When the Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump stated in December 2015 that the United States should close its borders to all Muslims, the reaction from American Christian leaders was admirably swift. Mainline Protestant clergy, prominent evangelicals, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops all lambasted it. “Anyone who cares an iota about religious liberty should denounce this reckless, demagogic rhetoric,” Southern Baptist Convention policy head Russell Moore wrote soon afterward. “A government that can shut down mosques simply because they are mosques can shut down Bible studies because they are Bible studies.” The day after Trump proposed his policy, the governor of Indiana, one evangelical Catholic named Mike Pence, tweeted that “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.”
Thirteen months later, Trump is president, and his calls to ban Muslims are making their way into law. Trump signed an executive order Friday that suspends immigration for at least 90 day from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—all predominantly Muslim countries. The order also bans all refugees for at least 120 days and Syrian refugees indefinitely. When the ban ends, the order allows the U.S. government to prioritize applications based on the refugees’ religion. As my colleague Jim Newell explains:
Once refugee admissions resume, the government will “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In other words, Trump has instructed the government to use religion as a means of prioritizing the processing of refugee applications. This, by Trump’s own admission, prioritizes Christians over Muslims coming from countries like Iraq or Yemen or Syria—if any Syrians are ever allowed—or other horrific lands from which someone might seek refuge. It effectively discriminates against Muslims on the basis of their religion.
The fallout has been heartbreaking and chaotic—and most immediately felt by refugees of all religious backgrounds from the countries listed. Refugee families already en route to new homes in the United States were detained at airports for hours, and those waiting overseas saw their hopes crushed. One Syrian Christian family of six was turned back at the Philadelphia airport on Sunday, visas in hand; confused by their options, they returned to Lebanon.
Once again, the response from religious leaders, including Christians, has been emphatic. More than 2,000 faith leaders, many of them Christian, have signed a letter first drafted last year to urge Congress not to ban refugees according to religion or nationality; signatories include representatives of the humanitarian relief group Church World Service, whose leader called Friday, coincidentally also Holocaust Remembrance Day, a “shameful day.” Some of the outcry took the shape of general support for refugees—as opposed to opposition to Trump’s singling out of Muslims—but it has still been notable. Moore sent out a tweet against the policy on Saturday morning. Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, pleaded with fellow evangelicals—who voted for Trump overwhelmingly—to not let “alternative facts” drive refugee policy. The president of World Relief, a humanitarian organization affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals, said, “Any limitation against any vulnerable population is to fly in the face of human dignity, of people made in the image of God.” World Relief says it has assembled 12,000 signatures from evangelical Christians opposing Trump’s order. As Emma Green wrote in the Atlantic, “From religious leaders’ perspectives, backlash against Trump’s immigration policy may be the most ecumenical issue in America right now.”
This moral consistency is refreshing, especially in contrast to the shameful silence and kowtowing of many Republican lawmakers. But it shouldn’t be surprising. The majority of refugee resettlement agencies are religious. Refugee issues in particular have been a longtime focus of many Christian ministries. In explaining their concern for asylum-seekers, many cite the words of Jesus when he condemned those who failed to treat “the least of these” with the same respect they would give him:
I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
As the Syrian crisis has escalated, the issue has taken on new prominence in many churches and Christian organizations. We Welcome Refugees, a coalition that includes the Illinois evangelical megachurch Willow Creek Community Church, has earned more than 16,000 signatories to its petition calling on elected officials to help refugees in “tangible and practical ways.” (The hashtag #wewelcomerefugees currently offers a snapshot of Christian opposition to Trump’s policy.) A poll of 1,000 Protestant pastors taken a year ago by the evangelical research firm LifeWay found that 86 percent consider it a privilege to care for refugees. Last summer, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution urging members to welcome refugees in their homes and churches—though it also said the government should adopt “the strictest security measures possible” in the screening process. (The U.S. screening process for refugees is currently more extensive than its screening for any other group.)
Meanwhile, even conservative Christian leaders and institutions traditionally allied with Republican causes have largely declined to defend Trump’s policy. Focus on the Family President Jim Daly told the Atlantic that he believes the U.S. should welcome refugees: “Yazidis and Christians and even Muslims who are persecuted—if we can verify their sincerity, and their story, as we’ve done for centuries, I think it would be wise to be open to a healthy immigration policy that allows people to flee.”
The exceptions have been predictably ugly. Evangelist Franklin Graham, professional loathsome evangelical stereotype and somehow also head of a global humanitarian organization, told the Huffington Post last week that he saw no problem with Trump’s plan. “It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come, that’s not a Bible issue,” he said. Graham first called for a total cessation of Muslim immigration in the summer of 2015, months before Trump picked up on the theme.
The president has gone out of his way to reassure Christians that the new policy doesn’t apply to their fellow believers. He gave an exclusive interview Friday to the conservative Christian Broadcasting Network in which he said persecuted Christians would be given priority in applying for refugee status. While hosting his rallies on the campaign trail, Trump liked to claim that the Obama administration gave preference to Muslim refugees, denying needy Christians entry to the country.
That claim is false. Almost half of the refugees admitted to the United States in fiscal year 2016 were Christian, according to Pew, and that was the first year in a decade that the number of Christian refugees had dipped below the number of Muslim refugees. Scott Arbeiter, the president of evangelical World Relief, told the New York Times, “We have no evidence that would support a belief that the Obama administration was discriminating against Christian populations.”
But as usual, Trump was skipping over traditional authority figures—including Christian leaders—to speak directly to the fears and resentments of his base. As of last summer, more than three-quarters of his supporters were in favor of a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. On Friday, bolstered by their fear, he signed his executive order. And he continued to pepper his speech with dog whistles tuned to that same resentment. “It’s not a Muslim ban,” Trump said on Saturday, before adding, “It’s working out very nicely.”