What Are Evangelicals Afraid of?

Evangelicals and immigration

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, most Americans disapprove of Donald Trump’s immigration policy and will not vote for him in 2020 because of it.  Here is a summary of the report from Greg Sargent at the Post:

The new Post-ABC News poll underscores what a gamble this is for Trump. It finds that overall, the issue is a net negative for him: 44 percent of Americans say Trump’s handling of illegal immigration makes them more likely to oppose his reelection, vs. 31 percent who say it makes them more likely to support him, while 24 percent say it won’t be a factor.

What’s even more interesting, though, is how this breaks down among some of the voter groups who powered the Democratic victory in 2018:

  • Among college-educated whites, 45 percent say Trump’s handling of the issue makes them more likely to oppose his reelection, vs. 34 percent who say the opposite. Among college-educated white women, that’s even more pronounced, at 48 percent to 31 percent.
  • Among suburban voters, this breakdown is 42 percent to 33 percent.
  • Among independents, who also swung substantially toward Democrats in the midterms, that’s 41 percent to 32 percent.
  • Among voters ages 18 to 29, that’s a staggering 55 percent to 22 percent, and among voters ages 30 to 39, it’s 48 percent to 25 percent.

On the flip side, though, the issue works for Trump among the voters in his base:

  • Among rural voters, 45 percent say Trump’s handling of the issue makes them more likely to support his reelection, vs. 29 percent who say it makes them less likely.
  • White voters without a college degree say the same by 43 percent to 34 percent.
  • And get this: Among white evangelical Christians, that breakdown is an overwhelming 63 percent to 16 percent.

Why are evangelicals so afraid of immigrants when the majority of the country oppose Trump’s policies?

Here are some reasons:

Many evangelicals get their information from Fox News, a network that exploits America’s immigration problem for ratings.  Have undocumented immigrants or refugees (which came into the country legally) committed horrendous crimes?  Yes.  But they are not representative.  Here is what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

[During the 2016 campaign) Trump attempted to portray refugees and undocumented immigrants as threats to the American public even though the chance that an American will die at the hands of a refugee terrorist is about one in 3.6. million; the chance of being murdered by an undocumented immigrant is one in 10.9 million per year.  One is more likely to die from walking across a railroad track or having one’s clothes spontaneously catch fire.  Yet Trump has managed to convince Americans that immigrants are “imminent threats” to their safety.  He rode this wave of fear all the way to the White House, and it continues to serve as the foundation for an immigration policy that revolves around the construction of a massive border wall between the United States and Mexico.

Also, white evangelicals in America continue to believe that America is a Christian nation.  As a result, they find solidarity with their fellow conservative anti-immigrant Americans over brothers and sisters in Christ.  Yes, most immigrants coming across the border are Christians–Catholic and Protestants.  (Of course many Christian nationalists are conservative evangelicals who believe that Roman Catholics are not true Christians, so perhaps I am overstating my point here).  Evangelical American Christian nationalists will talk about spreading the Gospel around the world, but God forbid if their converts who accept Jesus as savior try to come here.

Similarly, it seems like white evangelicals, more than any other group, is anxious about the decline of white America.  As I argued in Believe Me, they are nostalgic for a golden age of white Christian America that, depending on how you define “Christian America,” probably never existed in the first place.  They turn to people like Donald Trump to restore white Christian America.

Can anyone else offer a logical explanation why evangelicals are so out of line with the rest of the country on these matters?

25 thoughts on “What Are Evangelicals Afraid of?

