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Why many white evangelicals are not protesting family separations on the U.S. border

The Post's Michael E. Miller explains how shelters for immigrant children recently separated from their parents are different from other detention facilities. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

At pulpits across the country, pastors, priests, rabbis and imams delivered impassioned sermons over the weekend, fiercely denouncing the morality of the U.S. government separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But one major faith community’s response is more muted, and more conflicted: white evangelical Christians.

Pastor Brent Gentzel, for instance, finds the images of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border “wretched.” For the past decade, his church in a Dallas exurb has poured resources into caring for the rapidly growing slice of the congregation who are undocumented, a mission important enough to First Baptist Church Kaufman that each spring Gentzel and a group of local pastors travel with young congregants to Germany to volunteer with young Syrian refugees.

Even so, there will be no full-throated condemnation of the Trump administration’s immigration policy from Gentzel, who voted for the president, as did the vast majority of his congregants. For many conservative Christians, the brutal headlines of children torn from hysterical parents are weighed against other concerns, chief among them what social conservatives call religious liberty regarding issues of marriage and abortion.

White House insists Democrats are to blame for family separations, even as some Republicans urge Trump to reverse course

“There are years’ worth of pent-up frustration that this issue doesn’t get dealt with. The hope that someone might finally establish that we’ll be a nation of laws again is super appealing, even if the mouthpiece is nobody’s favorite,” Gentzel said about the Trump administration. “When someone raises a hand to say: ‘We need to fix the legal side,’ there’s a side that screams: ‘You’re racist.’ And you’re sitting up there in Connecticut, and, no offense, but you don’t have a clue.”

Gentzel said he referenced “Connecticut,” a blue state that is one of the least religious in the country, because it’s far from the border. But the remarks of many conservative Christians point to what is perhaps the biggest driving force in the diverging attitudes toward the border crisis: culture war. A desire not to be on the same side as secular, socially liberal forces that to many are by far the biggest threat to America.

White evangelicals — who have been among President Trump’s strongest supporters and who perhaps more than any other faith group have Trump’s ear — share the denunciations of families’ being separated, but they believe the issue is more nuanced than media portrayals suggest, and they still view strong support of Trump as important to their other aims.

In a January Washington Post-ABC poll, 75 percent of white evangelical Christians rated “the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants” as positive, compared with 46 percent of U.S. adults overall, and 25 percent of nonwhite Christians.

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The separations largely stem from a zero-tolerance policy of detaining adults who cross the border announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month. Yet Trump blamed the other party for his administration’s policy, saying on Monday, “I say very strongly, it’s the Democrats’ fault.”

More liberal faith groups have loudly criticized the Trump administration on this issue. A long list of denominations — several historically black churches, Quakers, Muslim groups, mainline Protestant groups such as the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), almost every major Jewish group — have issued strong statements condemning the family separations. Many religious leaders took up the call in their sermons this week, some especially objecting to Sessions’s use of the Bible to defend the policy.

Idaho Pastor Constance Day, for instance, told her mainline Lutheran congregation in Idaho Falls this Sunday: “I don’t really want to get political in church, but when politicians use our holy book to justify evil acts … it’s appropriate for us to speak up and say that they are wrong. … It’s not hard to find the many admonitions in the Bible about treating foreigners fairly, and loving neighbors as oneself. It’s not hard to find the heart of the Bible, and the heart of God.”

Sessions cites Bible passage used to defend slavery, in defense of family separations

Some of the top leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church, which is split between Hispanic and white congregants and liberal and conservative voters, took a strong position. Catholic bishops called separating families “immoral” and floated the idea of holding prayer vigils in front of federal courthouses — a tactic that has worked in opposing abortion clinics.

Evangelical organizations have made similar statements. The National Association of Evangelicals, World Relief and other organizations wrote a letter to the president. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, passed a resolution favoring a legal solution that considers a path to citizenship and calling for families to be kept together, as well as endorsing the importance of border security.

Yet the nondenominational, unaffiliated part of American Christianity is growing larger, and the statements of institutional leaders no longer reflect the whole of the church. Many conservative Christians in the pews appear to be largely supportive of the administration’s outlook and tactics on immigration.

Some, like Gentzel, badly want a solution to what he calls decades of “this lawlessness that does have consequences,” particularly in such a place as Kaufman. He said some congregants have children who are back home in Mexico, growing up without their parents, he said.

Other religious conservatives see the sudden prominence of immigration in the news — when problems have existed for decades — as a Democratic scheme to slam Trump, and are focused on shoring up support for a president they consider their ally in protecting what they see as the Christian character of America.

