(RNS) After President Trump signed a sweeping executive order on immigration and refugee resettlement, the Christian response seemed unambiguous.
Statements condemning the action came from Christian leaders and groups considered both conservative and progressive, evangelical and mainline, Catholic and Protestant – Christians who otherwise might disagree on any number of political or theological issues.
More than 500 evangelical pastors and ministry leaders from all 50 states signed a letter critical of the order, which temporarily halted the U.S. refugee resettlement program and barred entry to travelers coming from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Eight hundred mostly mainline and progressive clergy signed a petition that read in part: “We pray that you remember immigrants and refugees have sacred worth in God’s eyes.”
Judges have blocked the administration from enforcing parts of the president’s order, which was signed Jan. 27. But it still caps the number of refugees the U.S. will accept this year, and Trump has suggested his administration may file a new order.
A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center suggested a very different view of the presidential actions, especially among white Protestant Christians.
There was strong support among white evangelical Protestants, with more than three-quarters (76 percent) saying they approve of the policies outlined in Trump’s order. Among white mainline Protestants, 50 percent approved.
Many Christians now are asking the question Helena Leffingwell of Arlington, Texas – not a pastor or ministry leader, just a regular member of Gateway Church, a nondenominational megachurch – put into words: “How can we see things so differently?”
Despite the protests and petitions, Leffingwell believes Trump’s order is justified because, in her view, the Bible does not call on the government to care for the poor and widowed and orphaned, but rather on individual Christians. Most of her friends in the pews at Gateway seem to share that view, she said.
“I don’t think it’s virtuous for someone to take my money for a cause they think is necessary. It’s for the church, the body of Christ … to do that,” she said. “The smaller the role of government, the better off and more free the people are.”
That divide between the people in the pews and those in the pulpit and other positions of leadership isn’t new, according to researchers. In the late 1960s, sociologist Jeffrey K. Hadden had noted a widening gap in beliefs about politics and theology between primarily mainline Protestant pastors and their congregations.
More recently it has been notable throughout Trump’s campaign and in the first month of his presidency – and particularly on what’s become known as Trump’s “travel ban.”
And Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, said it’s “most acute right now in the white Protestant world.”
While Jones, who last year published the book “The End of White Christian America,” couldn’t recall a single mainline leader who spoke out in support of Trump’s candidacy, evangelical leaders were split. Jones pointed to Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, and the Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas as leaders of the charge in support of the Republican candidate, while Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Erick Erickson, the conservative blogger behind The Resurgent, were among those prominently vowing “Never Trump.”
Yet exit polls indicated that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for the Republican.
Something similar had happened in the 2012 election, too, Jones said. Evangelical leaders had organized a summit and come out in favor of former Sen. Rick Santorum for president but threw their support behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney when it was clear their followers had.
“Often what you find is evangelical leaders see the parade leaving and then run to get in front of it, rather than leading people in a particular way,” Jones said.
Meantime, he said, PRRI’s post-election polling showed that while the white mainline vote was more divided than the white evangelical vote, it leaned toward Trump.
This election year, Jones said, evangelicals in particular heard a message that resonated in Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America great again.”
“As white Christians, particularly evangelicals, see their numbers and influence dwindling as the demographics are changing, Trump was someone who was promising to restore their power and their central place in the country, and that was a pretty strong appeal for them,” he said.
The campaign also presented a narrative that the establishment wasn’t representing the people, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College. Many rank-and-file evangelicals saw that in their leaders, he said.
“I do believe many evangelical leaders are out of touch with the evangelical grass roots that, for good or for bad, is far more supportive of Trump than they are,” Stetzer said.
The view from the pews
Thom Kohl has noticed that gap between the leadership in his denomination and other members of his congregation as long as he has been involved as a lay leader at Caledonia United Methodist Church, a church of fewer than 200 people in Caledonia, Mich. – about 15 years.
“I certainly know the leadership is much more liberal than the masses are,” he said.
