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Christians in the pew and pulpit diverge over Trump policies on refugees

People demonstrate in solidarity with refugees in a march organized by Moody Bible Institute faculty and students that ended at the Chicago Water Tower on Feb. 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Craig Hendrickson

(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.

RELATED: Evangelicals can no longer speak as one voice (COMMENTARY)

“Approval of executive order policy varies by race, age, education and religion.” Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

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.”

Pew-pulpit divide

Going into the election, polls by Christian outlets such as World Magazine and LifeWay Research suggested few pastors and even fewer prominent Christian leaders supported Trump.

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.

Margaret Diddams, from left, Vince Bacote, David Iglesias and Ed Stetzer took part in panel titled “Fractured: Rebuilding the Church’s Witness in a New Political Climate” on Jan. 24, 2017, at Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism in Wheaton, Ill. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

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.”

People march in support of refugees in an event organized by Moody Bible Institute faculty and students in downtown Chicago on Feb. 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Craig Hendrickson

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.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.


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  • According to the article, Lindsay Nicholas of New Iberia, La. supports Trump’s travel/Muslim ban but says that refusing entry to people who already have green cards (which happened because the order explicitly called for it, not as a fluke) is “extremely unfair and uncalled for.”

    You can’t have it both ways, dearest Lindsay. You can’t throw your support behind something and then put a footnote on your support. History will remember you, and the memory will not be flattering. In the future, when advanced nations remember how the US turned into a North Korea-style hermit kingdom, your name will become a byword for enabling fascism: “Don’t be a Lindsay Nicholas!”

  • It all comes down to Christians either:
    1 Wanting to be decent people and genuinely help people, finding inspiration in their religious belief to do it or;

    2. Wanting to only look like decent people and seeking excuses in religious belief to be malicious and nasty to others.

    You find little to none of the first category among conservative / fundamentalist Christians. The second category are more common then dirt.

  • God placed His people in a walled city with gates. They controlled who came in and who went out. This was designed to protect them. Trump is doing nothing more than trying to protect his country.

  • Walled cities have likely existed ever since humans began to live in cities rather then agrarian settlements. Generally these walls have either been destroyed, become over a time taken over by the natural landscape or become a tourist attraction.

    But specific to Jerusalem – If the walls had not come down and the Jewish people had not gone into exile, they would have continued to believe – at least for a much longer period of time – that God lived in Jerusalem. It was the Babylonian exile that ultimately prompted the building of other temples to worship the Lord in and the conversion of others to Judaism. So, I think you have the bigger picture wrong. The walls were actually a hindrance to understanding.

  • In such a long article I usually look for one salient point that jumps out at me, in this case it was the comment that, “…pastors and ministry leaders spend much of their adult lives in a kind of theological reflection most Christians don’t.” If true, that speaks to the very heart of the problem with Christians today, theological reflection is a necessary, and should be a daily, practice for all Christians. Nor should it be a function of something one is “paid” for.

  • I think there might be a blueprint for rebuilding the city and wall you are talking about, Revelation 21:15-27. You should give more details about the kind of place God desires all people to live. Verse 25 talks about gates that are never shut. 26 says the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 says nothing impure will enter it, nor anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful.
    Fear of all unknown people doing what is shameful or deceitful will cause a person to build a wall they can place their trust in. A fear of being shameful or deceitful should cause a person to consider what kind of city they actually trust living in.

  • Two things that jumped out for me was the culture of fear – why isn’t it being spoken to? and the apparent rise of populism in driving the Christian narrative – at least in some churches.

    You put the onus of the everyday Christian to engage in theological reflection (agreed) but I also think that there is a strong case that the leaders fail to communicate theological understanding to people under their stewardship. So a key question is why. There is a now considerably dated book that was highly critical of Canadian churches that appears to be experiencing a bit of a renaissance and is likely still relevant to the topic – The Comfortable Pew – Pierre Berton.

