Why are White Evangelicals Ambivalent About Refugees and Migrants?

immigrants

Over at VOX, Tara Isabella Burton tackles this issue.  She wonders why so many evangelical leaders reject anti-immigration rhetoric and so many of their followers embrace it.

Here is a taste:

From his dismissal of “shithole countries” to his attempts to institute a “Muslim travel ban,” from his incendiary rhetoric about Mexican immigrants being rapists and criminals, to his latest attempts to prevent the Honduran migrants to seeking asylum, Trump’s approach to borders has been one of nativism and insularity by protecting (his idea of white) America at the expense of everyone else. And, by and large, white evangelicals on the ground have followed suit — even when some in evangelical leadership is advocating for more nuanced policy positions.

The reasons for this discrepancy are complicated. They include a white evangelical population that gets its moral sense as much from conservative media as it does from scripture. There’s also a more general conflation of white evangelicalism with the GOP party agenda, which has been intensifying since the days of the Moral Majority in the 1980s.

As Jenny Yang, vice president for advocacy and policy for World Relief, the humanitarian wing of the National Association for Evangelicals, told Vox, white evangelicals’ views on immigration are more likely to be shaped “not from their local church or their pastor, but actually from the news media. … This has become an issue of the church being discipled by the media more than the Bible or the local pastor in terms of their views on immigration.”

Ed Stetzer, a Christian author and commentator who leads the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, agreed. “White evangelicals are more shaped on this issue by Republican views,” he told Vox. “They’re being discipled by their cable news network of choice and by their social media feeds.” He pointed out that, while white evangelicals are more likely than other religious voting blocs to express conservative views on immigration, they don’t necessarily do so at greater rates than nonwhite evangelical Republicans.

In other words, the political views of white evangelicals may say far more about their party affiliation than it does about their theological identity. In the Trump era, in particular, white evangelical Christianity and nativist political isolation have become particularly intertwined. Trump, his administration, and its allies have used the language of Christian nationalism to shore up their political base.

Read the entire piece here.  Sadly, it appears that Fox News-style fear-mongering easily sways many white evangelicals.  Or at least this is what I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Interview with VOX on Trump and Evangelicals

Believe Me 3dTara Isabella Burton recently interviewed me about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is a taste of the interview at VOX:

Why do white evangelicals still support Trump in such strong numbers? And what will that mean for the upcoming midterms? I spoke to John Fea, a historian of American religion at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and author of Believe Me: the Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, about how Trump has galvanized his Christian base and about the “court evangelicals” who have traded their traditional moral ethos for access to one of the most powerful men in the world.

Tara Isabella Burton

In your book, you make the case that the tendency toward “fear” in white evangelical culture — fear of the immigrant, fear of secularization, fear of modernization — is not just a contemporary phenomenon. Can you talk a little bit about the rhetoric of evangelical fear in American history, and particularly how it has played out in terms of racial politics?

John Fea

If you look closely at American evangelical history, you see fear everywhere. During the early 19th century, white evangelicals in the South constructed a “way of life” built around slavery and white supremacy. When Northern abolitionists (many of whom were also evangelicals, I might add) threatened this way of life by calling for the end of slavery, white evangelicals in the South responded by turning to the Bible and constructing a theological and biblical defense of slavery and racism. After the Civil War, the fear of integrating blacks into white society led to Jim Crow laws and desegregation.

Meanwhile, in the North, many white evangelicals feared the influx of Irish immigrants, especially in the 1850s. These immigrants not only had different religious beliefs (Catholicism), but they were viewed by many as members of a different, inferior race. The same could be said of white evangelical responses to Italian immigrants and Jews at the turn of the 20th century.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as historian Randall Balmer has shown, white evangelicals in the South felt anxious about Supreme Court decisions forcing them to desegregate their K-12 academies and colleges. They claimed that “big government” was intruding on their way of life and their right (based on their reading of the Bible) to segregate. Many of the arguments they made sound a lot like the arguments made by the Confederates against the “Northern invasion” during the American Civil War.

With such a long history, it should not surprise us that so many white evangelicals believed Donald Trump’s accusations that Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, was not born in this country or was a secret Muslim. A 2015 CNN poll found that 43 percent of Republicans, a political party dominated by white evangelicals, believed that Obama was a Muslim. This, of course, is not true. It can only be explained by racial and religious fear.

Read the entire interview here.

