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Evangelicals, Demographic and Economic Change and Injustice

On June 27 Roman Catholic Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, led a group of migrants who had been denied entry to the United States across the Good Neighbor International Bridge to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He then reversed his steps and walked with seven would-be asylees back across that span to El Paso, where U.S. Border officials met the group. The Bishop reported that a “tense” exchange followed, but finally, all of those accompanying the cleric were allowed to enter the United States to file their claims. Just prior to crossing to Mexico, Bishop Seitz offered public remarks, which included the following observations:

A government and society which views fleeing children and families as threats; a government which treats children in U.S. custody worse than animals; a government and society who turn their backs on pregnant mothers, babies and families and make them wait in Ciudad Juarez without a thought to the crushing consequences on this challenged city. … This government and this society are not well. We suffer from a life-threatening case of hardening of the heart.[1]

Seitz is one of several Catholic leaders who have been pushing their Church to strengthen its already robust stand against the cruelty the United States government has visited on many Catholic and, more broadly, Christian Central and South American citizens who have sought asylum in this country during the Trump administration. But, in a deeper sense, and despite the especial smallness and meanness of Trump’s immigration stance, the United States has long practiced cruelty at its southern border to persuade individuals not to solicit assistance from our nation when conditions in their own lands become untenable. In response to the latest iteration of that position, the American Catholic Church has encouraged its parishes and dioceses to protest and to act, and many are providing aid to immigrants from the South. Pope Francis, too, has consistently offered rhetorical succor to this population.[2] Nonetheless, it must be said, a share of U.S. Roman Catholics has supported, and continues to support, the Trump administration’s abasement of immigrants and refugees. Indeed, as I write, a slight majority of white American Catholics (51 percent), though not such Catholics overall, maintains a favorable stance toward the President.[3]

As this has been happening in the Catholic Church, many prominent Protestant evangelical church leaders in the United States have taken a different formal stance. These leaders’ congregations have constituted the largest and most stable bloc of voters supporting Trump since he announced his candidacy for the presidency. Indeed, 81 percent of evangelicals who voted in the 2016 national election voted for Trump.[4] Moreover, almost 70 percent of self-professed white evangelicals approved of the president’s performance in office in a recent Pew Research Center national poll.[5] As with Catholics, these numbers, lopsided though they may be in this case, imply that a notable share of evangelicals and their churches do not support Trump or his scapegoating of refugees and immigrants.

Nonetheless, many Protestant evangelical church leaders openly support Trump’s immigration policy. One important instance occurred just prior to the November 2018 mid-term election when the president falsely decried a backlog of central American asylum seekers at the Mexican border as constituting a “dangerous invading” caravan and needlessly dispatched 5,200 American troops to Texas to “quell” the imaginary danger he had conjured. As that incident unfolded, James Dobson, founder of the evangelical Christian organization, Focus on the Family, issued the following statement via his Dobson Policy Center:

The Dobson Policy Center supports President Trump’s firm stance on immigration policy that protects our borders, our national security, national sovereignty, and ultimately protects our families. A government’s chief legitimate obligation is to protect and preserve the fundamental, unalienable rights endowed by God for its own citizens. We are encouraged by the Trump Administration’s understanding and dedication to the rule of law by providing resolved leadership on this issue, and we support immigration reform consistent with the U.S. Constitution’s process.[6]

Dobson took this stand in light of the fact that polling suggested that many evangelicals were willing to support Trump and to accept his cruelties and lies regarding migrants because they believe he is “fighting for them” as these believers fearfully confront a changing American landscape that, in their view, might soon leave them behind. As a recent Washington Post article put the matter:

Interviews with 50 evangelical Christians in three [2020 presidential election] battleground states—Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—help explain why. In conversation, evangelical voters paint the portrait of the Trump they see: a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them. A president who sees America like they do, a menacing place where white Christians feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. A president who’s against abortion and gay rights and who has the economy humming to boot.[7]

I want here to highlight the fact that such concerns about changing values and a shifting demographic led by immigrants and people who “look different and have different beliefs than me” are not new among evangelicals. Indeed, a recent book by Grant Brodrecht, Our Country: Northern Evangelicals and the Union during the Civil War Era, demonstrated that during that conflict, radical northern evangelicals actually placed much higher priority on retaining what they perceived to be the covenantal character of the Union than on eliminating the inhuman practice of slavery.[8] Accordingly, that group was ready, in the period following the War, to accept the ugly reality of Jim Crow laws, which entailed systematic efforts to prevent African Americans from realizing their formal legal and political rights in the South.

 As Brodrecht contended, “Though northern evangelicals had helped ensure that slavery and secession would no longer mar the Union, the[ir desired] new era of national Christian oneness had not arrived [following Reconstruction].” 9 This argument in particular allowed Brodrecht to connect today’s so-called Religious Right evangelicals to their Civil War era predecessors, and he found that each was animated by an abiding desire to secure a Christian nation populated by those who looked and thought like them.  Importantly, Roman Catholics did not fit this vision, even though many were Caucasian, owing both to their credal beliefs and to the role of the Pope in that Church. That is, in practice, affective oneness for these evangelicals meant a population comprised of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. For all of their genuine concern about slavery, these Civil War era reformers were most interested in securing a majority homogeneous nation that reflected their values and identity.

