clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Several white evangelical leaders reject anti-immigrant rhetoric. Why do their flocks embrace it?

The theology — and the politics — behind white evangelicals’ ambivalence towards migrants.

Thousands Of Hondurans In Migrant Caravan Continue March Through Mexico
Members of the Central American caravan wait in line for food and other items while in a camp on October 31, 2018, in Juchitan, de Zaragoza, Mexico.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

How should Christians respond to Trump’s rhetoric on immigration?

Within the white evangelical world, at least, that answer is complicated. On the one hand, several major evangelical leaders and institutions have been vocal advocates for the dignity of refugees, and for a more compassionate public policy toward immigration overall.

In June, delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual conferences passed a near-unanimous resolution affirming the dignity of migrants and refugees. More recently, six major evangelical leaders, including Russell Moore, director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, and Galen Caley, a vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, released joint statements urging President Donald Trump to allow members of the Honduran migrant caravan currently making its way to the US-Mexico border to seek asylum in the United States.

“People fleeing for their lives are not to be used as political props,” Moore has said. “Those escaping violence and persecution in Honduras and elsewhere bear the image of God and should be treated with dignity and compassion. As Christians, we should share the heart of Jesus for refugees and others imperiled.”

On the other hand, white evangelicals report being more hostile to refugees, and to migrants more generally, than any other religious group in America. A full 68 percent of them say they believe America has no responsibility to house refugees, according to a poll by Pew conducted this spring. Another poll, conducted by Washington Post/ABC in January, found that 75 percent of white evangelicals said they thought that the Trump-era federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants was a good thing, compared to just 46 percent of Americans overall.

Prominent white evangelicals close to the president, such as Paula White, have frequently defended Trump’s stance on immigration policy, including family separation. They argue that Jesus should not be considered a forerunner of modern-day refugees because, as a sinless man, he never broke immigration law.

From his dismissal of “shithole countries” to his attempts to institute a “Muslim travel ban,” from his incendiary rhetoric about Mexican immigrants being rapists and criminals, to his latest attempts to prevent the Honduran migrants to seeking asylum, Trump’s approach to borders has been one of nativism and insularity by protecting (his idea of white) America at the expense of everyone else. And, by and large, white evangelicals on the ground have followed suit — even when some in evangelical leadership is advocating for more nuanced policy positions.

The reasons for this discrepancy are complicated. They include a white evangelical population that gets its moral sense as much from conservative media as it does from scripture. There’s also a more general conflation of white evangelicalism with the GOP party agenda, which has been intensifying since the days of the Moral Majority in the 1980s.

As Jenny Yang, vice president for advocacy and policy for World Relief, the humanitarian wing of the National Association for Evangelicals, told Vox, white evangelicals’ views on immigration are more likely to be shaped “not from their local church or their pastor, but actually from the news media. ... This has become an issue of the church being discipled by the media more than the Bible or the local pastor in terms of their views on immigration.”

Ed Stetzer, a Christian author and commentator who leads the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, agreed. “White evangelicals are more shaped on this issue by Republican views,” he told Vox. “They’re being discipled by their cable news network of choice and by their social media feeds.” He pointed out that, while white evangelicals are more likely than other religious voting blocs to express conservative views on immigration, they don’t necessarily do so at greater rates than nonwhite evangelical Republicans.

In other words, the political views of white evangelicals may say far more about their party affiliation than it does about their theological identity. In the Trump era, in particular, white evangelical Christianity and nativist political isolation have become particularly intertwined. Trump, his administration, and its allies have used the language of Christian nationalism to shore up their political base.

Stetzer acknowledged that “what you have is a distance between the grassroots and what’s often called the evangelical leadership” on immigration, with evangelicals in the pews generally far more negative on immigrants than those in the pulpit. “The leaders of evangelical institutions have increasing distance from one another at this issue.” Only, he said, once evangelical leaders and pastors were successful in promoting a Biblical theology of immigration, rather than one gleaned from cable news, could everyday evangelicals adopt a less reactionary stance towards migration.