  • I believe you are spot on. When my SBC preacher brother sent me Franklin Graham’s speaking schedule my response was to never send me anything about FG and that FG’s behavior is not Christian. That came from a guy who called my church (Episcopal) and others who follow the common lectionary “social clubs” and held an altar call at Dad’s funeral. To say I’m disgusted with his heretical twisted belief system that draws more from Fox News than the Bible is an understatement. At this point he has broken contact/communication which is just fine with me as he falsely believes his religion is perfect while ignoring the multiple sins of the SBC including its support of slavery and supporting the Vietnam War just to name a few of many.

  • Ahh GJ…you gave prophesy…..thank you. I was discussing Jerusalem, but the walls and the gates still kept those others out. Blessings.

  • The walls and gates were in Jerusalem for their protection. Babylon was able to penetrate the walls because God had turned Israel over to the Babylonians because of Israel’s naughtiness. After 70 years, Israel returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the altar and the walls, with God willing it.

  • Surprising what you can learn, understand and discern with a bit of context and history. I would suggest a course on the Old Testament taught by a Jewish scholar.

  • “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.”
    I fully concur with the above statement. Too many professing Christians today are in favor of taking care of the poor, widowed and orphaned as long as the government spends our tax dollars to do it!
    By extension, it’s not our Christian responsibility to protect and defend the country against criminals and terrorists intent on doing us harm. We elect leaders, pay taxes and provide police protection for everyone–Christian and non-Christian alike.
    If Christian ministers are promoting any other position they’ve “quit preachin’ and started meddlin'”–in politics instead of spiritual growth!

  • I would suggest you read a Bible.
    On this subject you can begin reading in Jeremiah 29: 1Now these are the words of the letter which Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the rest of the elders of the exile, the priests, the prophets and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2(This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the court officials, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem.) 3The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, saying, 4“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, 5‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. 6‘Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. 7‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’ 8“For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. 9‘For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them,’ declares the LORD.

    10“For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. 11‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. 12‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. 14‘I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’

    As for their return, you may be interested in Ezra 1:1In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:

    2“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.”

    blessings Linda

  • If individual Christians already cared for the poor, widowed and orphaned, there would be no need for government intervention. And to some extent this is done. For instance, it is estimated that at least 1 in 6 hospital beds are Catholic hospitals in the US and often represent the only regional hospital for accessing healthcare. (But apparently they provide less than half the amount of charity care than public hospitals do.)

    If the early church leaders thought like you in terms of who was acceptable or not, not going out among the riff raff, the pagans and the non Jews, there would be no Christian church.

  • Not too long ago Christians–through their various institutions and individual efforts–DID care for the poor, widowed and orphaned in the US. In fact they became the model for governments to emulate. Little was provided at the federal and state levels; the county provided inferior hospitals and poorhouses for the downtrodden.
    What happened? The liberal elements in mainline churches decided they didn’t want to ante up their own money and their church’s money to care for the downtrodden, so they offloaded that responsibility to government. Our embedded Christian ethic–even among secularists–demand that powerful governments take on caring for the needy. Governments saw an opportunity to increase their control over people, so now even Christian nonprofits are dependent on government grants for their survival.
    The early church leaders seemed to take seriously Christ’s admonition to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s!”

  • Catholic hospitals are as expensive or more expensive than for profit hospitals. I had an experience where a seminarian attempted suicide and Saint Joseph Hospital in Houston, Texas would not treat him unless they had proof of insurance. They advised us to take him to the county hospital.

  • To satisfy the amount of charity a charity hospital is suppose to give the Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas counts the medical care given to their ministers and their ministers families as charity. But others are paying for the hospital to look like a five star hotel.

  • Thank you so much for your reply. As a Christian I do not understand why other Christians do not see that God was all for WALLS. He spoke often the importance of strong walls and sentinels,

  • Yes, it does say the gates will never be closed because God will protect them. I think the Jewish people of Jerusalem were a CHOSEN people. The problem is so many are trying to take literally what the Bible says for people thousands of years ago and apply it to 2017 and entirely different situation. We are not fighting nations we are fighting TERRORIST!

