White evangelical Protestants may be among President Trump’s strongest supporters, but some evangelical leaders have spent the past decade quietly steering the movement away from hardline views on immigration, culminating in their public opposition to Trump’s policy of family separation at the border earlier this month.
One leader credits evangelical opposition with playing a role in Trump’s decision this week to reverse the policy.
“The recent family-separation issue has, I think, been something of a turning point, engaging — and upsetting — a number of the most politically oriented evangelical leaders,” said Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director of church mobilization at World Relief, a U.S.-based evangelical international aid organization. “I think it is fair to presume that this evangelical pushback to the policy was a significant factor in the president’s decision to step back from the most egregious situations of family separation with his executive order.”
Soerens is also the national coordinator for the Evangelical Immigration Table, which issued a letter opposing the administration’s policy changes on immigration in a letter earlier this month. Several evangelical leaders who have backed Trump in the past also broke with him on the specific issue of family separation, including Ralph Reed and Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham.
The crisis over family separation stems from a policy shift by the Trump administration. In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy toward illegal border crossings. In effect, that meant that the government was exercising its right to criminally prosecute illegal entries as misdemeanors.
The previous Obama and Bush administrations also prosecuted illegal entries, but they made an exception for parents traveling with children, simply initiating removal proceedings, with no added criminal prosecution, according to Ashley Feasley, an attorney with the Office of Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
The prosecution of those parents is now leading to their separation from their children due to a series of rules stemming from a 1997 federal court ruling in Flores v. Reno. Those rules held that minors could not be held in family detention centers for more than 20 days.
Among those caught in the immigration crackdown are asylum-seekers crossing in between official ports of entry. Under the Obama administration, they would be temporarily detained and then released, with the expectation that they would return to court for a hearing on their application for asylum — a practice sometimes referred to as “catch-and-release.”
The new administration has both narrowed the scope of circumstances that make someone eligible for asylum and has continued to hold asylum-seekers in custody, according to USCCB officials.
In a statement earlier in June, the USCCB condemned the Trump administration’s way of enforcing the new zero-tolerance policy. The conference says there are alternatives to detention that allow families to stay together without breaking the Flores rule. Those include everything from ankle bracelets and parole to a program known as “Family Case Management,” which created a system for monitoring undocumented immigrants while court proceedings were pending. But the Trump administration ended the program last year.
In its letter, the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable, a consortium of eight groups, including World Relief and the National Association of Evangelicals, also condemned the administration’s approach to enforcement.
“As evangelical Christians guided by the Bible, one of our core convictions is that God has established the family as the fundamental building block of society. The state should separate families only in the rarest of instances. While illegal entry to the United States can be a misdemeanor criminal violation, past administrations have exercised discretion in determining when to charge individuals with this offense, taking into account the well-being of children who may also be involved,” the letter states. “A ‘zero-tolerance’ policy removes that discretion — with the effect of removing even small children from their parents.”
Evangelicals Backed Trump
Publicly, evangelical Protestants are perceived as among the most ardent Trump supporters.
In the 2016 election, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump — a level of support that exceeded support for past Republicans like Mitt Romney and George W. Bush.
But Galen Carey, the vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), says the media has exaggerated evangelicals’ unqualified support for Trump. “Evangelicals are over the map on many issues, and evangelicals come in all different races and ethnicities,” Carey said.
Seventy-six percent of evangelical Protestants are white, with 6% black and 11% Latino, according to the Pew Research Center. But Latinos are increasingly joining evangelical churches: Between 2010 and 2013, the number of people who identified as “evangelical” rose from 12% to 16%, according to Pew.
One year later, nearly a fifth of Hispanics were self-described evangelicals, according to the most recently available survey of this type.
“In terms of what has prompted this shift among evangelicals, a significant factor has simply been that American evangelicalism is much more ethnically diverse today than it was 20 years ago, and as more non-immigrant evangelicals are worshipping alongside immigrants, those relationships rebut some of the negative stereotypes and fears,” Soerens said.
The shift began to take place formally almost a decade ago, when the NAE issued a resolution calling for immigration reform. One year later, the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable was formed.
During the Obama years, the NAE supported the administration’s efforts to keep children of undocumented immigrants in the United States, while taking no position on the legality of his executive order. The organization also has advocated for refugees and criticized then-candidate Trump’s proposed Muslim ban during the 2016 election on the grounds of religious freedom, according to Carey.
Despite these developments, not everyone is convinced that evangelicals are moving collectively in the same direction on the issue.
“A number of evangelical leaders have advanced positions in the past seven to eight years that are more progressive than those of the rank and file. The gap between leaders and the laity is probably greater among evangelicals than among Catholics. Historically, the Catholic Church has been more accepting of a universalist conception of global order, whereas Protestants have been more accepting of the existing fragmented global order of nation-states,” said Mark Amstutz, a political scientist at Wheaton College, a top evangelical school.
Pew polling suggests that evangelical support for immigration restriction mirrors its support for Trump.
One recent survey found that 68% of evangelicals said the United States does not have the responsibility to accept refugees. Last year, 76% of evangelicals were behind Trump’s controversial ban on travel from certain Muslim countries.
Amstutz says rank-and-file evangelicals remain conservative on immigration.
“It’s fair to say that evangelicals tend to be more conservative,” he said. “And they tend to think the rule of law is important.”
But Soerens counters that other polling paints a different picture. An estimated seven in 10 evangelicals would accept a path to citizenship if it were combined with securing the border, according to a 2015 poll by LifeWay Research conducted for World Relief. “White evangelicals tend to be slightly less supportive than nonwhite evangelicals, but it’s still majority support among white evangelicals at this point,” Soerens said.
In terms of faith, Carey said the NAE’s position on immigration is rooted in Scripture. In particular, he pointed to the Genesis account, in which Adam and Eve are created and become a family before the institution of government.
“We understand that family precedes government even,” Carey said. “The government’s responsibility is to protect families, not to attack or replace them in any way.”
He also noted that the Old Testament commands us to love God and neighbor as well as a third category of persons — the stranger.
While there may be some agreement on the biblical principles at stake, Amstutz claims that evangelical leaders and theologians have yet to fully articulate how those principles apply to the prudential questions surrounding how to enforce the law.
“Catholics, [mainline] Protestants and evangelicals all believe that persons are created in God’s image and are entitled to respect and dignity. Even though they share this basic moral belief, they tend to hold different views of world order, global justice and the moral legitimacy of the nation-state. This explains some of the different policies they may support,” Amstutz said.
Overall, a disparity does exist between the collective leanings of Catholics and evangelical Protestants on immigration issues such as Trump’s advocacy of a border wall. According to Pew data, 65% of white evangelicals support building the wall, compared to 55% of white Catholics and only 17% of Hispanic Catholics.
But the fact that a majority of white Catholics support Trump’s efforts to build a wall — an idea that has been criticized by Pope Francis as well as by the U.S. bishops — indicates that, as with evangelicals, a gulf exists between the immigration policies favored by Catholic leaders and those endorsed by many Catholic Americans.
Common Cause With Catholics
Despite their divisions, some observers see a newfound opportunity for evangelicals and Catholics to start working together on immigration reform — much as they have on other issues like abortion and same-sex “marriage.”
In fact, organizations like World Relief and the Office of Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are already working together, according to William Canny, who leads the USCCB office.
“I think both the evangelicals and the Catholics came out with a very strong statement on the same day,” Canny said. “My sense is that generated kind of a real push forward.”
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.