Jeff Sessions quoted the Bible. John Oliver countered with Dr. Seuss.

David Lane, a political organizer who has a weekly newsletter to 100,000 conservative Christian pastors in his American Renewal Project, said his network is not talking much about immigration reform at the moment. They don’t want immigrants hurt, but they want to secure the border. They are far more focused on what they see as a war “for the Christian soul of America,” he said. So even if conservatives in his sphere disagree with the White House policy of separating families, they’re not going to partner with more liberal or progressive voices.

“This is a battle for ideological supremacy,” Lane said.

Russell Moore, leader of the Southern Baptists’ policy arm, has denounced family separations. But Moore, who was critical of Trump throughout his campaign, is a figure derided by many Baptists, who see him as a traitor to the conservative cause. The immigration controversy is just the latest round in evangelicals’ internal civil war over moral issues.

Some evangelical pastors lamented that many in their pews aren’t focused on the immigration debate. They talked about their increasing efforts in the past couple of years to organize alongside conservative Latino pastors — including large meetings of hundreds of clergy — where they bonded on marriage and sexuality and abortion but parted on such issues as amnesty for the millions of undocumented Latinos who live in the United States.

Netz Garcia, a Mexican-born evangelical pastor who runs a network of Latino pastors and hosts a daily radio show about family issues, said white evangelicals “lack a sense of mercy.” Seventy percent of the people in his L.A.-area church are undocumented.

Still, he works closely with white evangelical pastors on issues like religious freedom and abortion. He voted for Trump – as did other Latinos in his circles – and will again if he has the chance.

Immigration and the ability to stay in the United States – even if a person is forced back to a dangerous situation  in their home country – are “not everything.”  Given the choice between focusing on immigration or religion freedom as issues, Garcia said, “I’d rather give my time in America for the sake of religious freedom.”

While conservative evangelicals say they want to find compromise on immigration, that are suspicious of critics of the administration and believe that keeping the Trump movement together needs to come first. They point to one of evangelicals’ key goals in voting in Trump, the appointment of a conservative Supreme Court justice — and note that that justice, Neil M. Gorsuch, recently participated in the high court’s decision in favor of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Gary Miller, a longtime Southern Baptist pastor and author from Fort Worth, said he feels skeptical of what is really going on at immigration centers, which was informing his muted reaction.

“Are these detention centers or something more conducive to children — what’s really going on?” he said. “There is deep compassion for children, but there is also a deep concern for borders. It’s just a shame that the word of God gets used like a cafeteria line as people from both sides try to lift a little of this and a little of that.”

Franklin Graham, notably, blasted the policy, while other members of Trump’s informal evangelical advisory board have been pretty quiet about the family separations.

Johnnie Moore, the group’s unofficial spokesman, said Sessions’s use of Scripture to “justify” the administration’s recent zero-tolerance policy that’s separated families was wrong. “While Sessions may take the Bible seriously in this situation, he has demonstrated he is no theologian,” Moore wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “In Seminary, we call this use of the Bible ‘proof texting,’ which is to selectively use a part or portion of scripture to justify a point outside of its immediate or greater theological context.

“What most concerns me about the attorney general in this instance is that he doesn’t seem to be wrestling at all. There seems to be no tension here for him. It is hugely alarming how easily he has been willing to separate these families,” Moore continued. “Certainly there are some circumstances where it is appropriate to separate children from parents (violent crime, possible harm, neglect, etc.) but that isn’t what’s going on here.”

But like many conservative evangelicals, Moore placed the blame on Congress for not yet enacting major new immigration laws, instead of on Trump, the president Moore’s group advises.

Rob McCoy, an evangelical pastor in Thousand Oaks, Calif., who is also mayor pro tem, said his church brought food and clothing to unaccompanied minors from Central America who were housed on nearby military bases under President Barack Obama in 2014. He’s bothered by liberals’ suggestion that evangelicals are callous about the reality  of family separation.

“We don’t want to break up a nuclear family, because we see the importance of that,” he said. “But  they’re thrusting it on us. When we say: ‘Close the borders and quit enticing folks,’ then we’re called xenophobes. We live here, and you have no idea of what our heart is about, but you label us.”

He doesn’t want to hear from other people of faith about evangelicals’ moral obligations, he said. He’s “sick of people … telling us what’s biblical. It’s a joke. It’s interesting how all of a sudden America’s become biblical, but we forget about marriage and abortion.” The culture war, in other words, rages on.

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