White evangelical Christians fail to condemn family separations at US border

In a poll, 75 per cent of white evangelical Christians rated "the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants" as positive, compared with 46 per cent of adults overall

Michelle Boorstein,Julie Zauzmer
Wednesday 20 June 2018 12:51 BST
The separations of families at the US border stem from a zero-tolerance crackdown on illegal border crossings
The separations of families at the US border stem from a zero-tolerance crackdown on illegal border crossings (REUTERS/Adrees Latif )

At pulpits across the country this weekend, pastors, priests, rabbis and imams gave impassioned sermons, fiercely denouncing the morality of the US government separating children from their parents at the US-Mexico border.

But one major faith community’s response is more muted, and more conflicted: White evangelical Christians.

Pastor Brent Gentzel, for instance, finds the images of families separated at the US-Mexico border “wretched.”

For the past decade, his church in a Dallas exurb has poured resources into caring for the rapidly growing slice of the congregation who are undocumented, a mission important enough to First Baptist Church Kaufman that each spring Mr Gentzel and a group of local pastors travel with young congregants to Germany to volunteer with young Syrian refugees.

Yet there will be no full-throated condemnation of the Trump administration’s immigration policy from Mr Gentzel, who voted for the president, as did the vast majority of his congregants.

For conservative Christians such as Mr Gentzel, the brutal headlines of children torn from hysterical parents are weighed against other concerns, chief among them what social conservatives call religious liberty regarding issues of marriage and abortion.

“There are years’ worth of pent-up frustration that this issue doesn’t get dealt with. The hope that someone might finally establish that we’ll be a nation of laws again is super appealing, even if the mouthpiece is nobody’s favourite,” Mr Gentzel said about the Trump administration.

“When someone raises a hand to say: ‘We need to fix the legal side,’ there’s a side that screams: ‘You’re racist.’ And you’re sitting up there in Connecticut, and, no offence, but you don’t have a clue.”

His use of the word “Connecticut” signals perhaps the biggest driving force in conservative Christians’ attitude towards immigration: Culture war. A desire not to be on the same side as secular, socially liberal forces which to many are by far the biggest threat to America.

White evangelicals – who have been among Donald Trump's strongest supporters and who perhaps more than any other faith group have Mr Trump’s ear – share the denunciations of families’ being separated, but they see the issue as more nuanced, and they still view strong support of Mr Trump as important to their other aims.

In a January Washington Post-ABC poll, 75 per cent of white evangelical Christians rated “the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants” as positive, compared with 46 per cent of US adults overall, and 25 per cent of non-white Christians.

The separations largely stem from a zero-tolerance policy of detaining adults who cross the border announced by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, last month.

Yet President Trump blamed the other party for his administration’s policy, saying on Monday: “I say very strongly, it’s the Democrats’ fault.”

More liberal faith groups have loudly criticised the Trump administration on this issue.

A long list of denominations – several historically black churches, Quakers, Muslim groups, mainline Protestant groups such as the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), almost every major Jewish group – have issued strong statements condemning the family separations.

Many religious leaders took up the call in their sermons this week, some especially objecting to Mr Sessions’s use of the Bible to defend the policy.

Idaho Pastor Constance Day, for instance, told her mainline Lutheran congregation in Idaho Falls this Sunday: “I don’t really want to get political in church, but when politicians use our holy book to justify evil acts ... it’s appropriate for us to speak up and say that they are wrong ... It’s not hard to find the many admonitions in the Bible about treating foreigners fairly, and loving neighbours as oneself. It’s not hard to find the heart of the Bible, and the heart of God.”

Some of the top leaders of the US Catholic Church, which is split between Hispanic and white congregants and liberal and conservative voters, took a strong position.

Catholic bishops called separating families “immoral” and floated the idea of holding prayer vigils in front of federal courthouses – a tactic which has worked in opposing abortion clinics.

When it comes to evangelical organisations, many are making similar statements.

The National Association of Evangelicals, World Relief and other organisations wrote a letter to the president.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, passed a resolution favouring a legal solution that considers a path to citizenship and calling for families to be kept together, as well as endorsing the importance of border security.

Yet conservative Christians in the pews appear to be largely supportive of the administration’s outlook and tactics on immigration.

The nondenominational, unaffiliated part of American Christianity is growing larger, and the statements of institutional leaders no longer reflect the whole of the church.

Some, like Mr Gentzel, badly want a solution to what he calls decades of “this lawlessness that does have consequences,” particularly in such a place as Kaufman.

He said because they feared deportation, a family in his community refused to go to the police after their 12-year-old was raped by her uncle.

Some congregants have children who are back home in Mexico, growing up without their parents, he said.

