White Evangelicals Have Turned on Refugees
Churches ditched visions of global salvation for a cold nativism.
Right-wing U.S. media outlets, taking their cue from President Donald Trump, are working themselves into a frenzy at the prospect of a caravan of refugees arriving on the southern border. White evangelical Protestants, who are the key component of Trump’s base, have recently played a powerful role in pushing anti-refugee policies, especially against Muslims, that have dramatically slashed numbers and left thousands suffering.
To be sure, some evangelical leaders, such as Franklin Graham, the president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, voiced criticism of the Trump administration’s policy of separating asylum-seeking children from their parents at the border. Yet evangelical leaders have shown no signs of ceasing to give Trump their full support, while Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, both right-wing Protestants, defended his immigration policies as “biblical.” Indeed, in criticizing the “zero tolerance” policy, Graham deflected the blame from Trump and attempted to place it on former President Barack Obama.
While white evangelicals have a long history of racism in America, such pervasive naked partisanship focused purely on advancing a cruelly reactionary agenda is still a striking shift. While it represents the culmination of decades of work to purge evangelical denominations and institutions of liberals, during the 2016 election cycle, pundits were still often at a loss to explain evangelical support for the thrice-married, “grab them by the pussy” Trump. As late as spring 2017, the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart was clinging to the dubious claim that it is largely cultural evangelicals, and not churchgoing evangelicals, who support Trump.
Alas, Pew data shows us otherwise. After the primaries (during which the most pious evangelicals leaned toward Ted Cruz), regular church attendance became a predictor of higher Trump support among white evangelicals. Meanwhile, white evangelicals have been the staunchest supporters of the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and professed believer in the rapture who has said, “Jesus Christ is our savior, is the only solution for the world,” is known for making Islamophobic comments.
Today, the discourse around white evangelicals has shifted as it has become clear that they constitute a “uniquely conservative” demographic animated by Christian nationalism, which scholars characterize as a “view of the United States as a fundamentally Christian nation.”
That attitude is visible in Trumpian diplomacy. Senior Trump officials have bullied the United Nations and used the Bible to justify authoritarian measures, such as when Sessions, a Methodist, cited Romans 13 as a justification for Trump’s “zero tolerance” family detention policy. More than 60 children separated from their parents have yet to be reunited despite a court order, and the Trump administration has signaled that it may implement new child separation policies. As governor of Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, refused to fund programs set up to aid Syrian refugees, effectively barring their resettlement in the state and sparking a court battle that Indiana finally lost this February.
Evangelicals have been subjected to much shaming over their support for such cruel policies, with commentators often citing passages from the Bible about caring for foreigners. In the freewheeling space of Twitter, it is common to see Trump-supporting evangelicals called “fake Christians.” Yet while some white evangelicals have challenged their coreligionists to take a more humane stance toward both asylum-seekers and refugees, a typical response reads:
“The guidelines in the Bible are for the church and individuals – not guidelines on how to run a country. The government is in place to defend and protect Americans, and I don’t think helping refugees accomplishes that in any way.”
The cruelty of Trump’s migration policies is for the most part not reluctantly acquiesced to by evangelicals, but actively supported. The Trump administration has also not only moved to drastically cut the number of refugees the United States will accept annually but, as dramatically displayed in this chart, also steeply increased the proportion of Christian refugees accepted at the expense of Muslim refugees.
Viewing history and current events through the lens of prophecy and spiritual warfare, where earthly actions are interpreted as reflections of heavenly conflicts, evangelicals often view Muslims as a particularly significant threat. One reason for this is the widespread belief, associated with the most popular view of “end times” theology among evangelicals (known as premillennial dispensationalism), that a Third Jewish Temple must be built on the current site of the al-Aqsa Complex—the third-holiest site in Islam—before Christ returns to take believers up to heaven in an event referred to as “the rapture.”
Evangelicals have also viewed global institutions with suspicion and hostility, with a popular late 20th-century interpretation of end times prophecy suggesting that the Antichrist would rise to power through the U.N. With the Soviet Union now replaced by a conservative Russian state espousing support for “traditional values,” Muslims occupy a new place in their demonology.
Indeed, evangelical leaders often work with Russians in building hard-right global networks, for example supporting legislative efforts toward discriminating against, and even criminalizing, members of the LGBTQ community in African countries, prominently Uganda. Franklin Graham held a World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in Washington, D.C., last year with the participation of a leading representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion. The event had been planned to take place in Moscow, but that possibility broke down, in part as a result of Russia passing a measure that severely restricts the proselytizing of Protestants in Russia.
Graham’s rhetoric—he has said “secularism and communism, you know, there’s no difference”—often resembles the early Cold War rhetoric of his father, the Rev. Billy Graham. Like Pompeo, Billy Graham insisted that Christianity was the only means of resolving international tension, lamenting, for example, that the U.N. does not open meetings with prayer. The early Cold War birthed American Christian nationalism in its current form, with Congress adding the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and declaring “In God we trust” the national motto. During the Cold War, conservative evangelicals were among the staunchest enemies of the Soviet Union, objecting to its lack of religious freedom and devoting themselves to smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. They widely—particularly after the 1970 publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth—believed that Russia, as “Magog,” the “kingdom of the North,” would lead the fight against Israel in the Battle of Armageddon.
And yet, Cold War evangelism was arguably considerably more international and humane than its current incarnation. I recently spoke with historian Arissa Oh, the author of To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, who explained to me that it was largely thanks to the lobbying efforts of evangelicals Bertha and Harry Holt that Congress began expanding Asian immigration after the Korean War. The goal of the Holts was initially to find Christian American homes for mixed-race “GI babies,” but that soon expanded to include Korean orphans, ultimately leading to the institutionalization of international adoption. During the Cold War, evangelicals were also supportive of accepting certain nonwhite refugee populations fleeing Communism.
To be sure, our international adoption practices have been subjected to deserved and necessary criticism. But the contrast between Cold War evangelicals working to expand immigration and contemporary evangelicals striving to “make America white again” is nevertheless striking. Indeed, evangelical-backed nativism is likely to keep the current Congress from passing the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018, which would close the remaining loopholes that keep some international adoptees from receiving U.S. citizenship.
Despite the strictures imposed by their “Biblical worldview,” which militates against a robust embrace of pluralism, conservative evangelicals have at times been capable of showing greater compassion toward refugees and foreigners than they do today. Cold War concerns allowed evangelicals to re-enter the American mainstream. The culmination of their decades of culture wars in the embrace of Donald Trump and raw Christian nationalism is likely to end with them being driven back out of it.