If this was true for the Civil War period’s evangelicals, it is especially true today, with a strong majority of such individuals routinely expressing fear that the social edifice of their lives and communities is crumbling.  Animated by that anxiety and desirous of maintaining a culture of norms and values that reflect their own, a large share of today’s evangelicals has been willing to support Trump’s immigration related cruelties, lies and narcissism. As Dobson’s comment above showed, this group has often refused even to recognize the implications of many of the president’s actions related to migration, lest that fact prevent something being done to slow or stymie the complete usurpation of the country by others who do not share their views on the Bible or the world.

Here is how one prominent Texas-based evangelical leader, Robert Jeffress, put this question in a recent interview for The Washington Post:

As a Christian, I believe that regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C., that the general trajectory of evangelicalism is going to be downward until Christ returns. If you read the scripture, it’s not: ‘Things get better and better and more evangelical-friendly or Christian-friendly; it is, they get worse and more hostile as the culture does. …’ I think most Christians I know see the election of Donald Trump as maybe a respite, a pause in that. Perhaps to give Christians the ability and freedom more to share the gospel of Christ with people before the ultimate end occurs and the Lord returns.[9]

Given this orientation, many evangelicals have therefore been willing tacitly and actively to disparage and demonize those who seem to manifest change that appears to run counter to their beliefs. Accordingly, they have also supported Trump’s scapegoating of minorities, especially gay individuals, Latinos and African Americans in addition to migrants, because the existence and social acceptance of each appears to represent an existential threat to their desire for the ascendancy of their way of life in the United States.

As highlighted above, many evangelicals in the post-Civil War North tolerated continuing injustice for African Americans and a failed effort to obtain a country that reflected their self-image and values in the name of the Nation. Evangelicals today seek that same homogeneous hegemony, but have shown themselves not only willing to tolerate injustice, but also actively to encourage it in the name of their desire to assure their social standing and to alleviate their fears regarding its continued ebbing. They have also exhibited much less concern than did their historical counterparts about the implications of their stance for the Union. While their orientation vis-á-vis their purported beliefs is manifestly and deeply hypocritical, one can, in fairness, understand how such has been justified as a means to alleviate their individual and collective anxiety about the decline of what they perceive to be the rightful preeminence of their specific norms, values and way of life.

Nonetheless, no one is telling these individuals that they may not practice their faith. They are, however, being informed by the broader population’s values changes that their beliefs may not result in active and public discrimination against individuals on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, national origin, race or sexual identity or preference. Rather than accept this shift toward a fresh vision of social equality and the accompanying demographic change helping to fuel it, evangelicals have instead chosen to support a President willing to single out minorities and immigrants for harm and to degrade democratic norms and values in the name of an illusory quest for social homogeneity and the temporary easing of a fear-filled vision of the future. The price of this Faustian bargain for those who have chosen it and continue to embrace it seems very high indeed. But the price is still greater for the nation of which they are a part, as this group supports a president daily attacking not only democratic values and institutions, but also the human bonds and empathy on which those are necessarily predicated.

Notes

[1] The Editors. “Cross the Bridge,” Commonweal, August 9, 2019, p. 5.

[2] Kuruvilla, Carol. “Pope ‘Profoundly Saddened’ By Image Of Drowned Migrant And Daughter At U.S. Border,” Huffington Post, June 26, 2019, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/pope-francis-migrant-photograph_n_5d137a50e4b0aa375f5705f9, Accessed September 30, 2019.

[3] Clarke, Kevin. “Trump administration at odds with Catholic leaders on immigration,” America, September 20, 2019, https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2019/09/20/trump-administration-odds-catholic-leaders-immigration-policies, Accessed September 26, 2019.

[4] Zauzmer, Julie. “‘He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term,” The Washington Post, August 13, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/evangelicals-arent-turned-off-by-trumps-first-term--theyre-delighted-by-it/2019/08/11/3911bc88-a990-11e9-a3a6-ab670962db05_story.html, Accessed September 28, 2019.

[5] Zauzmer, “He gets it.”

[6] Melendez, Pilar and Asawin Suebsaeng. “Trump-Loving Evangelical Leaders Silent as He Bashes Migrants,” The Daily Beast, November 2, 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-loving-evangelical-leaders-silent-as-he-bashes-migrants, Accessed September 28, 2019.

[7] Zauzmer, “He gets it.”

[8] Brodrecht, Grant. Our Country: Northern Evangelicals and the Union during the Civil War Era (The North's Civil War), New York: Fordham University Press, 2018.

9 Brodrecht, p.174.

[9] Bruenig, Elizabeth. “In God’s Country: Evangelicals View Trump as their Protector. Will they Stand by him 2020?” The Washington Post, August 14, 2019,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/08/14/evangelicals-view-trump-their-protector-will-they-stand-by-him/?arc404=true, Accessed September 26, 2019. 

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