  1. This is fun (I assume you know what this is about):

    Headlines on googlenews:

    Washington Post: Trump pardons the former soldier who was convicted of murdering an Iraqi prisoner

    NY Post: Trump pardons ex-soldier convicted of killing Iraqi prisoner

    Washington Examiner: Trump grants full pardon for former soldier convicted of killing Iraqi detainee

    Fox: Trump pardons ex-Army lieutenant convicted of killing suspected Al Qaeda terrorist in 2009


  2. Whatever legitimacy those observations may have, none of them substantially alters the general point: That white evangelicals lead the pack (if only by a little) when it comes to torturing (apparently they’re willing to leave the choice of methods to others) people who aren’t known to be guilty but only happen to have been apprehended by the government (an entity they’re typically quite sceptical regarding the competence of). We can stress that these evangelicals aren’t much worse than the population in general, or we can marvel that they aren’t much better, but either way, more evidence that this is a very fearful population willing to commit some very bad acts–or to condone some very bad acts in those they employ. Certainly, no surprise that seven years later they would embrace as heartily as they did a candidate who pledged to take it even further, and start killing the families of suspected terrorists.


  3. John (H): A few comments about that poll. First, it does not define torture. It would be helpful to know what the respondents believed they were being asked about: pulling out someone’s fingernails, sleep deprivation, water boarding, Jack Bauer gun shot to the thigh (his go to move). It’s certainly fair for one to conclude all of those things are torture, but they are not morally equivalent.

    Second, your claim that believers are fine with torturing “innocent” people is not a fair conclusion. I understand your point: as phrased, the use of the term “suspected terrorist” means that individual might be, or might not be, a terrorist. Possibly innocent, possibly guilty. But, of course, in the real world, where rough men stand ready in the night … those people being interrogated for information about ongoing terror plots which threaten lives are very unlikely to have been adjudicated (in either a civilian or military court). KSM, when he was waterboarded, technically was a “suspected terrorist.” I’m pretty comfortable saying that guy was not innocent. Further, would your mystification be alleviated in the slightest if the question was asked about “known terrorists” and the responses played out the same way?

    Finally, you say that those who attended church more frequently were more willing to torture people. Not really. In the poll, 71% of people overall were willing to use torture in some circumstances. That’s actually pretty close to the white evangelical total of 79%. Of those who attended church weekly, 73% were willing to use torture in some circumstances; monthly attenders, 74%, and seldom/never attenders at 69%. That’s pretty much a wash. Also, 25% of weekly attenders said torture was never justified, compared with only 16% of white evangelicals overall who rejected it categorically.


  4. Pew polled religious groups in the US on their openness to torturing suspected terrorists in 2009. It’s probably not a surprise that white evangelicals topped the list, with 79% saying it could be justified. (White non-Hispanic Catholics and Mainline Protestants aren’t far behind.) And, again unsurprisingly, the more frequently these believers attended church services, the more willing these folk were to torture people.

    And, let’s not, these aren’t convicted terrorists they are willing to torture, but only suspected terrorists–such as the hundreds of Gitmo detainees that were simply released by the Bush administration because they’d been mistakenly apprehended.

    So, these religious believers are alright with torturing innocent people. I can remember when America was opposed to torture, period. Now, America’s most religious citizens are fine with torturing not just “the ticking-time-bomb” suspect (a myth), not just convicted terrorists, but people who are innocent.

    Not surprising, as I said, but I confess I’m still mystified by this.


  5. I’m disappointed that my rather mild rattlesnake story did not make the cut. Was it not biting enough? (see what I did there?)


  6. “Trump is all about outward appearances and glitz and what can most easily be thought of as valuable. I doubt he can look at someone with ragged clothing, or otherwise obviously not connected with material wealth and see their equal humanity.”

    Ivanka tells a story about her dad pointing out a homeless guy on the street and saying something like, “See, that guy has infinitely more than I do.” Trump’s point was that he had millions and millions in debt, while the homeless guy living on the street had no debts to worry about. Trump seems very short on basic human empathy and very good at ameliorating his own residual guilt.


  7. ‘ “Crime is crime.” Yes. And no.’

    Crime is crime, even if you get more emotionally triggered by one type of perpetrator than by another.

    I am curious–what part of the country are you from? What kind of impact does illegal immigration have on your local economy? I am interested in knowing about your personal experience with the issue.


