Conservative Christians are divided on Trump's stance on refugees — but they can be convinced

If Donald Trump's travel ban goes forward, who else in the GOP will stand up for immigrants and refugees?

Published February 6, 2017 11:59PM (EST)

 (Getty/Scott Olson)
(Getty/Scott Olson)

After President Donald Trump announced that all refugee admissions would be paused for 120 days, a strange thing happened. A series of religious organizations issued stern denunciations: A Lutheran group headlined its press release indicating that it “denounces" the Trump administration's actions; a Catholic group expressed “solidarity” with Muslims and “deep concern” over religious freedom for all groups; more than 2,000 religious leaders signed a letter “opposing” the executive order.

These groups and others like them have two things in common: They have explicitly Christian, denominationally tied missions, and they have recognition by the State Department as voluntary organizations that support refugee resettlement. This is not merely a reaction of the Christian left: Groups like the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services have board members from traditionally more liberal denominations, like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as well as more conservative ones, like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is as avowedly pro-life as it is pro-refugee. Refugee resettlement and welcoming has been a core part of organized Christianity’s moral mission for as long as we’ve been receiving refugees.

Throughout the American Christian (and especially conservative) world, the refugee ban has created a unique fissure, apart from other concerns that many individuals have over the visa ban or other components of the now-infamous executive order. I’ve spoken with fellow believers of many denominations in positions high and low and find that even many people who voted for President Trump and who continue to support him find their conscience troubled by this specific question of refugee admission. Coming, as it did, as we wait to see if we will get another pro-life Supreme Court Justice confirmed, the refugee ban leaves many social conservatives in a painful situation: What do we make of this would-be-King Cyrus? What if he delivers us victory for one key moral priority (abortion), while handing us unprecedented defeat on the other (refugees)? What if we escape Babylon, many of us are wondering, only to find ourselves still exiles?

* * *

These questions are raw and painful for evangelicals because care for the weak and the oppressed is essential to our history and our self-image. From William Wilberforce to the campaigns concerning temperance, abortion and refugee resettlement, the common thread in most evangelicalism has been caring for people that the rest of society ignored or in some cases didn’t see as “people” at all. This compassion, on display within the housing reform movements of the late 1800s or by many religious leaders who marched for civil rights, has always extended to refugees in the past. It is no coincidence that better than half of the State Department-recognized refugee resettlement partner organizations are religious organizations: This is part of who Christians are or at least were. Today’s refugee divide then marks a painful break from a tradition of compassion that is a source of great pride for many evangelicals.

Virtually any reasonable reading of Scripture, and especially a literalist reading, requires belief in a powerful duty of compassion and also a unique care for the “least among us” and for “all nations” and for the “sojourner” or the “alien.” The view that we have no special duty of compassion to refugees cannot survive a literal reading of Scripture, and so it is no surprise that almost every Christian denomination provides large-scale, organized relief services to refugees and immigrants (yes, even the Southern Baptists!). This has never even been a subject of debate in most evangelical circles: Debate general immigration if you like, but surely, surely we can agree that our core duties of compassion, welcome, sacrifice and love apply in spades to a reasonable number of well-vetted refugees.

And yet opinion polling on refugee issues has found that about two-thirds of evangelicals think that the United States does not have a duty to accept Syrian refugees. Prominent Christian leaders like Franklin Graham have spoken out in defense of restricting refugee acceptance. It seems like, all of a sudden, a time-honored tradition has been upended.

We should also note, however, that 55 percent of all Americans opposed accepting Hungarians in 1958, 62 percent opposed accepting Hmong people in 1979 and 71 percent disapproved of accepting Cubans in 1980. That is to say, public opinion polling has rarely found major support for refugee resettlement, and white evangelicals, the most refugee-skeptical group in America right now if polling is to be believed, remain more approving of refugee acceptance than the nation as the whole was of Cubans in 1980. A bit of perspective here can go a long way.

But if evangelicals have such great institutional support for refugee resettlement, if they have such historic goodwill toward suffering people, then why oppose refugees?