Evangelicals and the Honduras Caravan

Honduras

How can evangelicals, who supposedly believe in the teachings of the Bible, refuse to welcome immigrants and refugees? This is the subject of Tara Isabella Burton’s piece at VOX: “The Bible says to welcome immigrants.  So why don’t white evangelicals?”  It is written in the context of the large group of Honduras migrants fleeing gang violence and political instability.  Here is a taste:

How did white evangelicals come to so fully embrace the Trumpian rhetoric on immigration? How did a religious group whose foundational sacred text explicitly mandates care for the poor, the sick, and the stranger become a reliable anti-refugee, anti-immigrant voting bloc?

Read the entire piece here.

Many conservative evangelical Trump supporters, including almost all of the court evangelicals, will argue that immigrants are not welcome in the United States unless they enter legally.  But for Christians, immigration policy is not so black and white. Christians must remember that they are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God.  The ethical mandates of this Kingdom often contradict the ethical principles of the nation-state.  There will be times when our citizenship in the Kingdom of God will come into conflict with the laws of our nation.  I think the case of refugees fleeing persecution is a prime example of when the ethics of the Kingdom of God must trump the ethics of the nation-state.

Those who invoke Romans 13 (Christians must obey government at all times), or who believe that the ethics of the Kingdom of God as related to refugees and immigrants should not be applied to this caravan of Honduras (and others) refugees, will inevitably find themselves in a difficult situation.  At what point does opposition to illegal immigration give way to the Christian call to love the immigrant and refugee?  Where do evangelicals draw that line?  What will these conservative ministers do when they encounter refugees in need of love and compassion?  Should they send them away because they have violated the law of the land by entering illegally?  Or do they follow the teachings of scripture and welcome these refugees in need of God’s love?

Tara Isabella Burton Reviews *The Trump Prophecy*

 

Trump Prophecy

Some of you may recall our posts about The Trump Prophecy, an evangelical movie about a fireman who prophesied the election of Donald Trump.  Students at Liberty University produced the film.

VOX reporter Tara Isabella Burton saw the movie.  Here is a taste of her review:

But The Trump Prophecy is more than a feel-good, low-budget movie. It’s the purest distillation of pro-Trump Christian nationalism: the insidious doctrine that implicitly links American patriotism and American exceptionalism with (white) evangelical Christianity.

Everything about The Trump Prophecy— from its subject matter, to the way it’s shot, to the little details scattered through the movie’s (often interminable) scenes of domestic life — is designed not just to legitimize Donald Trump as a evangelical-approved president but to promulgate an even more wide-ranging — and dangerous — idea.

The Trump Prophecy doesn’t just want you to believe that God approves of Donald Trump. It wants you to believe that submission to (conservative) political authority and submission to God are one and the same. In the film’s theology, resisting the authority of a sitting president — or, at least, this sitting president — is conflated with resisting God himself.

David Barton, the Christian Right GOP activist who uses the past to promote his political agenda, also appears in the movie. Here is Burton again:

An inexplicable 30-odd minute “interview” segment at the end of the film features interviews with controversial evangelical historian David Barton (whose books champion the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation), Wallnau, former US Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and other prominent evangelical figures.

Read the rest of the review here.

VOX on Kaepernick, Nike, and an Alabama Pastor with Scissors

Nike

Another well-written and researched piece by Tara Isabella Burton.  Here is a taste:

Pastor Mack Morris wanted to take a stand. Preaching in front of his Mobile, Alabama, congregation on Sunday morning, positioned just to the left of an American flag, he declaredthat he was sick and tired of the way clothing brand Nike had, in his view, disrespected America and its people.

“The first pair of jogging shoes I wore were Nike jogging shoes,” he told his congregation, “That was in the early ’80s. I’ve been wearing Nike jogging shoes since 1980. I got news for you. I’ve bought my last pair of Nike shoes.” He produced two branded items — a Nike wristband and a headband. Then he cut them up right there at the pulpit.

His audience’s response? Raucous applause.

Morris’s actions are part of a larger trend among conservatives in recent weeks who have been destroying Nike products to protest its selection of controversial quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who famously knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality — in its latest ad campaign. For Kaepernick’s critics, including President Donald Trump, his refusal to stand for the national anthem is evidence that he lacks respect for the American flag, and more broadly, for America itself.