Other religious conservatives see the sudden prominence of immigration in the news – when problems have existed for decades – as a Democratic scheme to slam President Trump, and are focused on shoring up support for a president they consider their ally in protecting what they see as the Christian character of America.

David Lane, a political organiser who has a weekly newsletter to 100,000 conservative Christian pastors in his American Renewal Project, said his network is not talking much about immigration reform at the moment.

They don’t want immigrants hurt, but they want to secure the border. They are far more focused on what they see as a war “for the Christian soul of America,” he said. So even if conservatives in his sphere disagree with the White House policy of separating families, they’re not going to partner with more liberal or progressive voices.

“This is a battle for ideological supremacy,” Mr Lane said.

Russell Moore, leader of the Southern Baptists’ policy arm, has denounced family separations.

But Mr Moore, who was critical of Mr Trump throughout his campaign, is a figure derided by many Baptists, who see him as a traitor to the conservative cause.

The immigration controversy is just the latest round in evangelicals’ internal civil war over moral issues.

Some evangelical pastors lamented many in their pews aren’t focused on the immigration debate.

They talked about their increasing efforts in the past couple of years to organise alongside conservative Latino pastors – including large meetings of hundreds of clergy – where they bonded on marriage and sexuality and abortion but parted on such issues as amnesty for the millions of undocumented Latinos who live in the United States.

Netz Garcia, a Mexican-born evangelical pastor who runs a network of Latino pastors and hosts a daily radio show about family issues, said white evangelicals “lack a sense of mercy.”

Seventy per cent of the people in his LA-area church are undocumented.

Still, he works closely with white evangelical pastors on issues like religious freedom and abortion. He voted for Mr Trump – as did other Latinos in his circles – and will again if he has the chance.

Immigration and the ability to stay in the United States – even if you are forced back to a dangerous situation – is “not everything. You don’t sell your soul to stay in America. If you have to choose between religious freedom and immigration, I’d rather give my time in America for the sake of religious freedom. Our values are greater than our search for comfort.”

While conservative evangelicals say they want to find compromise on immigration, running beneath that openness is a lack of trust in critics of the administration, a sense that keeping together the Trump movement needs to come first.

They point to one of evangelicals’ key goals in voting in Mr Trump, the appointment of a conservative Supreme Court justice – and note that that justice, Neil Gorsuch, recently participated in the high court’s decision in favour of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Gary Miller, a longtime Southern Baptist pastor and author from Fort Worth, said he feels sceptical of what is really going on at immigration centres, which was informing his muted reaction.

“Are these detention centres or something more conducive to children – what’s really going on?” he said.

“There is deep compassion for children, but there is also a deep concern for borders. It’s just a shame that the word of God gets used like a cafeteria line as people from both sides try to lift a little of this and a little of that.”

Franklin Graham, notably, blasted the policy, while other members of Mr Trump’s informal evangelical advisory board have been pretty quiet about the family separations.

Johnnie Moore, the group’s unofficial spokesman, said Mr Sessions’ use of Scripture to “justify” the administration’s recent zero-tolerance policy that’s separated families was wrong.

“While Sessions may take the Bible seriously in this situation, he has demonstrated he is no theologian,” Mr Moore wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “In Seminary, we call this use of the Bible ‘proof texting,’ which is to selectively use a part or portion of scripture to justify a point outside of its immediate or greater theological context.

“What most concerns me about the attorney general in this instance is that he doesn’t seem to be wrestling at all. There seems to be no tension here for him. It is hugely alarming how easily he has been willing to separate these families,” Mr Moore continued. “Certainly there are some circumstances where it is appropriate to separate children from parents (violent crime, possible harm, neglect, etc.) but that isn’t what’s going on here.”

But like many conservative evangelicals, Mr Moore placed the blame on Congress for not yet enacting major new immigration laws, instead of on Mr Trump, the president Mr Moore’s group advises.

Rob McCoy, an evangelical pastor in Thousand Oaks, California, who is also mayor pro tempore, said his church brought food and clothing to unaccompanied minors from Central America who were housed on nearby military bases under Barack Obama when he was president in 2014.

He’s bothered by liberals’ suggestion evangelicals are callous about the reality of family separation.

“We don’t want to break up a nuclear family, because we see the importance of that,” he said.

“But they’re thrusting it on us. When we say: ‘Close the borders and quit enticing folks,’ then we’re called xenophobes. We live here, and you have no idea of what our heart is about, but you label us.”

He doesn’t want to hear from other people of faith about evangelicals’ moral obligations, he said.

He’s “sick of people ... telling us what’s biblical. It’s a joke. It’s interesting how all of a sudden America’s become biblical, but we forget about marriage and abortion.”

The culture war, in other words, rages on.

The Washington Post

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