The reason is simple. And perhaps it will be disappointing to left critics of American religion, this isn’t “racism” or “xenophobia” or “Islamophobia.” Why are conservative, evangelical Christians suddenly now reacting to refugees this way? It’s all about information.

* * *

Conservative, evangelical Christians, of the kind who went fairly overwhelmingly for Trump, often have highly globalized worldviews. Our dinner table conversations include reading aloud letters from missionaries we support. As my grandma was dying this last year, I read her weekly letters to the family: The postmarks were from Zaire, Colombia, Sri Lanka, innumerable other countries. My people, evangelicals, are not ignorant of the world at large and indeed often have an intimate and personal familiarity with suffering, people who are impoverished or isolated pieces of this. We care for these places, and not just the Christians in them, but people of all faiths.

Our churches may have semi-regular “missionary Sundays” as popular events, where missionaries on furlough from their field return home to discuss their work and raise money. Our firsthand experience of foreign countries is usually through the lens of faith-based relief work, short-term missionary work or other similar experiences, where the overarching goal may be to spread the Gospel, but most of the work done involves building houses or distributing food, regardless of the faith of the people involved. Our seminaries increasingly have as many Asian and African surnames as English- or German-origin names as we educate the leaders of the global church. Some of our denominations have even come to rely on their former missionary dioceses in Africa to become the new institutional leadership or the demographic staying power of conservative theological orthodoxy.

At the same time, however, we’ve all seen the decapitation videos. We’ve read the painful letters from pastors in Syria and Iraq. We’ve seen the bombed-out houses and wrecked buildings that everybody has seen. But we’ve also seen scrupulous documentation of the defiled churches and the ISIS “Nasara” graffiti, which we’ve turned into a profile picture. We follow the conflicts in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Nigeria with unusual care for Americans. In my own church, we pray regularly for Christians experiencing persecution in Africa and the Middle East. Sometimes, we pray for our persecuted brethren abroad by name, knowing that that an individual person is missing or imprisoned or being tortured. But more commonly, we simply pray for a country. The list of victims is too long for Sunday morning prayers.

In other words, the conservative, evangelical view of the outside world often contains a large amount of information, but this information is selective. The evangelical Christian worldview, combined with modern information access, creates a new height of fearfulness regarding the threat of radical Islam. The human brain is not well equipped to see a decapitation on the computer screen and then remember, say, “That is thousands of miles away, involving a very small number of people, who do not reflect anything close to a majority.” There’s no natural part of the mind that can see graffiti marking Christian houses and immediately suppress a sense of fear and dread. Nobody’s brain is wired that way, least of all those in a community with close personal ties to lived experiences of violent persecution in dozens of countries. If you watch videos and read articles day in and day out about people of your religion or ethnicity being murdered or humiliated, I’m pretty sure you’ll get prickly, too.

This is not an excuse, merely an explanation. Just as millions and millions of Muslims oppose violent jihad, millions and millions of evangelicals may feel dread when they see a defaced church on YouTube but nonetheless respond with empathy for all the people suffering because of war, violence and persecution. Unfortunately, human capacity for empathy has not grown as quickly as the internet’s ability to give us images of our brothers and sisters being slaughtered. The answer is not censorship, of course. The answer is that evangelical Christians must learn to leap toward empathy faster and they, like all Americans, must work to unlearn the fearfulness that has dominated so many of us for so long now.

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But that’s not the end of the story. The same polling that shows that two-thirds of evangelicals oppose Syrian refugee admissions also shows that two-thirds of evangelicals think Syrian refugees pose a “major threat” to the United States. And right there, we can see the opportunity. The issue here is not about Syrians or Islam the religion or Trump, but about perceptions of threat.

Evangelicals are inundated with visions of Syrian violence, so their fear is not “irrational” or even properly “ignorant.” It is founded in real, valid information that is being considered rationally. This information is terribly incomplete, however. Having written on this issue fairly extensively, I find that merely the civil provision of accurate facts does change a meaningful minority of evangelical, conservative, Trump-friendly minds on this issue — enough to move the needle, at least.