  8. Seems to me the idea of judging countries as S..t holes means applying a standard of living criteria, the value of their economies, the health of the infrastructure and things like their medical and educational institutions. Then Trump and people who think like Trump declare a low value to the human beings of those countries.
    Of course it then follows that Trump and those who think like Trump also see people of our own country who live their lives in less developed places like some inner cities and some rural places as being of less value as human beings.
    Trump is all about outward appearances and glitz and what can most easily be thought of as valuable. I doubt he can look at someone with ragged clothing, or otherwise obviously not connected with material wealth and see their equal humanity.
    That is a big part of why he doesn’t want people coming in from s..t hole countries.


  9. Tony,
    You have now changed your definition of ‘open borders’ three times now. This is precisely the point Dave H is making. And my position is the Church is the solution.


  10. I agree that not everyone can ultimately be admitted, that would be impractical and could overwhelm the system. The process needs to be handled judiciously and through proper legal channels. But to underscore my point about Trump’s policies really revealing his intent to halt all immigration entirely, I would ask, how are the immigration seekers supposed to apply through legal channels? It is legal to present yourself at the border and ask for asylum, but Trump’s policy has been to treat such people as illegal, either turning them back as invaders or detaining them as criminals. And Trump has been gutting other legal means by closing down immigration offices in embassies and other locations abroad. He really is closing every avenue to the legal process, and then characterizing everyone seeking entrance as an illegal. Which is a condition he himself has intentionally brought about.


  11. Let’s put it this way, Alex. Whatever definitional parsing you’d like to do cannot obscure the fact that your position — I assume it is your position based on your response — has essentially no limiting principle. Call it what you will, any politician who honestly and publicly embraced this view (come one, come all without regard for persnickety legality) is advocating for what the average layperson would consider open borders.


  12. Alex: it assumes nothing of the sort. It assumes hundreds of thousands of people are coming here every month or so, attempting to gain entry illegally. It further assumes that many of these people do not satisfy the legal requirements for asylum or refugee status. It assumes they are poor, desperate and understandably would like to make a better, safer, more hopeful life in America.

    Should all such people be welcomed as a matter of immigration policy? If your answer is yes, you are for open borders. And, btw, that’s fine if you are. I just prefer candor when people discuss these issues.


  13. Regarding “s-hole countries”, there’s just enough truth in that Trumpism to sugarcoat everything else.

    A lot of Third World countries ARE “S-holes” — beyond-poverty misery, kleptocracy dictators, failed & failing states, inter-tribal blood feuds.

    Once more, Trump’s advantage was in coming across as Plain and Blunt, saying what a lot of people felt but were too afraid of being denounced as racist/sexist/colonialist/whatever to say.


  14. “When I ask under what circumstances it would be proper to deny entry to an impoverished family from a Central American (or pick your location) country seeking a better life, they have no answer. They are for open borders, they just realize it is impolitic to say this openly.”

    This argument assumes the sole purpose of border security is to turn away impoverished families. Is that the only reason you want border security?


  15. Dave: I think that there are many people who — while they deny it — are effectively for open borders. To wit: if it is one’s position that all people in these “caravans” — the vast majority of whom are economic migrants and do not qualify for asylum or refugee status — should be taken in, then who can be rejected? I have had conversations with many of my progressive friends, who were aghast that any should be turned away. When I ask under what circumstances it would be proper to deny entry to an impoverished family from a Central American (or pick your location) country seeking a better life, they have no answer. They are for open borders, they just realize it is impolitic to say this openly.


  16. In the sermon at the church I attended at Easter, the pastor said something about taxes being too high and how Christians were losing free speech. Crazy.


  17. I think the most frustrating thing about the whole immigration issue is the disingenuousness of the discussion (and calling it a “discussion” is being generous, as with too many issues it’s just various sides yelling at each other). Trump has framed the whole argument as saying that anyone who disagrees with his own border policy is in favor of open borders. In reality, there are very few people who are actually in favor of truly “open borders.” Nearly everyone wants there to be border security, and the differences have to do with the extent and the means of having that security.

