One of President Trump's evangelical advisers is getting significant pushback for introducing the immigration status of Christ into the conversation of immigrant children separated from their parents by the Trump administration.
In an interview with the Christian Broadcast Network, Paula White, an author, televangelist and pastor, defended the detention centers where thousands of minors attempting to immigrate to the United States have been housed. The Washington Post previously reported that a U.S. district judge said all of the separated children — fewer than 3,000, according to the government — and their parents must be reunited by July 26.
After touring a center, White said biblical scriptures about the immigration status of Jesus come to mind. Some have called Jesus and his parents refugees because, according to scripture, the young family fled Bethlehem, a city south of Jerusalem, shortly after Jesus was born because King Herod was looking to destroy him. The family made their way into Egypt.
But White pushes back against the idea that Jesus and his parents were illegal immigrants. According to the Christian Post, she said:
I think so many people have taken biblical scriptures out of context on this, to say stuff like, “Well, Jesus was a refugee.” Yes, He did live in Egypt for three-and-a-half years. But it was not illegal. If He had broken the law then He would have been sinful and He would not have been our Messiah.
White's assertion that Jesus and his family were not illegal immigrants was not well received by more liberal Christians.
White is not the first member of Trump's team to point to look to the Bible when trying to help Americans understand this administration's approach to dealing with children whose parents brought them to the country illegally.
While speaking to law enforcement officers in June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the process of separating children from parents hoping to immigrate into the United States, claiming that it is required by law and noting that the Bible speaks to the importance of obeying the law.
“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” Sessions said. “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
And White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who like Sessions is a conservative Christian, also pointed to the Bible during a June news briefing when affirming the importance of the Bible in processing America's laws. When asked about Sessions applying his religious worldview to immigration policy, she said:
“I'm not aware of the attorney general's comments or what he would be referencing. I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law.... That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”
Opponents of the policy, including other conservatives, found plenty of reasons to contest those interpretations in other biblical passages.
“I think it's disgraceful. It's terrible to see families ripped apart,” Franklin Graham, one of Trump's most supportive evangelical leaders, told CBN. “I don't support that one bit.... We are a country of laws. Laws need to be obeyed. No question about that. But the situation we have today is a result of our lawmakers in Washington over generations ignoring this. And I'm hopeful that something can be done soon to fix it.”
And the leaders of several prominent evangelical groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote to Trump highlighting biblical lessons about family values:
As evangelical Christians guided by the Bible, one of our core convictions is that God has established the family as the fundamental building block of society. The state should separate families only in the rarest of instances. While illegal entry to the United States can be a misdemeanor criminal violation, past administrations have exercised discretion in determining when to charge individuals with this offense, taking into account the well-being of children who may also be involved. A “zero tolerance” policy removes that discretion — with the effect of removing even small children from their parents. The traumatic effects of this separation on these young children, which could be devastating and long-lasting, are of utmost concern.
But regardless of Trump aides' interpretation of Scripture, there is another issue. Whether the foundation of the Christian faith was a refugee in the Middle East should not play a major role in justifying America's immigration policy years later. Looking to a sacred text and specifically the immigration status of a religious figure to validate immigration policy could be viewed as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, though it's not likely one that will result in any legal repercussions for the policy.
“Certainly the past norm of lending too much reliance or reference to religion in the decisions of public officials had good reason,” Stephen Wermiel, a professor of practice in constitutional law at American University Washington College of Law, told The Fix. However, Wermiel said, understanding of the clause have changed over recent history as conservatives have gained more political power.
“The past norm was based on the premise that while we defend vigorously anyone's religious freedom that we value the separation between government and religion. But that so-called wall of separation which was a metaphor, which [President Thomas] Jefferson used back in the early 1800s, has been eroded over the last several decades by Supreme Court decisions that say we need to recognize the place of religion in our society and in our civic life.”
So while it may be valuable to those seeking to deepen their understanding of the Christian faith and early century global affairs centuries to flesh out the immigration status of Christ, looking to that period as described in the Bible as a foundational piece of immigration policy goes against the religious diversity that the country champions.