As the debate about how to handle applicants for refugee status at the U.S. southern border gained urgency in recent months, Pew Research Religion waded into the social-media fray on July 7 with a tweet about the results of a poll the organization conducted last year. Pew reported, and online commentators quickly noted, that white evangelical Protestants were the least likely group — amid results sorted by age, race, education and religion — to say that the United States “has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country.”
Sixty-eight percent of white evangelical Protestants said the country has no responsibility for refugees. No other demographic group came within 10 points of that result.
Difficult to believe, from a 2019 vantage, but some evangelical leaders had been taken aback when the Pew results were originally released in May 2018, and urged their flocks toward change. But back then, the main question about refugees concerned those fleeing the brutal civil war in Syria. “When faced with a potential conflict between prominent evangelicals’ biblical pro-refugee arguments and [President] Trump’s opposition,” Brian Newman of Pepperdine University noted in The Post, “the vast majority of white evangelicals choose Trump.”
A year later, with the focal point on refugees from Central America, in much greater numbers and more likely to be vilified by the president, evangelical leaders are largely as one with their congregations.
Consider the response in June when Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, ventured this observation on Twitter: “The reports of the conditions for migrant children at the border should shock all of our consciences. Those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and compassion, especially those seeking refuge from violence back home. We can do better than this.”
Moore’s comments didn’t sit well with Jerry Falwell Jr., inheritor of his father’s Christian empire, president of Liberty University and a prominent evangelical figure.
“Who are you @drmoore?” Falwell tweeted. “Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you the authority to speak on any issue? I’m being serious. You’re nothing but an employee — a bureaucrat.”
Some were dismayed by Falwell’s response, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone paying attention the past few years who was surprised by it.
Falwell is one of several leaders in the modern evangelical movement who have helped solidify Christian principles as synonymous with the Republican agenda, and specifically with the president’s agenda.
Trump, of course, welcomes this way of thinking. Speaking to an assembly of Christian leaders as a presidential candidate in June 2016, Trump said, “You can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that. Pray for everyone. But what you really have to do is you have to pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person. We can’t be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders, because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes, selling evangelicals down the tubes.”
Yet the idea that without Republicans, Christianity is lost, is not unique to the Trump era. The merging of evangelicalism and Republicanism has been underway for decades. It is simply more visible and pronounced under this president — primarily because evangelical support for Trump requires a much higher degree of cognitive dissonance. That is, fighting for conservative Christian values by unquestioningly supporting someone who not only doesn’t share them but has lived most of his life actively, and unapologetically, in opposition to them.
And evangelicals got what they wanted: a president who appoints conservative judges up and down the federal judiciary, including two Supreme Court justices so far. Stomaching Trump’s behavior and rhetoric — which could generously be described as not characteristic of a Christian — has been rewarded with much-improved prospects for stricter abortion laws and achieving other long-sought goals in what conservative Christians regard as a desperate and escalating culture war.
The evangelical embrace of Trump has been an electoral positive for the Republican Party, but for those who would evangelize, the new reality is tragic. It is hard to pitch faith as a function of voting.
Christians are instructed in the Bible to attract people to Christ, to convince them, to witness to them. We’re meant to speak the truth in a way that invites strangers in, welcomes them, makes them feel loved.
To care for the least of these is a Christian value. Expressing and demonstrating it is spreading the Word.
That’s called evangelizing. A movement that based itself on the term but now embraces its antithesis is becoming difficult to recognize.