  • According to Nehemiah, God put it into his heart to do something for the Jews who were not in captivity. in v. 17 – he had prayed upon hearing what life was like for the Jewish people left behind. And then King Axtarases gave his blessing to go rebuild the walls after inquiring why Nehemiah was so downcast.

  • I have not read anything that says that walls were for their protection. Nehemiah 1:3 and 2:17 describes the why differently.

    What happened for the Jewish people in exile is also discussed in the Talmud. Most of the Babylonian Jews in fact stayed in Babylon and flourished there up as a very large community until the 5th century. Bavil (Iraqi) Jews who emigrated to Israel could trace their ancestry back to Babylon.

  • Think that is simplistic. There is a great deal of difference over relatively recent history in terms of the needs/knowledge/expertise and with that comes cost. For example, there has been a ten fold increase in the per day cost of hospital care over the past 40 years. Heaven knows what it has been over the last hundred years. I worked in a Catholic hospital which had nuns on staff – one was the very well qualified hospital administration but almost all the other nuns served in the long term care/nursing home wing because they were not qualified to provide nursing care in an acute care setting.

    And it not true that mainline churches do not ante up their own money. Caring for others is the second largest line item in our church budget which is publicly available in print and on-line – could we do better? yes but only if there were no paid staff. Church building use is freely given to community groups needing space including a non-profit day care, AA and a community children’s choir for example. Church members also volunteer their time to serve others, not just within the church but in support of broader community initiatives. But the one thing that is clear is that what one church can do would be simply stop-gap and in fact, what we try to do is work – sometimes on our own, sometimes with others, on addressing what falls off the table.

  • An attendant corollary to the problem of leadership failure to communicate theological understanding to their flocks is the maddening buffet of choices as to what “theological understanding” means, and the accompanying fury of those who disagree as to the terms of that phrase.

  • In the message above I likely under-represented the extent to which mainline churches spend on caring for members in need. To me much of this money could be saved if churches had a strong, positive message about the mind-body-spirit connection that emphasizes mental and emotional health and physical wellness. This kind of preventative medicine should be easy for churches, since the spiritual matters they address relate–one way or other, to Wholeness in body and spirit. Currently so much of our money gets spent on the sickness model, rather than a holistic focus on wellness.

  • Just a small point of clarification – caring for others means those who are not members of the local church community. There is another budget line for that. The social justice and outreach budget is split between community needs, national needs and international needs. Only money going internationally requires it being sent to a registered charity.

  • Do you need common sense written out for you? Of course not!. The walls were not only aesthetics. Think a little bit Linda instead of wasting your time trying to be contrary.

  • I know exactly why walls were built in the ancient Mesopotamian region at that time – not just Jersusalem. And certainly under Cyrus, there was little need for protection. Isaiah 44:28 and intermittently including Isaiah 45.. Also writings of Herodotus. Simply to assert that what Trump is doing is just like God placing Jerusalem in a walled city is playing with scripture to suit your opinion. Only contrary in an effort to try to get you to think a little more critically,

  • Part of that fight should be a fight against the fear terrorist want us to live under. A fear they hope will influence us to become the nation they proclaim us to be.

  • We all wrap our theology around our dysfunction. It was a focus of my dissertation for Clinical Psychology. The struggle in my mind is the practical eye-opening application of humility coupled with empathy. The only way that we break outside our own limited perspective is by seeing through someone else’s eyes and be willing to entertain the idea that we may be blind in some areas. The church tends to teach an absolutism that cripples the part of our brain/mind that is able to see past ourselves and into ourselves. There is a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) and persistent reinforcement of the idea that I know what’s best which limits our openness and creativity. In the therapy world there is a description for our function: “Making the familiar strange and the strange familiar.”

    There are some great insights and challenges in this article.