror and ask: Is this the moment to stand and speak?
Let me be clear. Everyone who signed the letter to the Trump administration supports a commitment to national security and appropriate governance in immigration policies. But we are called to show and share the loved of Jesus to the hurting (see the Bebbington Quadrilateral mentioned earlier) — so when we consider the refugee, where do we find the balance between the two? Our faith calls us to be sober-minded, but panic can often lead us in the opposite direction.
Facts are our friends
We want to respond to the refugee crisis with fact, and in faith, rather than fear.
According to a study from the Cato Institute, there is a 1 in 3.64 billion chance that any one of us would be killed by a refugee turned terrorist this year.
The refugee resettlement program has a strong history of success — people cannot walk here as they have to Europe. The US has one of the most intense vetting systems in the world, and it takes most refugees two years and numerous steps to actually arrive in the US. More than 800,000 refugees have been resettled in the past 15 years, with a remarkable record of safety.
Yes, I believe we are at war with radical Islam. And we need to be vigilant. But refugees are not causing the violence. They are running from it. And as a powerful and prosperous nation, we have the arms to help as long as we are willing to keep those arms open.
The current mood of this administration and many of its supporters when it comes to refugees is often driven by fear. But we must be the people who are always ready to search out the facts. We must listen to the tragic stories of the hurting people who are asking for help. The facts tell us that our vetting process is already extreme, and the real people in need move us to compassion. This means we don’t have to choose between the head and the heart to decide which side we are on. We can hear the facts and let our souls be moved.
Why evangelical leaders are speaking out against what the grassroots believe
Most evangelical leaders who have spoken out about the executive order have done so to decry it. Very few evangelical leaders have voiced support for the order. This is true for several reasons.
First, evangelicals have been involved with refugee resettlement for a long time and in a lot of churches. Many evangelical leaders have advocated for refugees, from all different faiths, for years. They know the program, and they know the refugees — and they know it’s safe and a good way to show the love of Christ.
Second, evangelical leaders, knowing the facts, are emboldened to speak when alternative facts may be holding sway elsewhere, particularly when those alternative facts are hurting the most vulnerable. In the Christian tradition, we call that speaking prophetically — like prophets in what Christians call the Old Testament, we have to sometimes speak to our own people and remind them of what is right.
Third, many evangelical leaders have had an uneasy connection with the Trump administration. Yes, they know that white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for President Trump, and many strongly agree with Trump’s stated concerns about religious liberty, the Supreme Court, and more. But they want — and even need — room to disagree with a president who has said and done many things contrary to their beliefs. Speaking up for refugees is one of the areas where many believe they can.
The list of signees was not the usual names of progressive religious leaders, unknown to evangelicals. It was people like the highly respected Tim Keller, who hardly ever signs such letters, and Max Lucado and Ann Voskamp. All three are New York Times best-selling authors whose books are standard issue in many evangelical home libraries.
Simply put, evangelical leaders are trying to speak to the president and their people because they believe the facts, and their faith, call them to do so.
Being pro-life means caring about all of human life, and that includes being pro-refugee
Some have taken the position that we should not petition the government in this way, but rather should focus on the ministry in front of us instead of questioning the administration’s decision.
Yet in a post-Roe v. Wade world, when many of those in government have actively supported the legality and even the public funding of abortion, we have had no problem using both words and action. Christians have served women through crisis pregnancy centers, participating as foster families and caring for orphans. Yet we have also spoken prophetically and done everything we could to change the system at its foundation. We have called our leaders to make new laws and to overturn old ones. We found a place for both ministry and advocacy.
This situation is no different. Being pro-life means caring about all of human life, and that includes being pro-refugee. And we can use our hands to serve those already here that are hurting, while at the same time using our voices to plead with our leaders to continue this important work.
We are subject to governing authorities, yes. But in a free society that allows open discussion and even civil dissent, submission to laws as they stand does not mean we must stay silent. We can still speak for those who do not have a voice, whether they are in the womb or under tyranny. We can still plead for lives at every stage. And we know from experience that our voice and our influence make a difference.
We can’t just stick to the issues that appeal to the party base. We have to accept the challenge to speak prophetically and act rightly.
The response from evangelicals
The response from the letter has been encouraging, partly because of the unusual names on the list. For example, the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today reported on the story with tens of thousands of social media shares.
In conversations I’ve had, many are asking for more information—which was (and still is) the point. This is a place where more (accurate) information bolsters the case that we do not have to choose between our safety and the historic values of our country, let alone our faith.
World Relief recently planned a training in my own community. They expected a few dozen attendees, but almost 1,000 registered. They were forced to move to a larger venue, inside a conservative Evangelical Free Church a few blocks from my home, to accommodate those who wanted to help.
The work goes on despite the executive order
Even as we advocate, we intend to keep working while we wait.
For example, my friend Bryant Wright has led his congregation at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, to develop a refugee resettlement ministry, highlighted on 60 Minutes. The future of such local church ministries is up in the air, but those who recently arrived are still adjusting to their surroundings and need the support of neighbors and new friends. Johnson Ferry Baptist Church and other churches like them will be there to meet those needs and show the love of Christ.
Room for disagreement
Americans can disagree on policy issues — that is one of the great things about our country. But for people of faith, this issue goes deeper than policy. Scripture calls us to welcome the stranger, but we cannot welcome them if they are not allowed to come in, and we would not advocate doing so in ways that are unsafe.
Evangelical Christians believe that government does have a role, and it’s essential that they perform that role well. One of the unspoken realities is that many evangelicals don’t trust the refugee process because President Obama oversaw it, and they don’t trust him. (I don’t think that is completely fair in regard to this program, but I do think it is how many feel.)
Perhaps they will have more confidence in President Trump’s vetting than in President Obama’s vetting, though my guess is the programs will be substantively similar since refugees are already vetted — extremely — and have been since 9/11.
Evangelicals respect our governing authorities. But just as with past presidents, respect for authority does not require agreeing with every single decision. And, just as in the past, there are times that call for speaking out. In this case, many evangelical leaders respectfully dissent with the suspension of the refugee resettlement program, and have pleaded with our leaders to reconsider.
Being the dissenting voice is never easy, but we are not called to do what is easy. We are called to do what is right.
There is a famous poem inscribed inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, one that is familiar to many. Those words were part of a sonnet called “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus, and were inspired by her work with refugees.
“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Evangelical leaders are speaking to the president and their people, hoping that if that lamp should go out, it won’t be because the church stayed silent.
Ed Stetzer is a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.