Case in point, according to Kohl: The West Michigan Annual Conference had been part of a prayer vigil with several other denominations on the same night Trump held a campaign rally in nearby Grand Rapids, Mich. While organizers had said the vigil was not political, he said, “It was very clearly to say, ‘Oh, this evil guy’s in town, and we need to pray that he never gets in office.’”
Maybe that gap between pew and pulpit grows because those who may have more liberal views on politics and theology are leaving the church, leaving behind more conservative congregations, he said. Or maybe liberals are more likely to seek out a leadership position where they can work to change the things they are passionate about.
For him, Trump’s policies on immigrants and refugees are just “common sense,” he said: “There has to be some other means of figuring out how to make sure we’re letting the right people into the country who aren’t coming here for devious purposes.”
Lindsay Nicholas of New Iberia, La., agrees, though she said detaining people at airports and denying entry to anyone who already has a green card or visa or has been admitted as part of the refugee program is “extremely unfair and uncalled for.” Her views are shaped by her faith – she’s a member of Highland Baptist Church – and her upbringing in Utah – her dad always owned firearms, she said.
The Bible says Christians should “go and make disciples,” Nicholas said. She takes the “go” part seriously – maybe it would be best to support growth and development in other countries, rather than bringing citizens of those countries to the U.S., she said.
Still, she said, you won’t find anybody in New Iberia protesting the way she had seen in Seattle, where she had lived for a year while her fiancé finished school. And driving cross-country to Louisiana when she moved, she said, “I feel like this is a lot of the country.”
“I haven’t seen any of that – not at work, not in my church, not in my community, not at all. They just get up and go to work and take care of their families, and that’s it,” Nicholas said.
‘The signature ministry’ of evangelical leaders
Earlier this month, about 100 students and faculty at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago rallied in support of refugees, bowing their heads in prayer and carrying signs that read “Jesus was a refugee” and made references to Scripture, like “Act justly / Love mercy / Walk humbly / Love the refugee.”
Moody “certainly” comes down on the conservative, evangelical side of Christianity, according to Craig Hendrickson, assistant professor of applied theology and church ministries at Moody and one of the organizers of the rally. And he noted his students are wrestling with the same tension between security and compassion others have noted.
But, Hendrickson said, “there seems to be a lot of agreement the executive order is probably wrong, it’s not biblical, etc.”
That may be because pastors and ministry leaders have gone through seminary and learned to see how culture shapes how they read and interpret Scripture – and right now Americans are living in a culture of fear, he said. It may be because pastors and ministry leaders spend much of their adult lives in a kind of theological reflection most Christians don’t. After all, he said, it’s what the leaders are paid to do.
“For leaders who have spent a lot of time reflecting on this issue, almost universally most of us recognize that this is a core central theme throughout Scripture, from the very beginning all the way through, of God’s care and concern for vulnerable people,” he said.
Caring for refugees also has been “the signature ministry” for many evangelical pastors and ministry leaders through the National Association of Evangelicals because of World Relief, founded by the association after World War II, according to Stetzer. They have been engaged in the work for decades, and the “predictions of doom and … great danger” don’t match their experiences.
Kim Kuzmkowski of Leesburg, Va., also has worked with refugees in her job as a social worker. She can’t stop thinking about the images she’s seen: images of children fleeing violence in war-torn countries such as Syria, “images of children who are covered in blood because they were bombed.”
“It’s hard for me to not feel like we need to be Jesus to them and really care for them,” she said.
Kuzmkowski also always has considered herself conservative, always voted Republican – until this election. She’s become disenfranchised with the church over the ways she’s seen religion and politics mix, worried the leaders of her nondenominational church, Cornerstone Chapel, have fallen into the “patriotic Christianity thing.”
“It’s a different thing to experience when your leadership has a different viewpoint, and it kind of makes you wonder, ‘Do I want to be a part of this church community if this is the stance the leadership is taking?'” she said.
“But it’s also made me reflect on I can still be connected to my church community even if I don’t agree.”