    The vast majority of those who oppose Trump’s immigration/border policy are not against border security. Again, the disagreement is over the extent and means. And, further, I think many people recognize that despite any official statements to the contrary, the clear underlying intent of Trump’s policy is not to secure the border and judiciously manage immigration, it is to outright wall off the country and completely prevent immigration. His administration doesn’t want immigration at all, even legal immigration, at least of certain (non-white) demographics. This is displayed in his comments about the country being “full,” his opposition to people immigrating from what he characterizes as “s–thole countries,” his constant characterization of the refugees at the border as nothing but gang members and thugs and criminals, his intentionally punitive strategies of separating families and children from parents (which was proudly acknowledged to be for the purposes of harsh deterrence). A lot of the opposition to Trump’s border policies reflect the correct understanding that if you give him an inch, he will take a mile. He is intentionally ramping up the fear factor in order to get that mile he wants to take.

    In this environment, it is almost impossible to have a serious discussion about this serious issue. Like so many other political issues, it just gets lost in a dust storm of intentionally-created hysteria and fearmongering.


  18. “Crime is crime.” Yes. And no. The reason there is often increased outrage when a terrible crime is committed by an illegal immigrant, similar to, say, one committed by someone improperly released on parole, is because the perpetrator should not have been there.

    The pain of the crime itself is amplified by the system’s failure. Add a scenario where officials intentionally flout federal immigration laws, refuse ICE detainer requests and the protected individual given sanctuary commits a heinous crime, and the outrage is justifiably even greater.

    It has nothing to do with racism, nativism or the litany of standard epithets designed to replace reasoned debate with, at this point, yawn-inducing name-calling. (Of course those noxious attitudes exist. They are not what drives the vast majority of people legitimately concerned by illegal immigration and its socioeconomic consequences.)

    It is a perfectly reasonable — and moral, for that matter — position, having nothing to do with “fear of the Other” or animus, to believe that laws should be enforced. That it is in no way immoral for a sovereign nation to expect and demand adherence to its rules for entry. People can still be treated with compassion and dignity while being told: there is a right way and a wrong way to enter this country. Choose the latter, there will be consequences, including deportation. Justin, and those “affiliated” with him ideologically (I like that term), want to shift the Overton window so that justifiable anger over illegal immigrant crime facilitated by lax (in many cases intentionally so) enforcement can only be explained by racism or baser instincts relating to xenophobia . This is nonsense, but retailing it serves a useful political purpose. (In much the same way that John would argue Trump’s fearmongering serves his anti-immigrant purposes. Flip side of the same coin.)


  19. “Finally, the labored statistics about the percentage of illegals committing murder is irrelevant. If just one added murder occurs in the country due to an illegal immigrant, isn’t that one too many?”


    Murder of any kind is one murder too many, but focusing on murder committed by someone without proper citizenship status is a clear sign that someone has a racial or nationalist ax to grind.

    Why is murder or crime by illegal immigrants a huge issue for you, but violent crimes committed by white nationalists are insignificant to you or to Trump’s voting bloc (earlier you actually said white nationalism is insignificant on the national stage)? Crime is crime no matter where you go; why are you focused on the citizenship status of the perpetrator? Why DOESN’T it matter to you that you are much more likely to be victimized by an American citizen than an illegal immigrant from somewhere else? Why do a handful of sensational crimes by “illegal” brown people get more interest from you and your religious affiliates than the dozens or hundreds of sensational crimes from “legal” white people?

    I’m not sure you did this on purpose, but you compared immigrants to rattlesnakes and suggested that a couple of Bible verses out of context makes it okay to be afraid of them…. . The question is not whether or not it is morally “okay” to be afraid of illegal immigrants according to the Bible, but whether or not such a fear is factually reasonable based on reality.

    I don’t actually believe you’re a raging racist–I think you are immersed in a culture where this kind of thinking swirls around everyone and influences most people without their full cognizance. I don’t think you are actually trying to be racist or to sound like a white nationalist; I think you are parroting talking points aimed at people harboring racial and national bias, because you have been made comfortable with this language through exposure to it. I think that many white evangelicals have a gut instinct (or even conscious fear) that their socio-cultural religious privileges are starting to fade, and that fear has led them into irrational hatred that is being harnessed by politicians and sinister groups.