Read the entire piece here.  I was happy to help her with the piece:

John Fea, a professor of history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania and author of Believe Me: the Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, told Vox in a telephone interview on Thursday that Morris’s actions represented a combination of two elements. The first, he said, was “conservative evangelicals’ commitment to the idea that America is a Christian nation, and that somehow the American flag not only symbolizes generic nationalism but that the nation was founded by God, that it’s a nation created by God. So [people think], how dare Colin Kaepernick take a knee.”

Secondly, he said, “Christian nationalism has always been connected with whiteness. It has always been about [the idea of] America’s founding by white Christians.”

These ideas, Fea said, have existed throughout American history. But Donald Trump’s campaign and election have them to the fore. Furthermore, he said, we’re seeing an unprecedented relationship between the president and the evangelical religious establishment, in which pastors take “marching orders” from Trump’s own discourse.

“So you now have Baptist pastors in the South in essence taking their cues from the president of the United States … and not from Biblical ideas,” Fea said.

He argued that there was a direct trickle-down effect from Trump’s tweets to church pews. Trump’s relentless focus on Kaepernick made his protest into a national controversy. White evangelicals, in turn, followed Trump’s lead, treating Kaepernick’s protest as a direct affront to the sanctity of an (implicitly Christian) America.

Fea said that the Kaepernick case is specifically about ideology, not theology. After all, he said, the Bible says nothing about flags or protests.

Progressive Evangelicals vs. Court Evangelicals in Lynchburg

Trump court evangelicals

Over at VOX, Tara Isabella Burton has a nice piece of reporting/commentary on the so-called “Red Letter Revival.”  Glad to see the phrase “court evangelical” made the cut.

A taste:

Two years ago, the idea that the old-guard evangelicals would treat Trumpism as a tenet of their faith was unimaginable. According to a FiveThirtyEight poll, only 44 percent of white evangelical Republicans supported Trump during the primaries. But in the months and years since Trump won the Republican primary, evangelicalism, (white) nationalism, and Trumpism have become increasingly closely linked. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the general election.

Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Channel, as I have previously written, has become a de facto mouthpiece for the Trump administration, lobbing softballs at administration officials in exchange for access. Members of Trump’s evangelical advisory council, including prosperity gospel preacher Paula White, have gone on the record telling listeners that God has ordained the Trump presidency.

Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and Trump’s evangelical right-hand man, even turned “Make America Great Again” into a hymn. As historian John Fea put it in a Washington Post op-ed, these are “court evangelicals,” who see Christianity and political power as going hand in hand.

As a result, across the evangelical spectrum, those who have vocally opposed Trump or his policies have often met with strong backlash. After Southern Baptist Convention leader Russell Moore — president of the convention’s policy arm — made vocal opposition to Trump a hallmark of his public persona, hundreds of Southern Baptist churchesthreatened to withhold funding from the central convention. (While Moore kept his job, he was forced to apologize for some of his remarks about Trump.)

Read the entire piece here.

The Court Evangelicals and “Vessel Theology”

cyrus-and-trump

Vox writer Tara Isabella Burton has coined the phrase “vessel theology” to describe the evangelical supporters of Donald Trump who believe that he is a new King Cyrus.  Here is a taste of her piece: “The biblical story the Christian right uses to defend Trump“:

While Cyrus is not Jewish and does not worship the God of Israel, he is nevertheless portrayed in Isaiah as an instrument of God — an unwitting conduit through which God effects his divine plan for history. Cyrus is, therefore, the archetype of the unlikely “vessel”: someone God has chosen for an important historical purpose, despite not looking like — or having the religious character of — an obvious man of God.

For believers who subscribe to this account, Cyrus is a perfect historical antecedent to explain Trump’s presidency: a nonbeliever who nevertheless served as a vessel for divine interest.

For these leaders, the biblical account of Cyrus allows them to develop a “vessel theology” around Donald Trump, one that allows them to reconcile his personal history of womanizing and alleged sexual assault with what they see as his divinely ordained purpose to restore a Christian America.

“I think in some ways this is a kind of baptism of Donald Trump,” says John Fea, a professor of evangelical history at Messiah College in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “It’s the theopolitical version of money laundering, taking Scripture to … clean [up] your candidate.”

This framing allows for the creation of Trump as a viable evangelical candidate regardless of his personal beliefs or actions. It allows evangelical leaders, and to a lesser extent ordinary evangelicals, to provide a compelling narrative for their support for him that transcends the mere pragmatic fact that he is a Republican. Instead of having to justify their views of Trump’s controversial past, including reports of sexual misconduct and adultery, the evangelical establishment can say Trump’s presidency was arranged by God, and thus legitimize their support for him — a support that has begun to divide ordinary evangelicalsand create a kind of “schism.”