Understanding that refugees generally have very low rates of terrorism often helps calm fears of Syrian refugees, though it should also be acknowledged that some refugee groups, like Somalian refugees, have more elevated risks of terrorism than others, like Iranians or Syrians. Acknowledging this helps communicate that we are aware of the fears that skeptics about refugees may have, while also helping people see that, at least as far as Syrian refugees go, those fears are misplaced. (And when it comes to Somalian refugees, 99.99 percent become peaceful, productive members of American society.) Clarifying the fact that 60 percent of refugees from Iran are Christian and 33 percent of those from Iraq are Christian also tends to surprise and influence evangelicals. Reminding them that many Muslim refugees are from minority Muslim sects, like the Ahmaddiya or Sufis, who are also persecuted by extremists, is also helpful.

Explaining that Sunni Muslims in Syria also face persecution from the Alawi government, or even that moderate Sunnis face religious persecution by ISIS, can help evangelicals understand why we give Sunni Muslims in Syria refugee status. It also doesn’t hurt to mention that a significant number of Muslim refugees we accept are from Myanmar, where they are fleeing persecution by a Buddhist-aligned government. Nobody thinks people fleeing Buddhist violence poses a serious security threat to the United States, right?Bueller?

Plus, it’s worth noting that although the “religious minority” exemption can let Christians be admitted during the 120-day pause, a plain reading of the order suggests this religious exemption does not apply to the longer-term Syrian refugee ban. When I tell my fellow evangelicals this, they are often shocked and feel lied to. We were told the goal was to help these persecuted groups. Now you tell me the order, as written, doesn’t create any clear exceptions to the permanent Syrian refugee ban? And wait, now I learn we’ve already turned away Christian refugees! That is not what we were promised; that is not what we have prayed for.

So if actually the exemption that exists won’t be used, and if the group we’re praying for in Syria will be abandoned, and if many of the countries whose residents are barred from entry include huge numbers of Christian refugees, and if Christian refugees have already been booted out of the country (something president Barack Obama never did), and if many of Muslims face persecution as well, then maybe, just maybe, it’s worth rethinking this executive order.

I am, against all odds and evidence, an optimist: I think that, equipped with more complete information, my people, conservative evangelicals, will come around on this issue. Anyone who has compassion for refugees needs conservative evangelicals to come around. The reality is that within President Trump’s electoral coalition, no other group has a strong motive to fight this issue. The immigration restrictionists see refugees as just another group of immigrants to reduce. The business-establishment Republicans see refugees as too few and too expensive to make them a class of workers worth fighting over. The collection of nativists, xenophobes, neo-Confederates, white supremacists, “race realists” and others who worry themselves sick about “white genocide” need only see the skin color of refugees, any refugees really, to know enough to want to restrict them.

The only organized political faction of the Republican Party with the heft and the motive to fight for refugees is that of the evangelical Christians. And while external pressure from beyond the governing coalition is of some value, it can never be as effective as internal coalitional pressure.

So if you want that pressure to exist, try not to shout about the stupid, irrational fears of evil evangelicals who hate immigrants and don’t care about refugees. We do care. The fears aren’t stupid. We don’t hate immigrants, and we have been caring about and for refugees since before this became a political issue. Sadly, many of us have been misinformed about the risks posed by refugees, the characteristics of refugees (facts about Iranians seem to be particularly relevant here) and the policies governing crisis migration. (Many evangelicals mistakenly believe that the U.S. faces the imminent threat of a crisis migrant wave similar to Europe’s current experience.)

There aren’t many debates where better information can actually change minds. This is one of them. And if evangelicals' minds can’t be changed, then the administration’s policy will continue unchanged, and tens of thousands will suffer as a result.

By Lyman Stone

Lyman Stone is a regional population economics researcher who blogs at In a State of Migration. He is also an agricultural economist at USDA. He’s on Twitter @lymanstoneky

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