Evangelical political theology often has a strongly authoritarian strain

The uneasiness within the evangelical community over immigration policy can be tied to a tension within evangelical theology itself. Some passages in the Bible — such as Matthew 25 — urge care for those on the margins. Meanwhile other passages such as Romans 13 are interpreted by evangelicals like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to justify Trump’s family separation policy and an authoritarian political theology.

Travis Wussow, vice president of public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, captured some of these tensions. On the one hand, he said, “Americans might agree or disagree about the details of asylum policy...[but] we [evangelicals] can’t disagree about whether every single migrant is made in the image of God” — and therefore worthy of being treated with dignity.

At the same time, Wussow noted, “One of the propositions that Romans 13 stands for that government is ... an institution that’s been created by God, for the good of humanity.” Ultimately, he said, the idea of national borders — and that a government’s response is primarily to care for its own people — is also scriptural.

“I think if you just sort of step back and look at scripture, God seems to see the world in terms of nations,” he said, adding: “We think that every government has an obligation and responsibility to care first for those who are within its sovereignty and then answer the question, What can we do to extend compassion to those who are fleeing persecution.”

But, Yang pointed out, the idea of civil disobedience — even when it comes specifically to immigration — is also deeply rooted in scripture. He cited the biblical story in the book of Genesis of Abraham smuggling his wife Sarah into Egypt, having her pose as his sister, to protect her. “People need to also understand that the laws are broken in scripture,” she said.

In fact, she argued: “The whole scripture is based on migration. Every single major biblical character was an immigrant. Jesus himself was a refugee. Abraham, who’s considered the father of our faith ... was an immigrant. Joseph was a victim of human trafficking.”

Yang rejected the idea that a Christian political theology had to make a choice: “There’s a Christian narrative around the issue: there’s always an either/or, which is between the role of law enforcement, security and showing compassion to strangers. And it’s always talked about as a choice between one or the other. I think that’s a false dichotomy. I think we can hold the rule of law and submit to the governing authority while also welcoming the stranger and showing compassion to those who are enormous and they’re not mutually exclusive.”

The Christian duty to obey the law should galvanize a call to make laws fairer, she said. “Not only do we have a responsibility to submit to the government authorities and ensure that our government has proper resources to do that, but it’s also our role to ensure that the law itself is good, adjust and is working for the common good.”

Stetzer, likewise, pointed out that within scripture, there’s also what he interprets as a clear calling for the collapse of borders within the Kingdom of God. Citing the prophetic book of Revelation about the end of days, Stetzers noted “there will be men and women from every tongue, tribe, and nation. So if you’re not used to being around people that are different than you, you’re really going to hate heaven.”

The evangelical church is more than just the white evangelical church

National and ethnic distinctions, however, are blurring the present evangelical church, not just the prophesied future one, Yang said. Evangelicals in America are getting more diverse, and white evangelicals are becoming a smaller and smaller portion of the population.

Just in the past two years, the percentage of white evangelicals in America dropped from 17 percent to 15.3 percent according to the latest PRRI polls. And more and more black and Latino evangelicals are joining historically white denominations and traditions. While polling data tends to focus exclusively on white evangelicals, evangelicals of color, Yang said, “are actually a lot more welcoming and are more supportive of comprehensive immigration reform.”

In fact, she said, in many communities, evangelical churches are sustained by the influx of immigrants, particularly from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. “Immigration is not just changing the face of our nation,” Yang said, “it’s actually changing the face of Christianity.” About one in three evangelicals in America today is Latino, black, or Asian.

“There are people who are very firm in their faith and, in fact, for them to be able to come into the United States of America is a part of the story of God’s faithfulness and love. And they come. They plant churches.”

White evangelicals, in other words, are only part of the story of evangelicalism in America. And as their numbers shrink, an “evangelical” approach to politics may come to look very different.