    PS you can’t expect people to overlook/dismiss data or polls just because you have difficulty interpreting the information with reasonable precision


  20. “Can anyone else offer a logical explanation why evangelicals are so out of line with the rest of the country on these matters?”

    I think the reasons you’ve mentioned are the primary reasons–conservative evangelicals are animated by fear and the notion that Trump is enforcing the “rule of law” to protect them from violent criminals, are are not really aware of the way in which our economy is fundamentally dependent on blue-collar exploitation of undocumented workers. Another response above advances the argument that evangelicals want to enforce this “rule of law” and it reminds me of the legalism and technical goodness that is a major part of fundamentalism and dogmatism (both Protestant and Catholic) and the idea that following the traditional rules is more important than treating people with dignity and compassion (whether that’s illegal immigration, divorce-and-remarriage, LGBTQ marriage, etc). I wonder if support for Trump’s anti-immigrant policy among evangelicals is connected to this religious culture of technical, dogmatic goodness.

    (If anyone is interested, you might take a look at Doug Frank’s “A Gentler God: Breaking Free of the Almighty in the Company of the Human Jesus.” I couldn’t put it down after I picked it up, because it really nails the experience of growing up as a conservative evangelical and inheriting all these distorted ideas about the world that are contingent upon distorted ideas about God and the Bible which underlie evangelical culture. There is this worldview bubble that surrounds many evangelicals prevents many of them from seeing certain issues more clearly).

    Dr. Fea also mentions nostalgia, and I’m not sure that it’s really just nostalgia for the past–I kind of suspect that really it’s fear disguised as longing. American culture is going to look very different—-much less white, and much less Christian—-in the near future. It’s not just that the past is going, but that the future that is coming is not going to be dominated by Jesus, Apple Pie, and Baseball. In general, many evangelicals intuitively understand that it is difficult to be in the real minority, to share power or hegemony with people who do not share your religious dogma, and they are apprehensive about succeeding in an America that does not cater to their biases. So they’re supporting policies that preserve the whiteness and Christian-ness of the culture for as long as possible. This isn’t speculation about evangelicals–this is what white nationalists are actually saying and doing.


  21. John,
    First of all your presuppositions are based on ambiguous polling data. Specifically, what about Trump’s immigration policies concerns voters who don’t plan to vote for him? There are many aspects to it. Second, how many voters—-evangelical or other—- vote solely on the issue of immigration?

    A continuing theme in your writing is that fear motivates evangelicals. This theme is based on the erroneous assumption that fear is necessarily a negative emotion and is inappropriate for Christians. While fear should be avoided at times (Luke 2:10), it is perfectly appropriate in other settings (Acts 5:11, Phil.2:12.). If someone hears a rattlesnake in his garage, a healthy measure of fear is fitting for all people, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian, animist, or atheist.

    Finally, the labored statistics about the percentage of illegals committing murder is irrelevant. If just one added murder occurs in the country due to an illegal immigrant, isn’t that one too many?



  22. I think there is room for a slightly more charitable, while critical, view of this fear: Christian evangelicals in this country are strongly in support of “the rule of law,” which shows up in their theology historically, and not just in politics since the Atwater/Nixon days (which did manipulate this issue to cover up while appealing to racism). A legal basis for this country’s success, and for the opportunity to succeed, is important to them in socio-cultural ways as well as in a certain theological legalism, and they see the “open borders” approach, let alone the “sanctuary cities” movement, as an intentional undermining of legal boundaries as well as the national border, and — yes, with much encouragement from Fox News — as opportunism by Democrats to fill the census totals, apportionment of seats, and ballot boxes with immigrant supporters in an extra-legal fashion. Mix the “rule of law” basic sentiment with the politics of the current landscape, and you hear as I do in the parish lots of talk about how the Democratic Party doesn’t care about law and fairness and consistency, and is all about winning and power and “pushing” their views onto the majority.

    I’m not here to say any of that is good theology or Christian practice, but it’s a slightly different take than yours, John. And what I hear in the narthex and parking lot and at breakfasts et al all over my part of swing state Ohio.


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