Read the entire piece here.

Do We Need Another Billy Graham?

OBama and Graham

As far as I know, Tara Isabella Burton is not a historian.  But her piece on Billy Graham at VOX is a model of balanced historical writing.  It is refreshing to see a piece that does not:

  1.  Claim Graham was the most important figure in world history since Saul of Tarsus.
  2.  Use Graham’s death to exorcise personal demons from evangelical childhoods.
  3.  Dismiss Graham because he failed to live up to contemporary moral standards.
  4.  Trash Graham as a huckster and peddler of superstition.

A lot of the pieces I refer to above have been written by historians.

Here is a taste of Burton’s piece, “Evangelical America Needs Billy Graham More Than Ever“:

As white evangelical Christianity in America comes to look more and more like Christian nationalism — a blend of GOP policy platforms, jingoism, white supremacy, and Christian rhetoric — it’s worth recognizing Billy Graham’s legacy as a spiritual leader who balanced a stringent, even uncompromising approach to his own faith with a ferocious independence from the American political arena. While today, faith and politics seem irredeemably intertwined (after all, 81 percent of white evangelicals famously voted for Trump), for Graham, political activism was — with the exception, as he himself recognized, of his disastrous friendship with Nixon — secondary to the faith principles he espoused.

In 2007, Graham defended his decision to distance himself from Falwell’s Moral Majority and its political successors:

I’m all for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.

In that regard, if he resembles any contemporary political figure, it is the Catholic Pope Francis — another figure whose theological convictions allow him to embrace perspectives and approaches from both sides of the secular political aisle, and who transcends the easy binary of left and right. Francis’s ferocious environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and commitment to eradicating income inequality, for example, have been lauded by the left, even as his views on abortion, say, place him in line with the “right.”

But Francis, like Graham before him, is a religious figure, not a political one, and words like “left” and “right” mean little. Both figures saw themselves as “pro-life” in the broadest sense of the word, a faith-based ethos that encompassed a variety of positions on the political spectrum.

Mike Pence famously caused controversy when he referred to himself as “A Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order.” But almost the same must be said of Graham.

A religious leader whose convictions informed his politics, and not the other way around, Graham showed America that theological convictions and a deep religious faith could exist for their own sake, and not be made subordinate to Republican partisan aims. And in an increasingly religiously polarized America — in which political and religious identity have all but fused — a spiritual leader who rejects those binaries is exactly what we need.

We need, in other words, another Billy Graham.

Sadly, I don’t think Burton will get her wish.  Read the entire piece here.

Understanding David Barton’s Political Influence

723d3-barton

Check out Tara Isabella Burton‘s excellent piece on David Barton: “Understanding the fake historian behind America’s religious right.”  I am glad Burton found The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog useful in her research.

Here is a taste:

Barton is still cited as an expert by a number of GOP lawmakers. Another is Rick Saccone, the Pennsylvania Republican congressional candidate running in a special election to replace Tim Murphy, who resigned following allegations of an extramarital affair and asking a woman he was involved with to have an abortion.

Saccone’s tacit endorsement of Barton — he chose Barton to introduce him at a rally in early 2017, signaling Saccone’s wider political and religious views — should come as no surprise to those who have been following his career in politics. Saccone’s rhetoric as both a state lawmaker and on the campaign trail centers around Bartonian ideas of America as a foundationally Christian nation.

His own book, God in Our Government, seems straight out of the Barton playbook, arguing, as Barton does, that secularists have conspired to obfuscate the Christian history of the United States. Historian John Fea, a longtime critic of Christian nationalism, refers to Saccone on his blog as “one of Pennsylvania’s biggest David Barton supporters….”

The founders double as hero-saints to Barton. Central to the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation is the idea that America was founded unproblematically; that only a return to this mythologized past will somehow solve perceived problems of structural inequality. “Real” America, in other words, is above criticism.

Of course, it’s worth saying that all accounts of history — left-wing or right-wing, secular or Christian — can also be, in a sense, a form of propaganda. Any narrative of America’s foundation will, of course, be mediated by the specific biases and concerns of the teller. (Historian Fea does a great job pointing out that the secular counterpart to the Barton narrative, that all founding fathers were non-Christian, deist secularists, is also wrong).

Read the entire piece here.